The Sound of Silence
Sussing out the ear-plug market.
The first time I used ear plugs, I thought I'd reached nirvana. I was trying to study in my college dorm room while my roommate blasted the Grateful Dead so loudly it would have made Jerry Garcia's ears ring. So I rolled a set of foam plugs between my fingers, pushed them deep into my ears, and—silence. How sweet! How golden!
It was the start of a long and quiet affair. I now regularly wear foam ear plugs when I'm reading, working, and sleeping. In fact, I recently realized that some days I wear my plugs for 16 hours or more, longer than I use any other personal item, including my computer, glasses, and clothes. That insight made me sigh loudly—and so I quickly pushed the stopples back into my ears.
My passion for plugs is twofold. One, I have the attention span of a small terrier, and the silence helps me concentrate. I also live and work in a 90-year-old, urban apartment building in which aural interruptions are constant. Noisy garbage trucks. Shrill car alarms. Indeed, as I write this, my upstairs neighbor seems to be dancing an Irish jig.
Ear plugs have undergone a quiet revolution over the last two decades. For many years, manufacturers produced only wax-cotton plugs; pharmacies today are filled with silicone, PVC, and polyurethane stopples. Web sites also sell plugs specifically designed for hunting, loud concerts, and motorcycling. Now there are even hearing aid-like plugs that drown out external sounds by playing white noise.
Given the myriad plugs on the market, I wanted to find the stopple that silences the most sound yet is comfortable and affordable enough for everyday use. But before I release my results, there is something every silence shopper should know: No plug can create artificial deafness. Even if the auditory canal is sealed shut, loud noise, especially lower-pitched sounds, can vibrate through the body and be "heard" by the eardrum.
Effectiveness. (10 possible points) Almost all ear plugs come with a Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, that indicates how much sound the plugs muffle. Many experts argue that the NRR does not accurately represent how well the devices work in someone's ear because the ratings are based on lab experiments rather than human experience, and so I listed the NRRs below but did not include them in the final evaluation. (Click
Comfort/Ease of Use. (10 possible points) Since many people use ear plugs to help them sleep, I had a one-night stand with each pair. Key questions: Were the plugs comfortable? Did my ears get itchy or irritated after eight hours of tossing and turning? To test whether the plugs would fall out easily, I sported the plugs while running up and down the five floors of my apartment building.
Durability. (10 possible points) After seeing a pair of my ear plugs stained with dirt, an ex-supervisor said, "That is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen!" (The grime had rubbed off my hands, not my ears, thank you.) Cleanliness being of utmost concern to most users, I tested whether the plugs could withstand a good cleaning as well as maintain their shape after repeated use.
Value. (10 possible points) Some of the ear plugs cost less than a dollar, others cost more than $100. Therefore, I used a formula to assess value: I added up each of the scores and divided by the price for a single pair. (Prices were based on the smallest unit available and came from discounted retailers such as the Ear Plug Super Store.)
The Results (from worst to best)
Sleep-Eze Price: one pair $187.95 NRR: N/A
Ulrich Boser is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report.