Earplug survey

Written June 24, 2005
Updated June 21, 2011

Mighty Plugs moldable earplugs

I was approached by the makers of Mighty Plugs and asked to review their earplugs as part of this article. They sent me two free pairs to review.

The Mighty Plug is a moldable substance, fairly reminiscent of Silly Putty, although not quite as plastic-feeling. They say it's made out of beeswax, cotton and lanolin, on their website.

The idea is that you roll it into the appropriate shape (I found a long pointed shape to be about right), then mush it into your ear canal. The plug substance is sticky enough that it actually seals completely around the ear canal, very effectively blocking out not only noise, but also water, dust, or anything else. As they claim, it's a very effective noise blocker.

For motorcycle use (my main interest), the primary advantage of these plugs is that they exert no pressure on the ear canal, when properly fitted. Foam plugs have to expand against the ear canal to seal properly, so there will always be some pressure. After 4-8 hours of riding, that pressure can get pretty annoying.

Unfortunately, in my experience there were also major problems with these plugs. I found the plug substance itself to have an unpleasant feel. It left my ears feeling like there was oil sticking to them (which there was, practically speaking: lanolin). But most importantly, I was absolutely unable to fit them without also introducing increased atmospheric pressure into my ear canals. It was like going up in a plane and being unable to pop my ears at best, or painful at worst. I can't even imagine riding while also changing altitude.

These plugs also take more time to fit than foam plugs, although that's probably a minor consideration in reality. The manufacturer claims they can be reused many times, which I'm sure is true, but if foam plugs suffer from being dropped, these plugs would be rendered unusable -- their sticky surface would pick up every molecule of grit and hold onto it tenaciously.

After a few attempts to wear them around the house and once or twice on the bike, I decided that they were unsuitable for my use. I'll hold onto them for long rides, but all the downsides only inspire me to reach for my foam plugs.

SilentEar silicone earplugs

As part of my quest for good earplugs, I also gave the silicone SilentEar plugs a try. The same site which sold me the assortment of foam plugs recommends the silicone plugs highly. Plus, they're reuseable, so they're more of a one-time investment. For less than $20 for the size assortment, I figured it'd be worth a try.

As I'd expected, I needed the medium size in my left ear, and the large in my right. They were a little strange to insert, since they have a slick surface compared to foam plugs, and they need to slide into place.

A quick test fitting at home seemed to show promise, so I left them in and got my helmet on to go for a test ride. I had brought my old trusty 3M 1100s with me, just in case. Almost as soon as I got my helmet on, the right plug developed a "leak" and I could hear at full volume again from that ear. I pulled off my helmet, and seated the plug again. I got the helmet on without incident, but before I'd even started moving, the plug was "leaking" again. I stopped 500 yards down the road and swapped to the 1100s.

It seemed that even the slightest jaw movement would dislodge one or both of the plugs. When they were seated and sealed, they seemed promising. Unfortunately, they unseated again so quickly that there was really no point in pursuing them.

Based on my own experience, I do not recommend these plugs. They might be worth a try, but it seems like the chance that they'll happen to fit you exactly right probably isn't worth the price of admission: for about the same price, you can get a box of 200 pairs of good foam earplugs which are much more likely to fit and seal every time.

Several years ago, I bought a box of 200 pairs of 3M 1100 earplugs online. When these ran out, I bought a box of 200 pairs of Moldex Pura-Fit plugs, but discovered that they didn't seal in my right ear very well, leaving me feeling like my head was on sideways.

The 1100s had served me well, but when they ran out and the Moldexes didn't live up to my expectations, I thought I'd take advantage of a "sampler pack" offered by earplugstore.com. (Yes, they have everything on the Internet!)

