What the best earplugs are

  • Easy to use. Earplugs should be simple to insert and remove. Foam earplugs shouldn't expand so quickly that you don't have time to squeeze them into your ear after rolling them up, but they also shouldn't take so long that you have to sit there holding the plug in place for several minutes.
  • Comfortable. If your earplugs are uncomfortable, you may not wear them consistently. Earplugs should fit snugly without causing any uncomfortable pressure on the eardrum, and they shouldn't leave your ears feeling irritated or overheated after prolonged use. Discomfort can be a sign that the earplug is too large for your ear canal, so try a smaller size before giving up on the brand.
  • Well-rated for noise reduction. Earplugs' noise reduction rating (NRR) shows how many decibels they decrease sound in a laboratory setting. Higher ratings are generally better. However, real-world performance can vary from lab tests, so make sure to test them out in real life instead of just relying on the NRR.
  • Made to fit the activity. Foam earplugs are primarily for noise reduction. They can be used during sleep or while working with noisy equipment. Other types of earplugs are made for special uses such as swimming, diving, air travel and playing music. For best results, choose an earplug that's designed for the specific use you have in mind.
  • Secure. Earplugs won't do you any good if they fall out of your ears. Before buying a large quantity, test the earplugs in the environment and the way you plan to use them. Many manufacturers offer variety packs, so you can try different sizes and configurations before committing to one brand.

Know before you go

What size are your ears? There is no standard sizing for earplugs and most are one-size-fits-all. However, some brands come in small, medium and large -- a good starting point if you know that your ears are on the large or small side. Try a variety of earplugs until you have a good idea of your ear and ear canal size. As a heads-up for women, most earplugs are sized for men, so you're more likely to get a good fit from a smaller size.

What is your intended use? If your goal is to block noise while you sleep, you need earplugs that are powerful enough to muffle ambient noises, from traffic to your partner's snoring, and comfortable enough to wear for eight hours at a time. For swimming, your main priority is whether the earplugs do a good job keeping out water. If you want earplugs to wear to concerts or band practice, you need a set that can soften sound without distorting it -- like turning down the volume knob on your ears. For riding a motorcycle, look for earplugs that fit comfortably and securely under a helmet and block out loud wind noise, while letting through enough traffic noise to keep you safe.

Do you understand how to insert foam earplugs properly? Most manufacturers provide either written instructions or a video tutorial on their website. Taking the time to practice the recommended insertion method can make a world of difference in how well your earplugs work.

Buying tactics and strategies

Before buying any brand of earplugs in bulk, you should take them for a thorough test drive. Simply putting them into your ears and seeing whether they feel comfortable isn't enough. The best way to decide if earplugs really work for you is to try to mimic the activity you'll be using them for, whether that's sleeping, swimming, using power tools, or something else. Keep the earplugs in place for an extended period of time and see whether they stay comfortable. Also, make sure to move your jaw around by chewing, yawning and talking. Moving your jaw can alter the shape and size of your ear canal, potentially turning comfortable earplugs into painful ones.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Reviewed Earplugs | Best Earplugs | Best Earplugs for Swimming | Our Sources

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