In theory, finding the best earplug is as simple as looking for the highest noise reduction rating (NRR), a laboratory measurement of how many decibels of sound they block. However, a high NRR means nothing if the earplug is so uncomfortable, or quirky to insert, that you don't wear it -- so comfort and ease of insertion are also important factors in determining the best earplug.
With an NRR of 32 decibels, Hearos Ultimate Softness earplugs (Est. $7 for 20 pairs) ability to block out sound is surpassed only by their comfort. Reviewers say they are a particularly good choice for sleeping because of their softness -- they even allow you to sleep comfortably on your side. Beyond that, experts and consumers say they effectively reduce the noise from some of the loudest machines, including motorcycles, jackhammers and F-16 fighter jets. On the downside, you may sleep through your alarm.
The bigger sibling of the Hearos line, Hearos Xtreme Protection Series earplugs (Est. $4.50 for 7 pairs) have an NRR rating of 33 decibels, the highest rating available for disposable earplugs. The Hearos Xtreme gets a 91 percent customer approval rating from SleepLikeTheDead.com, and they can be reused more often than most disposable earplugs. The downside is that they're quite large -- so if you have smaller ear canals, you'll probably prefer the Hearos Ultimate Softness.
Howard Leight Max earplugs (Est. $5 for 20 pairs) also have a high 33-decibel NRR rating. But like the Hearos Xtreme they're large, and don't typically rate as well as the Hearos Ultimate Softness when it comes to comfort. They do a great job of blocking noise if they fit in your ear, though, and are particularly popular with motorcycle enthusiasts. Still, even the earplugs' fans say they can be difficult to insert and to get a proper fit.
Another Howard Leight earplug, the Laser Lite (Est. $4.50 for 20 pairs), has an NRR of 32 decibels. They're characterized by their flattened T-shape, which many users say makes them easier to fit into your ear. In terms of comfort they're second only to the Hearos Ultimate Softness, and they do a great job of reducing moderate noises like snoring -- but several users report that they're inadequate for very loud activities like shooting.
Moldex Pura-Fit (Est. $30 for 200 pairs) have an NRR of 33 decibels, and since they only cost about 15 cents per pair, they're a great value if you use earplugs frequently. They're fairly long and skinny, though. Some users say they have to chop the ends off these earplugs to be able to sleep in them, and one motorcyclist with a large ear canal says he inserts the Moldex Pura-Fit butt-first to get a better fit.
Finally, if you want to stick with the classics, 3M's E-A-R Classic earplugs (Est. $25 for 200 pairs) remain a favorite with users. They receive a 92 percent satisfaction rating in a survey published on SleepLikeTheDead.com, while Amazon.com users say they're comfortable for small ear canals. The texture of the foam in these classic yellow earplugs makes them easy to handle, and their price -- about 12.5 cents per pair -- is attractive if you're looking for a bargain.
Any of these six earplugs are a great choice for general noise reduction. But when it comes to the best fit and comfort combined with multipurpose uses, the Hearos Ultimate Softness remains at the top of the pack.
Trying to squeeze a too-large earplug into a small ear canal is guaranteed to be uncomfortable. Because of that, both children and adults with small ear canals usually do best with a small version of regular earplugs. The Howard Leight Max comes in a small size (Est. $5 for 20 pairs) that reviewers say is a great fit for smaller ear canals, although the NRR for this smaller version is only 30 decibels.
You can also protect your child's ears with moldable earplugs like the silicone Mack's Pillow Soft (Est. $3.50 for 2 pairs), which comes in a kids' version, the natural wax Boules Quies and the silicone Putty Buddies Floating Ear Plugs. All of these earplugs are covered in our report on the best earplugs for swimming, but they can also be used to reduce overall noise. And because they sit over your child's ear canal instead of in it, they may be more comfortable -- and easier to apply -- than earplugs that protrude into the ear canal. Just be aware that the Boules Quies, in particular, can form a tighter seal than in-ear plugs; after all, they're meant to keep water out in addition to noise reduction.
If you're unsure how to handle hearing protection for your kids, or whether they need it, the National Institutes of Health provides a guide that teaches parents when and how to use ear protection for their children.