They shipped me, for the princely sum of $11.95 plus shipping, two pairs each of 13 different brands and models of disposable, uncorded foam earplugs. The models are as follows, in descending order of Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) value:

  • Aearo/E-A-R Soft Blast
  • Howard Leight MAX
  • Aearo/E-A-R Classic SuperFit
  • Howard Leight LaserLite
  • Moldex Spark Plugs
  • Moldex Pura-Fit
  • Hearos Super Soft
  • Howard Leight MaxLite
  • Hearing Technologies
  • Howard Leight Matrix
  • 3M 1100
  • Flents Quiet Please (Hexagonal)
  • Aearo/E-A-R Classic

I sat down and tried each one in turn, and took notes on what I thought. Omitting my singular problem of having a right ear canal one size larger than the left one, the notes I took seemed useful. So, I decided to more formally rate the different plugs based on my first-hand observations.

For these ratings, I took the following factors into account:

Packaging: how hard to open? how bulky/wasteful? how likely to make me drop an earplug on the dirty, gritty ground, destroying it for my use?

Expansion speed: do the plugs expand too fast or slow to be useful?

Pressure: how much pressure do I feel on my ear canals once they're fully expanded? (ie, how much will they suck 2 hours from now?)

Comfort: how comfortable are they to put in? to take out? to have in, aside from pressure?

I dig numbers, so I've given each plug a potential ten in each category, for a possible total of 40. Points are deducted depending on how much each plug sucks in that category. I've also included a size assessment, which is my personal opinion on whether the plug is small, average, or large in size. (This will affect your comfort rating.)

Note that these ratings do not take NRR into account. All these plugs range from 29 to 33 NRR, which are all great for motorcycling, so I don't consider NRR to be a rating-worthy factor until you've found the one or two you like. Then, higher NRR makes a difference.

Picture Plug Size Packaging Expansion speed Pressure Comfort Total
Moldex Pura-Fit Average 9 9 8 8 34
Paper package is nearly perfect, just a bit large. Very long plugs inspire me to insert them deeper than other plugs, which can be uncomfortable or painful, but very comfortable when properly inserted.
Howard Leight LaserLite Average 9 8 8 8 33
Howard Leight plugs all have excellent packaging, except it's a touch too big. Very easy to open, very unlikely to dump plugs on the ground. These are very good, but the outer end is shaped a bit strangely, squashed flat. The only difference between MaxLite and LaserLite plugs is the NRR, as far as I can tell. (LaserLites are NRR 32, MaxLites are NRR 30.)
Howard Leight MaxLite Average 9 8 8 8 33
Good plugs, but the weird pinched end detracts from their comfort for me.
Howard Leight MAX Large 9 9 6 8 32
The MAX plugs are comfortable, but big and flared at the end.
Picture Plug Size Packaging Expansion speed Pressure Comfort Total
3M 1100 Large 9 8 7 8 31
Packaging is almost as good as the Howard Leight bags, but I know from experience these plugs can pop out and end up on the ground occasionally. Firm material results in relatively high pressure, but I've comfortably worn them for 4-5 hours at a stretch. (Comfort will vary considerably between people.)
Aearo/E-A-R Soft Blast Small 6 8 8 9 31
Packaging makes it too easy to dump the plugs on the ground, otherwise good. Ridiculous flame graphic.
Hearos Super Soft Small 5? 7 9 9 30?
Plugs came in "aftermarket" resealable bags, probably not how you'd buy them in a multipack, so packaging gets a 5 with a questionmark. True to their name, very soft and comfortable, but on the small side, both in diameter and length. I had trouble removing them, they were so short.
Picture Plug Size Packaging Expansion speed Pressure Comfort Total
Moldex Spark Plugs Large 7 8 7 7 29
The packaging on these plugs gives me the "dump on ground" vibe, otherwise good. Comfort suffers a bit because the base of the cone has a harder edge than surrounding foam, although it's mostly noticeable when rolling them. Could be an issue after several hours, though.
Hearing Technologies Large* 7 3 6 7 23
* Although these are large diameter, they're very short in length, making them hard to remove. Very slow to expand, so if you get it wrong and have to reseat them, you're going to be standing there with a look of concentration on your face for a while.
Aearo/E-A-R Classic SuperFit Large 4 8 7 1 20
These plugs are cylindrical, and the flat faces have a hard edge to them which is incredibly uncomfortable. Cylinder surfaces are rough against the skin. If your ear canals are surfaced in teflon these might be comfortable. The packaging is huge and cardboard, who thought that was a good idea?
Picture Plug Size Packaging Expansion speed Pressure Comfort Total
Flents Quiet Please (Hexagonal) Average 2 7 5 2 16
Packaging is of the "pull, pull, pull, pull, explode!" variety that potato chip manufacturers seem to love. Hexagonal plug? Hello? That means 12 sharp points to dig in. Abysmal comfort, and I couldn't get them to seal well. Terrible design.
Howard Leight Matrix Average 8 0 4 2 14
Maybe I misunderstand how to use these things, but they hurt to put in, hurt to have in, and hurt to take out. Hard edge on the cylinder's flat face. They expand almost instantly, making them impossible to position. In my original notes, I wrote "ow!" not once, but twice. Between the material and the too-short length, I nearly had to grab pliers to get them out. Ick!
Aearo/E-A-R Classic Average 4 2 4 0 10
See my comments above about the Super Classic, but moreso. These are among the worst earplugs I've ever tried.

