Otis Ear Shield Hearing Protector
By Gary Zinn
Otis Ear Shield. Image courtesy of otistec.com.
Hearing protection devices fall into two major categories. Passive devices merely muffle all sound, while electronic hearing protectors are designed to allow more or less normal hearing, while blocking impulse sounds above a certain decibel level. Within each category there are ear muffs, which cover the entire ear, and devices that are designed to fit into the ear canal. There are plusses and minuses to each of these basic systems.
Otis Technology (www.otistec.com) markets a hearing protector that is different. First, it is not quite either an over the ear or in the ear design. Also, while it is non-electronic, it is not a normal passive, indiscriminate sound muffling system, either.
Referring to the image above, the key components of the Ear Shield are a pair of plastic pods (for lack of a better term). These 5-1/2 inch long pods are hollow, with sound baffling material inside (open cell foam, I infer). One end of each pod is formed into a hollow nipple, covered by a soft foam collar ("ear cuff"), while the opposite end attaches to an adjustable yoke. The yoke goes over the crown of the head and the ear cuff at the end of each pod fits snugly over (not inside) the mouth of the ear canal.
The principles on which the Ear Shield works are summarized on the back of the product packing card, as follows:
"Soft earbuds form a seal around the outer ear canal and connect to the unique sound reduction chambers. Because sound energy travels the path of least resistance, high-intensity sounds, like gunfire, funnel into the wider sound reduction chambers and away from your narrow ear canals. The chamber dampens, refracts and cancels harmful waves to produce a safe volume across all frequencies. So, you can hear important safety signals or conversations without removing the Ear Shield."
Before reporting my own impressions of the effectiveness, comfort, and convenience of the product, it is appropriate to explain some relevant background. Most shooters are familiar with Otis Technology because of their gun cleaning products and kits. The company markets several other shooting products, though, including the Ear Shield and an in-the-ear product called Flugz.
Otis did not develop and does not make the Ear Shield. Rather, they are a licensed marketer of the product, which is made by SensGard LLC, located in Fairport, NY. The SensGard website (www.sensgard.com) shows the two NRR ratings and a few color choices in which the product is available under the SensGard name. The website also provides information about the development of the product and how it works.
Otis and SensGard have banded together to promote the product in the shooting accessories market, where Otis has high brand name recognition. This is a sensible strategy for both firms.
The product is available with two NRR ratings, 26 or 31 dB, under either brand name. The Otis branded product comes in black only. The Otis Ear Shield with 26dB NRR is identified as SKU# FG-ESH-26 and the 31dB model is FG-ESH-31. They carry 2016 MSRPs of $20 and $25, respectively. Also, replacement foam ear cuffs are available, at $3 MSRP for a package of four.
After removing my Ear Shield from its blister pack, I expanded it by pulling the yoke bands outward. These adjust in increments of about 3/16 inch, with detents that hold them at whatever spacing is desired. I adjusted them to fit over the crown of my favorite field cap, with the ear buds covering my ear canals. My initial fitting did not feel entirely comfortable, so I tried moving the yoke bands out one more click. That felt just right.
The Ear Shield is quite thin and lightweight, 1.8 ounces per my digital postal scale. In addition, the pods fold inward, like the temples on a pair of glasses, so the unit may be easily carried in a pocket or range bag (see image below). There is no need to retract the yoke bands before folding the pods, so nothing needs to be readjusted when the protector is put on.
Folded Ear Shield. Image courtesy of sensgard.com
I am impressed by the combination of compactness, light weight and noise dampening ratings of the Ear Shield. This is quite a contrast with conventional ear muffs. Most muffs with NRRs in the 26 to 31 dB range are quite bulky and noticeably heavy. My electronic muffs, for instance, weigh ten ounces and have a NRR of only 22dB.
Eastern North Carolina was getting cold, wet and windy winter weather when I got my Ear Shield, so I did not rush out to the shooting range to test it. Instead, I took some time to experiment with wearing it and evaluating how it modulated normal sounds and background noise.
The first thing I concluded is that the Ear Shield is best worn with the yoke over the top of the head. It can be worn behind the head, but then the yoke will rest against the collar of a shirt or jacket. The problem with this is that head or shoulder movement will cause the yoke to rub against whatever it is resting on, which creates a sound that transmits through the pods and into the ears. This is not loud, but it is annoying.
A claim made for the product is that it dampens out low frequency background noise, which makes it easier to clearly understand normal speech. According to the SensGard website:
"Low frequency noise is reduced as much as the high frequencies. However, low frequency noise masks the speech frequencies. Have you ever been to a crowded diner, with plates clanking, fans humming, appliances running and it is difficult to hear conversation? That is low frequency noise masking the speech frequencies. By significantly reducing the low volume noise, speech can be heard clearly. Thus, you can use your SensGard Ear Muffler around loud noise and hear the person next to you, without the need to remove your protection."
I did some informal experimentation around the house and concluded that the device does filter out background noise, such as the dishwasher, clothes dryer and heat pump. A major street a few blocks from my house has constant traffic noise that I notice when I step outside. This disappeared when I put on the Ear Shield. I could still hear emergency vehicle sirens and klaxons at that distance, but the racket was greatly muted.
