A recent deep-dive into a custom rifle build and components, along with some bigger (for me, anyway) rifle hunts, prompted me to consider more consciously protecting my hearing while shooting and hunting. I knew I would be spending more time behind a bench dialing in my new rifle and simply becoming a more competent shot at ranges typically not encountered in my primarily eastern hunting adventures.
Why Hearing Protection?
I’m still young and passed my last hearing test just fine, but I’ve heard plenty of stories on the ’slide and elsewhere about poor forethought in younger years impacting—sometimes in big ways—hearing in older years. I’ve decided I’d like to avoid or at least mitigate that as much as possible.
In the past, I’ve rolled up foam plugs or grabbed a set of muffs with dry-rotted foam from the truck. And they did the job for the few rifle and shotgun rounds I fired each year as I was primarily a bowhunter. But with significantly increased trigger pulls ahead, I began the search for something better.
Ultimately, a solution that provided fantastic protection was priority number one. But I knew there were available, modern options that provide excellent ear protection while also reducing bulk, increasing ease of use, and, in some cases, are capable of remaining in-ear throughout a hunt or practice session without hindering the ability to hear unharmful sounds. I quickly found some filtered (both electronic and non-electronic) options that do just that: allow softer sounds to reach the inner ear while blocking loud, harmful noises.
The search led me to OtoPro Technologies, which is headed up by Dr. Grace Sturdivant. Grace is a trained audiologist who also happens to be an avid outdoorswoman. In short, she knows the damaging sounds hunters and shooters encounter and has the know-how to offer hearing conservation solutions for these situations. You may have heard Grace speak on a number of hunting and outdoor podcasts – if so, you know she’s passionate about her work and the people who use her products.
Grace was kind enough to hop on the phone with me to discuss my needs. I wanted a solution that would be multi-purpose—something I could use while hunting, woodworking, and running power equipment. An added bonus would be the ability to use hearing conservation devices to stream audio.
Grace recommended OtoPro’s SoundGear Phantom custom-fit electronic devices and OtoPro Impulse passive (non-electronic) devices. Now, these devices are on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding price and features, but both provide filtered hearing and fantastic ear protection.
After using them both through range sessions, hunting season, and around the house and yard, I’ll provide my review.
OtoPro SoundGear Phantom
These devices are made by SoundGear, a company specializing in just that – ear protection devices. OtoPro serves as a retailer for the SoundGear brand, but they also have specific filter specifications that they use to tailor the final product to the users’ needs. These devices require custom fitting, so you’ll need to visit a local audiologist to get custom impressions made.
OtoPro’s Team Leads You Through The Entire Process
First, they put me in touch with a local audiologist – OtoPro has a network of audiologists they already use. If they don’t have an audiologist in your area, they’ll find a trusted doctor and make the connection. This was the case for me, but OtoPro handled the connection and found me someone within a few miles. I simply had to confirm my appointment and show up.
Second, I headed into town to get my impressions. Audiologists constantly take ear impressions for hearing aids and other devices, so it’s a straightforward process. They simply inject a soft foam into each ear to get an impression. Purchasers do have to pay for this service, but it’s pretty reasonable. I paid $25 for mine. The technician boxed up my impressions and sent me on my way.
Third, OtoPro provided me with a prepaid shipping label that I used to send my impressions directly to SoundGear. OtoPro handles the tracking. Turnaround from impressions to Phantoms in-hand was about two weeks.
OtoPro reached out to me to offer setup assistance and ensure I was satisfied with both my purchase and their service.
The Phantoms are incredibly comfortable. Even over long periods, they were better than my Apple AirPods and other earbuds I’ve used. Connecting the Phantoms to my iPhone wasn’t as straightforward as connecting a regular Bluetooth device, but it was still easy enough. OtoPro’s customer service is likely the best I’ve ever experienced. I can’t say enough good things about OtoPro as a company.
Very Easy To Use
It didn’t take long to get the hang of using the Phantoms. iOS recognizes the devices as hearing aids, and built-in settings in the operating system allow the user to control the Phantoms. The devices can also be controlled by buttons and dials on the devices themselves.
The Phantoms come pre-programmed with four memory modes, each designed for a different use, such as ‘normal’ yard work, shooting sessions, high wind, etc. Memory settings are toggled with a push button on each device. Each device also has a rotary volume knob to adjust the device’s microphone volume and streaming volume.
Not only do the Phantoms allow normal sounds, such as rustling leaves or conversation, to pass through the device, but they also amplify that sound. This was a new experience for me. I could hear the fibers of my carpet brushing my socks, and once outside, birds chirping, kids playing, and other neighborhood sounds were amplified.
