In this post, I want to provide an overview and detailed review of noise blocking earmuffs.
Regular readers of my Blog know that I am into blocking noise to reduce stress and improve cognitive performance and sleep. Many studies show a large positive impact of noise reduction on all kinds of mental tasks, including studying, reading comprehension, writing, serial memory, proof reading, mental math, and so on.
As a student and as a professional, you can improve your performance on almost any task by controlling the noise you are exposed to while working. In addition, by removing disturbing noise from your environment, you can reduce stress levels, improve general well-being, and prevent permanent hearing impairment.
Earmuffs are also becoming increasingly popular with people who are hypersensitive to noise, and sufferers from hyperacusis, misophonia, autism and ADHD.
I have found noise cancelling earmuffs to be among the most effective tools for studying. And it’s not only me: Search Google Images for memory championships and you will see participants wearing industrial earmuffs.
This review looks at general noise blocking effectiveness of different earmuffs and comfort and suitability for different types of noises, including low frequency noise and human speech. I focus on enhancing cognitive performance and general well-being rather than hearing protection in industrial settings and on the shooting range. That being said, you will find an in-depth comparison of manufacturers’ attenuation data.
In my quest to find the most effective, most comfortable and most fashionable earmuffs, I have purchased and used quite a number of different models. In this review I am going to look at the following:
- Overall noise blocking effectiveness
- Low-frequency and human speech blocking effectiveness
- Manufacturing quality and durability
- Earmuffs for sleeping
The models in this review include:
- 3M Peltor X5A
- 3M Peltor X4A
- 3M Peltor Optime 105
- 3M Peltor Optime 98
- 3M Peltor Optime 95
- Howard Leight Leightning L3 (with some references to the Leighting L2 and Leightning L1)
My personal earmuffs ranking
Before I delve into the details about which earmuffs are best for which application, here is my overall ranking. Please note that this ranking is personal and does not only account for noise reduction, but also general usability, comfort, weight, build quality, and price.
All earmuffs included in this ranking, except for the last one, are good noise blockers. I would be happy if you gave me any one of these to fend off distracting noise while trying to concentrate. The last one is too weak for louder environments and is included for people who want to use earmuffs during sleep.
- 3M Peltor X5A
- 3M Peltor Optime 105
- 3M Peltor Optime 98
- Howard Leight Leightning L3
- 3M Peltor X4A
- 3M Peltor Optime 95
1. 3M Peltor X5A, NRR 31 dB
The Peltor X5A clearly stand out. They block noise better than any other earmuffs I know. Whether you need to block low-frequency noise, human speech, or high-frequency noise, these earmuffs do it all. They are the only ones than can compete with the Leightning L3 on low-pitched noise and they clearly outperform the L3 in every other frequency band. Because they attenuate so well across a wide range of frequencies, their speech blocking ability is a step ahead of all the others.
Consequently, these are not the earmuffs to get if you want to understand what people around you are saying.
The X5A are extremely well made, reasonably comfortable and adjustable.
The main drawbacks: Weighing 12.4 ounces (351 g), they are a bit on the heavy side, and there is no mistaking them for headphones. Wearing them, you are going to look like an aircraft mechanic.
But if you need the best noise blocking, these are the earmuffs to get.
2. 3M Peltor Optime 105, NRR 30 dB
The Peltor Optime 105 are very effective earmuffs that block noise well across all frequencies. The X5A are a bit more effective, but not by a magnitude.
These are as adjustable as the X5A (and more so than the Leightning L3). At 9.3 ounces (265 g), they are also lighter, and I find them a tad more comfortable. The X5A are built a bit better, but I haven’t managed to do any damage to the Optime 105 either. They are out-edged by the Leightning L3 when it comes to low-frequency noise, but better than the L3 for speech and high-frequency noise.
I recently gave mine away to a friend who was in dire need of a good pair to keep his sanity. He loves them as well. I had a really hard time parting with them, but didn’t want to give away the X5A.
