If I had to pin down the one item of sporting gear that has most positively impacted my time in the woods, it wouldn’t be a slick new shotgun or those Le Chameau knee boots I coveted for years before finally getting my hands on a pair. It would be digital hearing protection. Sexy, huh? But it’s the stone-cold truth: A high-quality, semi-custom set of electronic earplugs has made a huge difference in how I experience the outdoors, especially during duck season.
I would have made the leap decades ago had I known what a pain in the butt moderate hearing loss can be. I went years using drugstore-bought earplugs while hunting, but so-called “passive protectors” that suppress all sounds are a terrible solution for an endeavor so rooted in listening. But with digital hearing protection, I can hear mallards chuckling overhead, deer tiptoeing through the woods, and the steady beep of a bird dog’s collar. I hope these devices have made me less aggravating in a duck blind. And I know for a fact they’ve made me a better shot. I’ve never been much of a flincher, but shooting heavy waterfowl loads—or simply shooting a couple rounds of skeet or a dozen doves—was just enough accumulated recoil to make me aware of the shotgun’s kick, which is never conducive to hitting your mark.
So quit making excuses. Here are three solutions, in three price ranges—from individually molded digital earpieces that enhance sound while suppressing dangerous levels to the best off-the-rack electronic earmuffs I’ve ever used. I never hunt without plugging up. You shouldn’t either.
I’ve used a set of FieldEarz from WildEar for the last three seasons, chasing ducks, doves, woodcock, and quail. I even wear them while deer hunting, as they amplify the quiet sounds that matter on a hunt yet still allow for normal conversation. WildEar sends out an easy-to-use impression making kit—you mix up the soft foam and inject it into your ear canal to produce a custom mold for creating a hard-plastic plug (or you can have a local audiologist do this). They are super comfortable. You can choose between four preset programming modes and then manipulate overall volume up or down. My only beef is that the earplugs catch the breeze and turn it into an annoying hiss. But that’s a small price to pay for the fabulous protection and amplification of these devices. $1,095; wildear.com
Founded by two hardcore hunters—one with a PhD in audiology and hearing science from Vanderbilt University, the other a practicing audiologist—Tetra Hearing makes protection devices specifically for hunters and shooters, and designed for particular field conditions. The Waterfowl AlphaShield is tuned to highlight duck quacks and whistling wings, and to minimize that inside-a-barrel distortion that can make duck calling difficult while wearing hearing protection. This is one of the smallest and most inconspicuous full-feature digital hearing devices for hunting on the market. $699; tetrahearing.com
Like higher-end protectors, the Impact Sport electronic muffs from Howard Leight by Honeywell use compression technology to dampen muzzle blasts. Cheaper “cut-off” technology cycles on and off when presented with loud noises, which results in gaps in hearing. There’s plenty of sound amplification, and on the shooting range and in a duck blind, normal conversation comes through loud and clear. And the low-profile ear cups help keep the muffs from knocking against the gun stock. For the money, I don’t think you can do better. $54; howardleightshootingsports.com
Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens.