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.
In fact, the earplugs that get the most recommendations for everyday use don't have a very high NRR at all. Etymotic ETY Plugs (Est. $13 per pair) are "high-fidelity" earplugs, designed to reduce sound levels evenly across the entire frequency range. That means they soften sound without muffling it, so music and speech come through clearly and naturally – 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 variance in fit or earplugs that are worn improperly"; 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. Several concertgoers appreciate the fact that these earplugs allow vocals to come through clearly. However, users also say these earplugs work great for turning down the volume in all sorts of noisy environments, including offices, restaurants, public transportation, and the entire city of Las Vegas.
Most users find the fit of Etymotic ETY Plugs comfortable, though some warn that their snugness takes a bit of getting used to. The plugs come in a choice of two sizes, standard and large, and two colors, an unobtrusive white or a bright blue that's easy to spot if you drop one. A few users find it bothersome that the earpieces protrude visibly from the ear, but others say they simply look like you're wearing earbuds. The earplugs are reusable and come with a storage case and a neck cord to keep them from getting lost.
If 20 dB of noise-blocking power isn't strong enough for you, consider Moldex Pura-Fit (Est. $24 for 200 pairs) earplugs. These soft foam plugs have an NRR of 33 dB, the highest rating available for disposable earplugs. Owners describe using them successfully to block out noise during sleep, at the shooting range, and while working with power tools. Motorcyclists particularly like these, saying they screen out wind noise while letting through enough traffic sounds for safe riding, and they stay put under a helmet.
Moldex Pura-Fit plugs are bright green, with a generally cylindrical shape that's slightly tapered toward one end. Most users find them easy to insert and comfortable to wear, even for long periods of time. However, some users note that these plugs are somewhat longer and narrower than average, so they tend to stick out of the ear a bit. Some users say they have to chop the ends off these earplugs to be able to sleep in them. Motorcyclist "Rick K." of WebBikeWorld.com says he inserts the Moldex Pura-Fit butt-first to get a better fit in his larger-than-average ear canal. Although Moldex earplugs are technically disposable, some reviewers at Amazon say they're able to use them four or five times before they need to be discarded.
If the Moldex Pura-Fit earplugs are a bit too large for your ears, you might have better luck with Howard Leight Max Lite (Est. $18 for 200 pairs). These T-shaped, green foam earplugs are specifically designed for users with smaller ear canals. They have an NRR of 30, and most users find them very soft and comfortable to wear. Some owners find them a bit tricky to insert, but they say that once they're in place, they're very secure. Several Amazon users note that these smaller earplugs are appropriate for children, as well.
Another Howard Leight earplug, the Howard Leight Laser Lite (Est. $5 for 20 pairs), has an NRR of 32 decibels. Like the Max Lite, these have a flattened T-shape, but their color is a vivid magenta striped with yellow. Most users report that the Laser Lite plugs are very comfortable to wear and do a good job blocking out noises of all types. However, there are some complaints that they don't stay in place, and like the Max Lites, they're difficult for some users to insert.
Finally, if you want to stick with the classics, 3M's E-A-R Classic (Est. $7 for 30 pairs) remain popular with many users. These bright yellow cylinders receive a 92 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. Although most users at Amazon.com describe these earplugs as comfortable and effective, others find their rough texture and blocky shape uncomfortable or even painful – so you probably won't want to buy these in bulk until you've tried them for yourself.