So yes, I prefer the X5A, but it is close. If you are looking for earmuffs that offer high noise reduction, you won’t go wrong with Optime 105. They are usually a bit cheaper than the X5A.
3. 3M Peltor Optime 98, NRR 25 dB
The Peltor Optime 98 are great all-around earmuffs to take the edge off of noise. They are easy to carry around and work well in moderate-noise coffee shops and open offices. They are sturdy, very light (7.8 ounces, 221 g) and adjustable, and feature a low profile. I find them very comfortable.
Do you have a child who is hypersensitive to noise due to autism or ADHD, or just want earmuffs to take your kids along to an event? Try the Peltor Optime 98. They tend to fit children as well and are really light and carefree.
If you can sleep on your back, you might even be able to sleep in them. Many people actually do. (See the section what are the best ear muffs for sleeping on how you can improve on their comfort.)
For human speech and high-frequency noise the Optime 98 perform about as well as the Leightning L3 and the X4A, albeit not nearly as well as the X5A and the Optime 105.
If are you are looking for great low-frequency noise blocking, these are not the muffs to get.
All in all the Optime 98 are great earmuff for adults and kids, and as far as I am concerned, the most comfortable ones.
4. Howard Leight Leightning L3 (by Honeywell), NRR 30 dB
In overall noise-reduction, the Leightning L3 are on par with the Optime 105 and a step behind the X5A. They are great for low-frequency noise reduction, as good as the X5A, and they are significantly lighter (10.6 ounces, 300 g) than the X5A.
I find them quite comfortable. If you are trying to get rid of rumbling machines or low-pitched humming, they are a great choice. Howard Leight really seems to have a special formula for low-frequency noise blocking.
They are, however, significantly worse than the X5A and the Optime 105 at blocking human speech and high-frequency noise.
The overall built-quality is good, but the headband cushion is made of a soft material that is quite sensitive. I managed to unintentionally damage the headband at two locations with my finger nails.
They are adjustable, but less so than Peltor earmuffs. They do fit me and are quite comfortable, but I have to pull out the ear-cups to the max. I have a medium-size head.
5. 3M Peltor X4A, NRR 27 dB
The Peltor X4A are the highest-rated low-profile earmuffs I know of. In terms of noise-blocking effectiveness, they are a bit better than their nearest competitor, the Optime 98, but, at least for me, it is not a big difference. They are sturdier, built with more premium materials, and work better for low-frequency noise than the Optime 98, but they usually also cost a bit more.
IMO, their main advantage is that they feature a really low profile, look sleek and can be mistaken for futuristic Bluetooth headphones. At 8.3 ounces (235 g) they are almost as light as the Optime 98.
I have used them for quite a while and find them reasonably comfortable, but not as comfortable as the Optime 98.
6. 3M Peltor Optime 95, NRR 21 dB
At 5.5 ounces (155 g), the Peltor Optime 95 are the lightest of all earmuffs in this review.
I got these earmuffs for a special application: Having read positive reviews by other “sleepers,” I wanted to see whether they can be used while sleeping on the side.
I would usually go with foam earplugs because I find them comfortable and more effective than the Optime 95, but these might be an option for people who cannot tolerate earplugs.
Indeed, together with a ring pillow with a hole in the middle, they are a viable option. A memory-foam version of that pillow would probably be even better.
As others have done, you can even upgrade them with the special Peltor gel sealing rings HY80 to make them more comfortable.
They feature a lower profile than the Optime 98, but with my pillow the Optime 98 worked as well. Since the Optime 98 attenuate noise a lot better, I would try the 98 first. What’s more, the expensive gel ear pads also fit the Optime 98.
Since the Optime 95 are cheap, you could buy them in addition to the 98 and see which ones work better for you. If you are a back sleeper who can’t tolerate earplugs, I would get the Optime 98. They are as comfortable and a lot more effective.
I wouldn’t get the Optime 95 for any other applications as their noise blocking effectiveness is a bit too low for my taste.
My noise blocking earmuffs comparison table (10 points is best)
In both the US and Europe, reputable manufacturers provide a single-number noise reduction rating for all earmuffs they sell. This number is intended to provide you with a convenient and fast way to assess the noise reducing capability of a particular pair of earmuffs and its suitability to protect your hearing when exposed to noise up to a certain level.
Note, however, that this single-number noise reduction rating was obtained in a laboratory and tends to overstate real-world attenuation. What’s more, there is some variation in test results (even according to the same standard) between different labs as well.
Earmuffs sold in the US state the NRR (noise reduction rating), while earmuffs intended to be sold in Europe specify the SNR (single number rating).
The standards and testing procedures in the US and Europe are different, so these numbers are not directly comparable.
The European SNR for the same earmuffs tends to be higher than the US NRR, so make sure you know which number you are actually looking at: for example, when sold in the US, the 3M Peltor X5A box states an NRR of 31 dB, and when sold in Europe an SNR of 37 dB.
Reputable manufacturers such as 3M and Honeywell tend to be very clear about which standard and number they are referring to.
Some manufacturers and importers are not always clear about which rating they are talking about.
For example, in the description on Amazon you might read something like “highest noise reduction of 34 decibels,” but, when digging deeper, the number actually refers to the SNR, which is at best confusing when the earmuffs are being sold in the US.
In the US the relevant standard is ANSI S3.19-1974, while in Europe, it is EN 352-1:2002.
The attenuation of earmuffs varies greatly with the noise frequency, so the noise reduction rating doesn’t tell the whole story
Because the NRR (and the SNR) are weighted averages of tested attenuation levels at various frequencies, two earmuffs with exactly the same NRR can behave quite differently in a certain situation.
For example, the Howard Leightning L3 and the 3M Peltor Optime 105 both have an NRR of 30 dB.
However their attenuation data for different frequency bands is quite different:
The Leightning L3 earmuffs block low-frequency noise better than the the 3M Optime 105, while for mid-range frequencies the two muffs attenuate about the same, and for high frequency noise, the Optime 105 is better than the L3.
How is earmuffs’ attenuation measured in the US?
Each frequency in the table refers to the center frequency of a narrow band. For each center frequency, test subjects listen to a pulsed pink noise signal with a bandwidth of 1/3 octave with and without the earmuffs to measure the attenuation. For example, for the center frequency of 125 Hz, the one-third octave band is 112 – 141 Hz. The test is performed in a laboratory with 10 test persons of normal hearing, who each undergo the test three times. Each attenuation number in the table is the average of 30 hearing tests.
How important are the different frequencies in a real-world setting?
If, for example, you are sitting in an open office, trying to cancel the chatter of colleagues, the Optime 105 are a better choice because they are better at blocking the frequency range relevant to human speech intelligibility. For more on this below.
On the other hand, if you are working next to a rumbling machine, the Leightning L3 should work better for you.
The European standard provides for an additional three-number rating system, which makes it easier to see the difference:
You won’t get this three-number rating in the US, but you can always look at the frequency attenuation table detailing the attenuation for each frequency band.
If a manufacturer doesn’t provide this data in their description, ask them for the table!
They must have it if they have had their earmuffs certified. Also, make sure it is clearly stated which testing standard has been applied!
Here is the European attenuation data for the two earmuffs.
Take note that the test procedure and test frequencies are different in the EU. You can compare earmuffs using either table, but shouldn’t compare data from different tables, obtained according to different testing standards.
Overall noise blocking effectiveness for the reviewed earmuffs
- Peltor X5A
- Peltor Optime 105 and Howard Leight Leightning L3
- Peltor X4A and Optime 98
- Peltor Optime 95
Why don’t good earmuffs block all noise?
When looking at the tables below, you may wonder why earmuffs (and earplugs for that matter) don’t provide perfect noise blocking.
Apart from leakage and conduction through the earmuffs, there is another important reason: bone conduction. Sound waves also reach our inner ear via our skull and the soft tissue not enclosed by the earmuffs. This limits what attenuation earmuffs and earplugs can provide.
Even if the perfect muffs existed, you would likely still hear people shouting. The sound would just get to your ear via a different pathway.
Bone conduction is estimated to limit the maximum achievable attenuation of “normal” hearing protectors to around 47 dB at 125 Hz, 48 dB at 1000 Hz, 40 dB at 2000 Hz, and 49 dB at 4000 Hz.
A noise blocking helmet covering the whole head would offer additional attenuation. In an experiment using such a helmet (and combining it with earmuffs and earplugs), 55 to 63 dB attenuation (at 1000- 1400 Hz) were achieved, but who wants to sit around and sweat wearing a helmet?
Attenuation data for the reviewed earmuffs according to US standard ANSI S3.19-1974 (as stated by the manufacturers)
Attenuation data for the reviewed earmuffs according to European standard EU 352-1:2002 (as stated by the manufacturers)
Best earmuffs for blocking human speech
The frequency range from 500 Hz to 4000 Hz is the most important one for speech intelligibility. Since speech is distracting and impairs performance on a variety of cognitive tasks, office workers and students want to wear earmuffs or earplugs that attenuate very well in this frequency range. The frequency band around 2000 Hz is the most important one, followed by 4000 Hz, 1000 Hz, and 500 Hz.
In my own subjective tests in coffee shops, office environments, and while watching TV, the best earmuffs for blocking human speech were clearly the Peltor X5A, followed by the Peltor Optime 105. The muffs in third place work reasonably well with speech, but simply stand no chance against the X5A.
Here is my own subjective ranking for voice blocking:
- Peltor X5A
- Peltor Optime 105
- Peltor X4A, Peltor Optime 98, Howard Leight Leighting L3
- Peltor Optime 95
Why do I have three muffs in third place? I couldn’t decide which pair was better. All three worked reasonably well, but my preference changed depending on whether the speaker was male or female. The X4A and the Optime 98 muffled more, while the Leighnting L3 cancelled more of the lower pitched parts of human speech.
With speech, the highly-rated Howard Leight Leightning L3 earmuffs performed a lot worse than the similarly rated Peltor Optime 105. Looking at the frequency table, this is no surprise. The L3 attenuate a lot less in the crucial frequency range than both the X5A and the Optime 105.
I don’t own the Howard Leight Leightning L2 and L1, but looking at their frequency table, I would not consider them for cancelling speech.
On the other hand, if you want to understand human speech while wearing ear muffs to block moderate noise, the Leightning L2 and L1, and the Peltor Optime 95 might be good options.
Low-Frequency noise blocking
- 3M Peltor X5A and Howard Leight Leightning L3
- 3M Peltor Optime 105
- 3M Peltor X4A
- 3M Peltor Optime 98
- 3M Peltor Optime 95
If you are looking to get rid of the rumble of machines or trucks or low-frequency hum of compressors, the X5A and Leightning L3 are the to-go muffs. At the lowest frequencies, I have the feeling that the L3 even slightly out-edge the X5A. The X5A perform better at the “higher” low-frequency noise bands. Both of them clearly perform a lot better than the rest.
If reducing lower-pitched noise is your main objective, the overall great Optime 98 are going to disappoint you. The Optime 105 and X4A offer decent low-frequency noise attenuation.
What are the best earmuffs for sleeping?
Earmuffs in general aren’t that great for sleeping because they are bulky and the clamping force necessary to block noise might make them uncomfortable when wearing them for a whole night.
Earplugs or the combination of earplugs and sleep headphones are my preference for noise blocking during sleep. If you are a back sleeper with a lot of cash, you could also consider noise-cancelling headphones.