However, the claim that "by significantly reducing the low volume noise, speech can be heard clearly" is not entirely accurate. It is true that the filtering out of background noise makes speech easier to comprehend, but speech is also somewhat muted by the device. A person speaking must be close to the listener, or speaking loudly, to be clearly understood.
To the range (finally)
The weather finally moderated, so I headed out to do a thorough test of the Ear Shield. I took my Ruger 10/22 and .308 Winchester rifles, 12-gauge shotgun and .357 Magnum revolver. I also took my usual double hearing protection system, which consists of SureFire EP3 Sonic Defender passive in-ear hearing protectors, worn under Howard Leight Impact Sport Electronic Earmuffs.
These ear plugs and muffs have claimed NRR ratings of 24 and 22 dB, respectively. This would imply that their combined NRR is 46 dB, though I have an intuition that the combined NRR is somewhat less when they are used together. By comparison, my Ear Shield is the 31 dB NRR model. I got the higher NRR model because I knew I could not double it with another protection device.
At the range, I alternated between wearing the Ear Shield and the muffs/plugs combination while I shot several rounds of commercial ammo through each gun. The bottom line result was that the Ear Shield, like my tried and true muffs/plugs, reduced gunshot sounds to easily tolerable levels for all four firearms.
There is a qualitative difference between how the two systems dampen sound, though. The muffs/plugs system muffles (deadens) the sound of gunfire, while the Ear Shield attenuates (reduces in intensity) the sound impulse of gunshots. The difference is subtle and hard to explain.
I can perhaps best express this difference by citing how each system changes the perceived sound of .22 rimfire gunshots. When I am wearing the muffs plus plugs, the sound of my .22 rifle firing is rendered indistinct and blurred; it could easily be mistaken, say, for the muffled sound of a hammer striking a metal stake. By contrast, when I wear the Ear Shield, the sound of a gunshot is still crisp and distinct, but reduced to a comfortable level.
This is an unimportant distinction, because the goal of protecting one's hearing from unpleasant and damaging levels of sound is accomplished either way. I am just noting that the sound I hear when comparing the two systems is different in character.
I used the .357 Magnum to do a brief test of the Ear Shield against the Howard Leight muffs alone and the Ear Shield won, without question. This was no surprise, for a 22 dB NRR device was being pitted against one with a 31dB NRR.
I did not try this with the SureFire plugs alone, for I knew how that would turn out. My experience is that passive in-the-ear protectors, alone, are not adequate when one is on the firing line.
Given an either/or choice of going hot with muffs or plugs, but not both, I will choose the muffs every time. What I am saying, really, is that I do not believe passive ear plugs actually dampen the sound of gunfire as much as the NRR numbers imply. I do not know why this is so, but apparently I am not the only one who believes it.
I notice that fellow shooters who are serious about protecting their hearing will sometimes use muffs without plugs, but very seldom use plugs alone. Plugs may work adequately for .22 rifles and other small firearms, but start shooting the big guns and things get unpleasant. If the person at the next bench or station is shooting something heavy, I want all the ear protection I can get and passive ear plugs alone are not adequate.
One of the claimed benefits of the Ear Shield is that it does not interfere with getting a good cheek weld when shooting a rifle or shotgun. This is absolutely true, for the pods are totally out of the way when one mounts a shotgun or settles into a shooting position with a rifle.
Several days after I had done the initial range test of the Ear Shield, a friend and I went for an afternoon of plinking and silhouette shooting with pistols. I purposely wore the Ear Shield the whole time, never removing it during the 2-1/2 hour session. I forgot I was wearing it after the first fifteen minutes or so and did not feel any discomfort from wearing it for that long.
The Ear Shield is not a one trick pony for me. I have already done a small carpentry project where I found that the Ear Shield does a very good job of taming the scream of a circular saw. It will be a comfortable alternative to muffs or ear plugs while working with loud power tools in the shop.
Next summer, when I am running my lawn mower and weed eater, I definitely plan to wear the Ear Shield. I have been wearing passive earmuffs when doing these chores for years, but they quickly become uncomfortable on a hot day. The Ear Shield should be much cooler.
The hearing protector can be ordered directly from Otis or SensGard and is also available from a number of internet merchandisers (Amazon, MidwayUSA, Optics Planet, etc.) at a modest discount. I have not yet seen it in my local retail outlets.
Promotional copy claims several attributes of the Otis Ear Shield:
I am on board with all of these claims, except the first one. My evaluation is that speech is easier to understand through the Ear Shield than through passive ear muffs. However, properly tuned electronic muffs are better than the Ear Shield in a situation where a lot of communication is necessary.
I mentioned earlier that I got the 31dB Ear Shield. I think this is the right choice for most shooters and all around use. However, I believe the 26dB NRR model would be sufficient if one is only shooting .22 rimfires, or for use in the shop or yard.
I do not foresee the Otis Ear Shield becoming my sole means of hearing protection when shooting, but I expect to use it a lot. It is impressively effective for such a compact and lightweight device. It is easy to put on and comfortable to wear. I anticipate that I will prefer it to my usual muffs plus ear plugs system in hot, humid weather. In addition, it will beat muffs hands down when shotgunning, allowing quick and positive gun mounting. Finally, I expect it to be my go-to hearing protector in the workshop and yard.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.