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 also play an important role in choosing the best earplug.
Reviewers say Howard Leight Max (Est. $8 for 50 pairs) earplugs offer the ultimate in noise protection. These bright orange plugs have an NRR of 33 dB, the highest rating available for disposable earplugs. They're made of soft foam shaped roughly like a bullet that flares out at the base, which keeps them from slipping too far into the ear. Although these earplugs are technically disposable, some reviewers at Amazon say they're able to use them several days in a row before they need to be discarded.
At Obairlann.net, motorcycle enthusiast Ian Johnston says Howard Leight Max is his favorite type of earplug for riding, as they expand quickly and stay put under a helmet. Patrick Mahinge of Snorezing.com also gives them high marks for nighttime use, saying they "almost totally isolate you" from snoring and other noises. Owners describe using them successfully to block out noise at the shooting range, on construction sites, and during travel. Most users find these earplugs easy to insert and comfortable to wear, even for long periods of time. However, some owners say that these plugs are simply too big for their ears. Many complain that they cause pain or soreness after prolonged use, and a few say they can't get them into their ears at all.
For those who find the Max earplugs too big, Howard Leight also offers the slightly smaller Howard Leight Laser Lite (Est. $19 for 200 pairs). Unlike the bell-shaped Max earplugs, these have a contoured T-shape, with a larger and flatter base that makes them easier to grasp. Their color is a vivid magenta striped with yellow, which makes them easy to spot if you drop one. Their NRR is slightly lower than the Max earplugs, at 32 decibels, but most users say they do a good job blocking out noises of all types. The Laser Lite earplugs get even better reviews for comfort than the Max plugs, with fewer complaints about ear pain or pressure. However, some owners, particularly those with small ears, have difficulty getting them seated properly in the ear canal so that they can seal out noise.
If even the Laser Lite earplugs are a bit too large for your ears, you might have better luck with Howard Leight Max Lite (Est. $17 for 200 pairs). These T-shaped, green foam earplugs are specifically designed for users with smaller ear canals. Several Amazon users say that these smaller earplugs can even work for children. They have an NRR of 30, and most users find them very soft and comfortable to wear. However, some owners, including Johnston, say their "weird pinched end" makes them less comfortable or tricky to insert. Others note that they don't do as good a job of blocking noise as the larger Howard Leight earplugs.
Finally, if you want to stick with the classics, 3M's E-A-R Classic earplugs (Est. $9 for 30 pairs) remain popular with many users. These bright yellow cylinders receive a 94 percent satisfaction rating in a survey published on SleepLikeTheDead.com. Reviews say they're stiffer in texture than most foam earplugs, and they expand more slowly, giving you more time to get them securely in place. While the majority of owners describe these earplugs as comfortable and effective, a few reviewers absolutely hate them. Johnston calls them "incredibly uncomfortable," and Troy Farah of LA Weekly says they're "like sticking tiny foam bricks in your ear." With such widely differing reactions, you probably won't want to buy these in bulk until you've tried them for yourself.
The earplugs above are good for overnight use, because they block out virtually all ambient sound. However, this sound-deadening quality makes them less than ideal for protecting your hearing at a concert or a club. In these settings, you need earplugs that let the music through, but at a lower volume. And ideally, they shouldn't distort the sound quality in the process.
Etymotic ETY Plugs (Est. $13 per pair) fit this bill exactly. These "high-fidelity" earplugs are designed to reduce sound levels evenly across the entire frequency range, so music and speech come through clearly and naturally -- it's as if you'd simply turned down the volume setting on your ears. Their official NRR is only 12 dB, but the manufacturer claims that this rating reflects "individual variability" and "persons who do not wear hearing protection as instructed"; as long as you choose the right size and get them properly seated in the ear canal, Etymotic says, the ETY Plugs should reduce noise levels by approximately 20 dB.
The most enthusiastic users of Etymotic ETY Plugs are musicians and music fans who say these earplugs enable them to enjoy their favorite music without risk of hearing damage. Farah rates these the best earplugs for concert use, saying they soften sound "without compromising audio quality." Concertgoers who review the plugs at Amazon.com add that the earplugs let vocals come through clearly and also allow for normal conversation.
Most users find the fit of Etymotic ETY Plugs comfortable, though some warn that their snugness takes a bit of getting used to. There are also several complaints that their sizing is confusing. The plugs come in a choice of two sizes, standard and large, but most users say the large size is closer to average for adult male ears. The earplugs are reusable and come with a storage case and a neck cord to keep them from getting lost.