That being said, for back sleepers who cannot tolerate earplugs, earmuffs are an alternative worth trying, and some people use them every night.
What’s more, the double protection of earmuffs and earplugs adds a few decibels of attenuation, which might make it possible for you to sleep in a noisy environment in which sleep might otherwise be impossible.
My favorite earmuffs for sleeping on my back are the Peltor Optime 98 because I find them the most comfortable. The Optime 95 work as well, but they provide less noise reduction. Both the Optime 98 and 95 can even be upgraded for more comfort with the Peltor Camelback Gel Sealing Rings HY80 (on the right side in the image).
They really do make the muffs more comfortable, but at a pretty steep price.
If you are considering sleeping with earmuffs on your side, they might make even this possible.
If you are a back sleeper who needs to get rid of low-frequency noise, you could alternatively try the Leightning L3. They are bulky, so they probably won’t work for a side sleeper, but they are quite comfortable and not too heavy.
How can you sleep with earmuffs on your side?
As I mentioned before, if you can tolerate foam earplugs, use these as a side sleeper. If you must use earmuffs, you need lower-profile muffs such as the Optime 95, and you need a pillow with an opening for the ear cups. I have tested the ring-pillow shown below, and it works reasonably well.
It is, in fact, deep enough to also fit the Optime 98. A memory-foam pillow with an opening would probably work even better.
As a side sleeper, I would get both the Optime 98 and 95 to see which ones work better. If, after testing, you feel this solution can work for you, you could improve on the comfort of the earmuffs by substituting the Peltor gel seals HY80 for the standard ear pads.
On a different note, the low-profile X4A have a different headband, which doesn’t allow me to fall asleep on my side.
In this review, we have looked in detail at 6 different earmuffs and compared them on overall noise reduction, low-frequency noise cancelling, voice blocking, high frequency noise blocking, comfort, weight, and build quality.
By removing excessive environmental noise, you can significantly improve your cognitive performance, general well-being, and sleep. You are also taking steps to protecting your hearing.
This post doesn’t focus on hearing protection in a workshop or industrial settings, although the earmuffs reviewed here are all being produced for protecting your hearing in such settings. Office workers, students and memory athletes are increasingly using them because they work for them as well.
By all means, if you are exposed to noise on the job, work with your employer to assess the noise level and get appropriate protection for the noise level you are exposed to.
I recommend adding two pairs of earmuffs to your arsenal: I would get one pair of high noise reduction earmuffs such as the Peltor X5A (or the Peltor Optime 105) and one pair of general purpose earmuffs such as the light-weight Peltor Optime 98 (or alternatively the X4A).
Owning these two, you are well equipped to fend off noise intrusions. You will have a pair for maximum protection and a pair you can just pull out of your backpack or bag when you feel overwhelmed by the noise around you. The Optime 98 also tend to work well for most children.
- “Audio Frequency.” Wikipedia, February 2, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Audio_frequency&oldid=763221171.
- Eddy B. Brixen. “Facts about Speech Intelligibility.” DPA Microphones, January 2016. http://www.dpamicrophones.com/mic-university/facts-about-speech-intelligibility.
- Gerges, Samir NY, Mr L. Vedsmand, Mr H. Lester, and Kampmannsgade BAT-Kartellet. “Personal Measures and Hearing Conservation.” Geneva, Switzerland: Special Report of World Health Organization, 1995. http://cdrwww.who.int/entity/occupational_health/publications/noise11.pdf.
- Ravicz, Michael E., and Jennifer R. Melcher. “Isolating the Auditory System from Acoustic Noise during Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Examination of Noise Conduction through the Ear Canal, Head, and Body.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 109, no. 1 (January 2001): 216–31.
- The Engineering ToolBox. “Octave Band Frequencies.” The Engineering Toolbox. Accessed July 5, 2017. http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/octave-bands-frequency-limits-d_1602.html.