Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SportEar XP3 Plugz - Gear Review

For quite a while I've been researching, shopping, and otherwise pining after just the right kind of hearing protection.  And I'm damn picky in this regard.  Maybe too picky, given how long I've been looking and how little I've managed to find.  The must-have list is:
  • Protects from the noise of a gun blast but otherwise lets (most) normal sounds through.  Virtually any foam earplug will do an acceptable job of protecting your hearing.  Problem is that you can't hear other guys in the field, you can't hear a covey flush, you can't hear your dog in thick cover, you generally can't hear what you need to hear to do what you came to do.
  • Fits inside the ear.  I've used or tried "ear muff" protection in many forms and while all were effective at reducing noise and some were effective at allowing me to hear normal sounds, I just don't like the bulk.  And they're hot as hell in a September dove field.
  • Doesn't break the bank.  There are models on the market that fit every criteria but this one, and if you have the coin you'd be better off with one of them.  I just don't have upwards of $700 to spend on this accessory.
Shortly before the season opened I saw something on the Orvis website that caught my attention.  The Sportear XP3 Plugz were billed as virtually impossible to lose while boasting hearing that "..remains protected without interfering with your ability to hear what's going on around you in the field". The magic behind the curtain is a patented sound valve that allows low-level noises through while filtering anything above 85 dB.

SportEar XP3 Plugz

A while back I tried a set based on this valve principal that were made by a different manufacturer and they felt like sticks in my ears, and as far as I could tell the sticks didn't shut out much noise. They were cheap, less than $5 a pair, and connected with a string that made them annoying to wear. We parted ways pretty quickly.

The SportEar website had a few more details and I figured for $14.99 (w/o shipping) I'd give them a try. And I'm glad I did.

The XP3s fit very comfortably in the ear and the design prevents them from falling out or accidentally getting bumped out, something I've had happen with normal foam plugs, and often by the time you realize one is missing there's not much hope of finding it.  Here's the manufacturer's video (posted on YouTube - great move, guys) showing how they fit and how to wear them.

They got a thorough workout on my trip to South Dakota.  I clearly heard birds flush, dogs working close by, and others in the field.  In the 20-30 mph winds on our last day I could still hear fairly well.

In the dove field I was able to hear the guys around me calling birds, although if someone on the far end of the field was yelling it was difficult to make out exactly what they were saying.  The one time I went deer hunting this fall I wore them and had no trouble hearing two deer (one of which is now in my freezer) walking through the woods as they approached the food plot.

Hunting quail I had similar results and found these a tad more practical than stopping to insert foam plugs when the dog goes on point. Note: If hunting with multiple children under the age of ten, your ability to hear a dog working out in front is greatly compromised.

An added feature is is a fold-over cap that will increase the NRR to 25 dB (valve-open NRR is 19 dB).  I've used this while cutting the grass and blowing leaves and they're so comfortable that leaving them in for hours is not a problem. Is this effective on screaming kids?  Women who snore?  That rambling idiot next to you on the plane?  Haven't tried them on these.  Yet.

As for possible improvements, I wish they came with a carrying case of some sort.  I had to poke around my closets to find something small that I could store them in.  They'll slide unnoticeably into a pocket but most of my pockets also host dust, grass, crumbled leaves and such, none of which play well with ear canals.

Your money's worth: At roughly $18 shipped to your door these are a bargain.  They stay in your ear better than foam, are comfortable, let most normal sounds pass through while shutting out the loud stuff and are inexpensive enough that you won't feel like a schmuck if you lose one.

Where it comes up short:  If they could figure out a way to let a little bit more low-level sound through this would be the ticket, but it would likely put an end to sales of their higher end products.

Get one if: You want inexpensive, comfortable hearing protection that lets a reasonable amount of normal sound level through.

Look around before shelling out the bucks:  If your hearing is already half-gone, you might have trouble hearing low-level sound through these.  Something with electronic amplification would probably be a better, albeit much more expensive, choice.

Update - November 2013: After about a year of use I noticed that the plugs didn't seem to be keeping out the sound like they used to. Not just gunfire, but any noise in general. I emailed Sportear and Ray Bori, VP of Sales, graciously sent me a new pair. When they arrived I didn't break out the micrometer, but the baffles that go into the ear canal on the new pair looked slightly wider than the old pair.  The new pair filtered all sound, normal and gunfire, better than the older pair and I'm not entirely sure that a year of use hadn't compressed the older pair just enough to lose their effectiveness. They're made of a material that's not supposed to lose its shape over time, but I can't find any other explanation.

I still love these plugs, both fit and function, and at this price I can afford to replace them every year if they lose their fit.


  1. That's cool. I'm definitely getting a pair to try.

  2. Thank you for this review. I spotted these earplugs at a local outdoor sports retailer, and they *seem* like just the thing I've been looking for to wear to the racetrack. Sure, the foam plugs are cheap and functional, and I actually kind of enjoy dulling out the crowd as well, but the foam plugs do get knocked out as you state, and I can't always get the fit right as I'm jogging up the starting lanes. I also have the same sticks-on-a-string, however, and remembering how awful those were kept me from purchasing these. Thanks to your review, I'll pick up a pair before the next race!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.