Shooting Ear Protection: Electronic vs Passive

As shooters, we have to be proactive in protecting ourselves. After all, while shooting is an absolute blast, it also poses some real hazards. Namely, it’s important to protect your vision and hearing. Let’s take a look at the 2 main types of shooting ear protection: Electronic and Passive.

Gunshots create enough noise to cause permanent hearing damage after a few shots. That’s right, it only takes a few shots to start killing the tiny hairs in your inner ear! Maybe now you can see why hearing protection is so crucial when it comes to shooting.

When it comes to ear protection, there are two main categories. They are:

– Electronic Ear Protection

– Passive Ear Protection

To get a better understanding of which is better for which situation, let’s define each in more detail.

Electronic, or active, hearing protection uses an electronic component or components. What are these? Well, the most common one is pretty amazing. Many electronic earmuffs nowadays have selective amplification/dampening. That means that while gunshots and other loud noises will filter out, you can still hear other things. Namely, you’ll still be able to hear the sounds of nature and the voices of any nearby people.

This comes in extremely handy when you need to stay in communication with your hunting party. Not only that, but it allows you to retain your situational awareness outdoors. For example, if you’re wearing passive earmuffs, you won’t be able to hear a twig snap or instructions from a range officer. If you’ve got electronic muffs on, you can hear anything and everything around you. That way you can pick up on any sudden changes in the environment, such as an animal snapping a twig! 

Examples of electronic hearing protection include:


- Electronic Earplugs

In addition to selective amplification, electronic hearing protection can also use:

– Audio jacks

– Volume controls

– Automatic shut-offs

– Integration with smartphones and walkie talkies

As you can see, electronic earmuffs offer a lot of unique advantages and features. However, electronic hearing protection isn’t without its downsides! They include:

– More expensive than passive protection

– Lower NRR ratings (Usually around the mid-20s)

Okay, so now you should understand electronic ear protection and the benefits. Finally, let’s take a look at how to shop for the best pair of electronic earmuffs! 

What to Look for in Electronic Earmuffs

Okay, so you’ve decided to buy a pair of electronic earmuffs, but what do you look for? We’ll make it nice and easy for you! First off, what type of shooting will you be doing? Are you going to be hunting outside? If so, absolutely look for stereo earmuffs. That means that they will have 2 speakers and 2 microphones. This makes it far easier to hear every little sound in the environment and the direction it is coming from.

Are you going to be hunting with a large party? Then you should look for earmuffs with smartphone/walkie talkie integration! With these babies, you can stay in constant communication with your party. All the while you’ll be muffling the gunshots and protecting your ears. Pretty cool, huh?

In short, if you’re looking for a pair of electronic earmuffs, be sure they:

– Have an NRR of 22 or higher

– Can amplify ambient sounds and conversation

– Can integrate with smartphones and other devices (optional)

Before we move forward, let’s dispell a rumor that need to stop spreading. You see, some people think they can use their noise-canceling headphones for shooting. Let’s take a closer look.

Can I use Noise Cancelling Headphones for shooting?

Short answer: no.

However, this makes sense in theory. After all, shouldn’t something that’s noise-canceling cancel all noise? It turns out this is not the case. Why? It’s because noise-canceling headphones use entirely different technology than earmuffs with NRR scores. 

While noise-canceling headphones are great for certain things, shooting isn’t one of them. Even the best noise-canceling headphones can only “filter out” environmental noise up to about 20 decibels. Noise-canceling headphones are ideal for flying, gaming, watching movies, and other low-volume activities. It all comes down to the way the ‘noise-canceling’ effect works. You see, they don’t actually cancel any noise. Rather, they trick your ears into not hearing the ambient noise. This illusion will quickly fade with sounds as loud as a gunshot and provide no real hearing protection.

Noise-Canceling Headphones vs Electronic Earmuffs

As previously mentioned, noise-canceling headphones are no bueno for shooting. That’s because of their limiting technology when it comes to sound dampening. They lack the foam cupping and hard plastics that earmuffs incorporate. If you’re a gamer or fly a lot, noise-canceling headphones are great for you. If you’re an avid shooter, stick to electronic earmuffs!

It comes back to the NRR scores we mentioned before. Noise-canceling headphones don’t feature an NRR score at all. If they do, they’re in the low teens to high teens. That’s because they’re not intended for dampening sounds above 80db. Electronic earmuffs, on the other hand, can offer far more serious protection.

