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Hearos Xtreme vs Ultimate Softness vs Howard Leight Max
on December 7, 2010
UPDATE: I no longer recommend cutting the plugs with scissors to shorten them for comfortable sleeping. Instead, go to YouTube and search for a video called "Fitting Foam Earplugs" by user aearoweb to learn how to properly insert plugs all the way into your ear canal, which will eliminate the need to cut them.
UPDATE: Amazon is now offering these for about $0.12/pair, which makes them one of the cheapest options available!
I got a little carried away comparing different brands/models of ear plugs this past week and thought I'd share my experience here. Of the following three, the Hearos Xtreme Protection are my favorite. If the length of this review looks daunting, just skip the rest and take a look at the three kinds of plugs I tried and my overall assessment of their key characteristics:
HEAROS XTREME PROTECTION
Noise isolation: 5/5
HEAROS ULTIMATE SOFTNESS
Noise isolation: 3/5
HOWARD LEIGHT "SUPER LEIGHT" (same model as MAX1)
Noise isolation: 4/5
I decided I needed some ear plugs after being at my wits' end from having to constantly listen to the low rumbly bass of my neighbor's stereo. It's not that it's that loud--but at any volume, constant repetition of a few single low-frequency notes really drives me crazy. I went over and knocked on the door, but no one answered; I'd bang on the wall and they'd turn it down, only to turn it up again half an hour later. I even tried expensive noise-canceling headphones (Audio Technica ATH-ANC7B Active Noise-Cancelling Closed-Back Headphones) and even though they helped, they didn't eliminate the noise.
After reading many positive reviews, I opted for Hearos Xtreme Protection. They have an NRR (noise reduction) of 33, which is the highest I could find in a plug I could afford. I even checked the attenuation data on the back of the package and saw that the decibel reduction was, quizzically, even higher at the low frequencies I was hoping to eliminate. I purchased them and went home and promptly inserted a pair into my ears, which was easier than I expected. I have seen a lot of comments about how they are difficult to get the hang of inserting, but it's really a piece of cake. Just don't skip the part in the instructions about pulling on the top of your ear with your other hand, because that does make it easier to get the plug in all the way. As I heard the second plug crinkling gently as it expanded, I could almost feel the air being sucked out of my ear and a layer of silence emerging. Suddenly I was off in my own world where I could hear only my breathing and the faintest muffled sounds from outside. Once they were fully expanded, I was surprised at how comfortable they were. They exert only a slight pressure on my ears, but it's not annoying at all. My neighbor was not playing music at the time, so I couldn't test their effectiveness against it. However, several hours later I found out from my girlfriend, who had gotten home and been sitting at her own computer (in the same room) for the previous hour, that the neighbors had been playing music for quite a while. I never knew because the Hearos were doing their job that well! Tears almost came to my eyes. A caveat, though: I have another neighbor with a deafeningly loud car stereo that shakes everything in my apartment. I'm not sure these plugs will get rid of that kind of volume, but then again, I haven't heard his stereo at all since I've been wearing them. UPDATE: I have long since moved--and that solved the problem! I was never able to effectively test them against the jerk's car stereo, because he generally only played it as he was coming or going (still very frequent). This didn't give me the chance to get the plugs, insert them properly, test to see if I could hear it, and remove them before the noise was gone. However, I can't recall ever hearing bass with the plugs in over the last two years.
After such a successful experiment, I decided to sleep in them. I could feel them when I was on my side, but they were not uncomfortable--just there. (I later discovered, thanks to some other reviews here on Amazon, that you can simply cut the end off of the plugs with scissors, which does not affect their sound-blocking abilities in the least.) Coupled with the fan on my window unit, I couldn't hear a thing outside of the room. No annoying neighbors, cars, or anything...I didn't wake up once. I used that first pair for about 4 days, and could have used them longer--you could wear the same pair for a week with no problem. About the only con to these plugs are the fact that they are bright blue and a bit long (though, as I mentioned, they can be cut), which means they're not exactly discreet. But if you're anything like me, you don't really care what you look like in these things as long as you don't have to listen to other people's noise. Also, and more relevant for me, is the price. At about $0.60/pair in small quantities, they are the most expensive of the three. However, they are significantly cheaper if you buy them in bulk here on Amazon, especially if you are a Prime member and can get free shipping--this brings the price down to a much more reasonable $0.35/pair or so (see updated pricing info at the top of the review).
I decided, "wow, if the first kind of plugs I tried were so great, what about the others?" Since Howard Leight Max plugs also have great reviews on Amazon, I picked some up at a local C/V/S (sold as "Super Leight" in a package of 10 pairs). While I found them to be very easy to insert and extremely comfortable, they didn't seem to offer quite as much noise isolation as the Xtremes. Although they have the same NRR (33), the seal just didn't seem quite as tight. A side-by-side comparison revealed the Super Leights to be just a tad smaller in diameter. As a result, they are easier to remove, which I consider a con because I would rather have earplugs stay put. However, if your ears are smaller than mine, you might find the Howard Leight's just as good, if not better, at reducing outside noise, and they would probably be more comfortable as well. Just be aware that they are hunting-jacket orange, so they are even less discreet than the Hearos XP's. However, they are the cheapest of the three plugs--if you buy 200 pair on Amazon (sold as MAX1, but I'm pretty sure it's the same plug), it brings the price down to just a dime or so per pair! Because these plugs seem to be of similar construction to the Hearos XP, you should be able to get at least a week's worth of wear out of these plugs as well--so you're set for four years!
Just for the heck of it, I figured I might as well try the Hearos Ultimate Softness too (another plug well regarded by Amazon reviewers). Although they were comfortable, the seal was not very tight at all and they didn't seem to block nearly as much noise as the Xtremes or the Super Leights. (When I compared them side by side with the Xtremes, I realized how much smaller in diameter the Ultimate Softness are.) They are, however, the most discreet of the bunch. They barely stick out of my ears at all, and they blend in better with my skin tone--of course, they may not blend in with yours. It would be nice if they offered the same plugs in different colors, but manufacturers probably think it would be more confusing for the consumer. They are a little cheaper in the drugstore than the XP, but in bulk they become quite a bit cheaper at about $0.25/pair.
Since noise-blocking is by far the most important feature for me, I'm going to stick with the Hearos Xtreme Protection. Don't take my experience as gospel, but if you have average to large ear canals (which I'm not sure how to figure out, but I figure mine must be of the larger variety), you will probably find the Xtremes to be the best noise blockers. If price is your main concern, go with the Howard Leights, which are almost as good at blocking noise but much cheaper. If you want to compare for yourself, Hearos will send you a free sample if you fill out a form on their website. If you don't want to wait 6-8 weeks, you can go to your local drugstore and spend about $10-$11 and pick up a few different brands.
Thanks for reading to the end!
UPDATE: This review has engendered a fairly long comments section. I'm no expert on otology (I just happen to have heard of the word), but I will try to answer any questions you have about the plugs I've reviewed here for all those seeking peace and quiet!