My recommendations

Any of the high-scoring plugs in this comparison seem like a fine choice. I really like the Howard Leight packaging, which makes it easy to get to the plugs without much risk of accidentally tossing them across the road.

Plug fit is incredibly important, and will determine comfort, noise reduction, pressure, and how cranky you are at the end of that 500 mile day. NRR is important, but merely having an earplug is such a huge improvement over not having an earplug that I recommend you choose comfort over NRR. It's vital that you put in the earplugs, and if they're uncomfortable, you're less likely to do that.

Avoid! avoid! avoid! the plugs rated 20 and under in the list. They ranged from really uncomfortable to downright painful. They're also among the least effective plugs in the range, so there's really nothing to recommend them.

Price may inspire you to choose bad plugs, but I put it to you that your hearing is literally beyond monetary value -- once it's gone, there is no science or magic which will bring it back. It's gone forever. Riding a motorcycle for more than 15 or 20 minutes, or at speeds higher than 40-50 MPH will damage your hearing, permanently.

So, I guess my recommendation is order up a pair of each of the likely looking plugs from the list (earplugstore.com will sell you an individual pair of each type, to test), and try them out. I can guarantee you that the low-rated plugs aren't even worth trying, so buying the sampler pack is something of a waste.

Ride with each plug in, ideally back to back and in similar conditions. Figure out which one works well for you, then buy a crapload of them so you never worry about "wasting" them. These plugs can all be worn multiple times, but by the time they're visibly dirty, toss them and use a new pair. In between uses, you can use a plastic film cannister to keep them from getting dirty, or any other small plastic container, even a ziploc bag works great.

My choice

For me personally, it's a toss-up between the 3M 1100s, which I've used happily for years, the Howard Leight MAXes, and the Moldex Spark Plugs. All are large (fitting my large right ear canal well), all are tapered cone shapes, and all are comfortable for me.

Because of the stupid packaging and the hard edge on the base of the cone, the Spark Plugs are out.

Comparing between the 1100s and the MAXes, the higher NRR of the MAXes takes on some importance. As I put each plug in for a direct, back-to-back comparison, I find that the most important factor is actually the fit in my right ear, and the MAXes are a little bit better. Pressure of each plug is about equal, and I believe long-term comfort will be about equal, with the MAXes possibly edging out the 1100s.

The winner

Ultimately, for myself, I am going to order a big box of the Howard Leight MAX earplugs for my motorcycle use.

Update, May 2006

I actually made this decision many months ago, but just now realized I forgot to post the update here.

After several attempts to use the MAX plugs over the course of a couple weeks, I kept having difficulty getting the right-side plug to seat properly and seal. Despite generally liking the MAX plugs better, and finding them to be more effective, my ability to reliably seat the 1100s had me ordering another box of the 3Ms.

I still recommend the MAXes over the 1100s, if they fit in your ears.

Copyright 2005-2011 by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.