Average Customer Review:
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.
Reviews indicate that Moldex 6800 Pura-Fit (Est. $28 for 200 pairs) earplugs do the best job of combining comfort with excellent noise blocking. These bright green plugs have an NRR of 33 dB, the highest rating available for disposable earplugs. They're made of soft foam with a rounded shape similar to a bullet, tapering slightly toward the tip. 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.
In the earplug test at Your Best Digs, the most thorough comparison test we've seen for earplugs, Moldex Pura-Fit comes out on top. They're the only brand in the test to earn a perfect five stars out of five for noise-blocking, and testers found them reasonably comfortable to wear, though not quite as comfortable as some other brands. Other reviewers, including Patrick Mahinge of Snorezing and Ian Johnston of Oberlainn, were still more enthusiastic about their comfort. Mahinge notes that these earplugs are slightly longer than some other brands, making them easier to insert and remove. Johnston says their longer length can be a downside, as sometimes leads him to insert them too deeply, but when properly inserted, they fit securely and don't create uncomfortable pressure in the ear canal. He also gives them high marks for their packaging, saying the individual paper pouches for each pair of plugs are "nearly perfect" for carrying on the road.
Owners at Amazon echo the praise of the professional reviewers. We found nearly 500 review for Moldex Pura-Fit earplugs at Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.4 stars out of 5. Owners say these earplugs are a great value: inexpensive, comfortable, and very good at blocking noise. However, a few users warn that there are occasional quality control problems, so not every pair of earplugs in a box will work equally well.
An even cheaper option is Howard Leight Max (Est. $21 for 200 pairs) earplugs. Their NRR is the same as the Moldex Pura-Fit, and their construction is similar, but these bright orange plugs have a flared base that users say keeps them from slipping too far into the ear. These earplugs aren't included in the Your Best Digs test, but other reviewers are very pleased with them. Johnston says they're his favorite type of earplug for motorcycle riding, as they expand quickly and stay put under a helmet. Mahinge also gives them high marks for nighttime use, saying they "almost totally isolate you" from snoring and other noises.
At Amazon, Howard Leight Max plugs get even stronger feedback than Moldex Pura-Fit, earning an overall rating of 4.6 stars out of 5 from over 1,250 users. Owners report 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.
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 you find most earplugs a bit too large for your ears, Howard Leight Max Lite (Est. $20 for 200 pairs) are a good choice. 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 (Est. $9 for 30 pairs) earplugs remain popular with many users. These bright yellow cylinders receive a 94 percent satisfaction rating in a survey published at Sleep Like The Dead. 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 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. $14 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." The testers at Your Best Digs rate them the best earplugs for concert use, saying they let through "more mids and highs" than foam earplugs. 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 quite 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.