Okay, so what qualifies as passive hearing protection? Two things. One, they don’t have any electronic components whatsoever. Second is the materials. Passive earmuffs often use cupped foam coated in tough plastic. This will effectively dampen any outside noise, including gunshots. 

Passive ear protection includes:

- Non-electric Earmuffs

- Disposable Foam Earplugs

Earplugs fall under passive ear protection because they don’t use any electronics. Much like passive earmuffs, they use foam to dampen sound. The only difference is that earplugs directly block the ear canal. Earmuffs, on the other hand, cover the entire ear. For more information on earplugs vs earmuffs, check out our article comparing the two.

All right, now you should understand what makes hearing protection passive. Now, let’s look at some benefits of passive hearing protection. They are:

– A higher NRR than electronic (the high 20s to low 30s)

– More affordable than electronic

Thanks to their thick padding and materials, passive earmuffs have high NRR scores. What does NRR mean? Well, it stands for Noise Reduction Rating. As the name sounds, it’s a score for measuring how much a product will reduce sound levels. Here’s how it works, the higher the NRR rating, the greater the hearing protection.

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Selecting an Earmuff Style

Electronic earmuffs come in a variety of different configurations. The same goes for passive muffs too. 

You can choose from:

What’s the difference and why do they matter? Let’s take a look. Standard over-the-head is your traditional earmuff style. They come down over your head and attach to your ears. This is great if you’re not wearing a hat or any eye protection. A majority of the earmuffs on the market feature this design. However, there are two other options that make wearing eyewear/headgear easier.

If you’re wearing a hardhat, you’ll want cap-mounted earmuffs. These will attach right to your hardhat for extra convenience. This is great if you’re shooting or working in an area where your head needs protection.

Behind-the-neck style are for shooters who find it uncomfortable to have a strap over their head. Behind-the-neck style also makes it easy to wear a cap or hardhat. It will basically come down to your personal preference on which style you choose. Be sure to try on a few different pairs before you make a choice! That way you know for sure which style works best for you.

Cool, so now that we’ve gone over the styles of earmuffs, let’s take a more involved look at NRR. Mainly, let’s look at what an ideal NRR score for protection from shooting is. That way you know exactly what to look for when shopping for hearing protection!

What's a Good NRR for Shooting?

Okay, so you already know what NRR stands for, Noise Reduction Rating. It’s a standard put into place by ANSI and OHSA for rating hearing protection products. As previously mentioned, the higher the number, the better the protection.

We’ve also discussed that passive protection has higher NRR scores than electronic. Also, noise-canceling headphones either don’t have an NRR or have a very low one.

So what’s the ultimate NRR? Well, the highest NRR a product can receive is a 33. For shooting at indoor ranges, you should try to find an NRR of around 28 to 31. Why’s that? Because indoor ranges will be louder than outdoors. That’s due to the confined space that the sound waves are in. They have nowhere to disperse, so they bounce around and create more noise. When shooting indoors, be sure to use hearing protection with a high NRR.

Let’s see if you’ve been paying attention! Which type of hearing protection has the highest NRR scores? That’s right, passive protection! That means if you find yourself shooting indoors, you should grab a pair of passive muffs or plugs.

For outdoors, you can get away with NRR’s of 22 to 28. The noise has more space to disperse, and therefore won’t be as loud. That means you can get away with lower NRR scores for your hearing protection outdoors.

As you may have gathered, electronic earmuffs are ideal for outside situations. While they may have weaker NRR scores, that’s fine for outside. Not only that, but they let you retain your situational awareness! This is huge for hunting trips. You need to be able to hear every little sound nature has to offer to stay sharp.

Okay, so breakdown time. 

If you’re shooting indoors, aim for NRR’s of: 28 to 31

If you’re in the great outdoors, shoot for: 22 to 28

Following these guidelines, you should be able to find the best protection for you.

Time for the Breakdown

All right, so we’ve gone over a lot. Let’s take a look at the key takeaways and wrap it up! Hearing protection is vital for shooting, and you should always wear some.

– Passive ear protection is affordable and boasts high NRR. It’s great for indoor shooting thanks to its noise dampening. Also, your partners will be right next to you at the indoor range. Therefore, you have no need for ambient amplification.

– Electronic ear protection is a bit more expensive but has more capabilities. Being able to hear ambient sounds is a huge advantage outdoors. Don’t forget to look for stereo sound for the best quality!

– Noise-canceling headphones are not for shooting! They have many other great uses, but they won’t offer adequate protection for your ears. Consider our other options instead!

With this guide, you should have no trouble finding the perfect hearing protection. Let us know in the comments which style of protection you like to use!

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