This is incredibly helpful in hunting situations where the user may want to keep ear protection in-ear while hunting. We often rely on our ears to hear game or ensure our calling sounds realistic, and the Phantoms allow for those advantages but amplified! There’s no remembering to ‘put on your ears’ when the moment of truth arrives – they’re already in.
The benefit of electronic hearing protection was also apparent as I spent some range time with buddies. I could clearly converse with them between shots without ever moving a hand to my ear.
A box of ammo through a rifle with a muzzle brake was no match for the Phantoms. Each shot registered as a quick and tolerable ‘pop.’ The Phantoms provide 22 decibels (dB) noise reduction rating (NRR) while allowing for up to 30 dB of amplification, depending on your hearing needs. Battery life is up to 23 hours, including 4 hours of audio streaming (or 16 hours with continuous streaming).
I had some travel scheduled for both work and pleasure this winter, and I was eager to use my Phantoms on the plane to cancel unwanted noise and stream podcasts, music, and video. They did all of that without a hitch – the noise cancellation was clutch, but the streaming audio quality was not quite as good as my AirPods.
Another use for the Phantoms I immediately thought of was for Zoom and Teams meetings. But, my laptop, which is five years old now, isn’t set up to pair with hearing devices. And as I mentioned above, the Phantoms don’t connect via a typical Bluetooth connection. So, no luck there. This, and the slight room for improvement in audio streaming quality, are my only ‘complaints’ with the Phantoms after months of use.
While available for purchase from other vendors, I can’t recommend purchasing through OtoPro enough. Grace and her team know hunters’ ears and will ensure you’re completely satisfied with your purchase.
The Phantoms are not cheap – they run $1600 for the pair. I considered it a good investment to conserve my hearing for my older years while negating the excuses of inconvenience or forgetfulness for not using ear protection. I especially think that the Phantoms make sense financially for anyone who does high-volume shooting, including range bums, competition shooters, sporting clay enthusiasts, or waterfowlers.
A Less Expensive Option
OtoPro realizes that this investment doesn’t make sense for everyone, and they offer a series of hearing conservation products for every level. These include custom-fit, passive devices, and their newest product: the Impulse.
The OtoPro Impulse provides non-electronic hear-through protection that’s customizable and offered at a price that anyone should be able to justify. At $50, you get two sets of silicon ear tips (size medium and large, with the option to swap for small and extra-large by request) and OtoPro’s specialized Impulse filters. The Impulse filters are designed to protect your ears from the types of noises hunters and shooters encounter, while allowing ‘normal’ noises to reach the ear drum.
The Impulse line is also modular and customizable – OtoPro makes filters for a variety of uses, including for construction yards, industrial settings and dental offices. The filters are designed for specific sound durations, pitches and activities. You can purchase additional filters from OtoPro, and they plug right in to the silicon ear tips. Similarly, to improve comfort and performance, you can have custom impressions made of your ears, and the resulting plugs will accept the Impulse series of filters.
I found the included silicon tips to be comfortable, and the filters were fantastic. I could indeed have a ‘normal’ conversation while wearing the Impulse plugs, but they did exactly what you would expect good plugs to do when encountering gunfire and other loud noises. They certainly don’t allow for enhanced hearing like the Phantoms, but they work well enough. The Impulse earplugs are certified at 33 dB NRR for impulse noise up to 166 dB. Meanwhile, they provide low attenuation of only 5 dB, allowing those normal sounds to enter the ear still.
Conclusion: How Do You Decide?
So, which is better, or which should you buy? Undoubtedly, the Phantoms provide incredible technology and provide a better all-around experience. They have more uses, provide more features, and should last forever. But they were expensive. I’d recommend these for folks who spend a lot of time shooting – be it at the range or in a blind. They also make sense for those who hunt in situations where shots happen quickly, and there’s no time (or the hunter is forgetful) to put in plugs. I also think the Phantoms excel for hunters or shooters who have already experienced some form of hearing damage. The amplification of everyday noises is a huge bonus, and they let you really focus on the specific sounds you want to hear.
The Impulses should be on everyone’s wish list. They’re affordable, can be worn throughout a hunt with limited hearing impairment (though, they’re likely better suited for those who encounter hunting situations where there’s time to place plugs in one’s ears), and can be upgraded as needs and funds allow. They’re especially perfect for the casual shooter, standard yardwork, or occasional loud noises at work. The big downfall for me is a lack of streaming – I like to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks when I’m working around the house. But, for non-electronic plugs, I’m not sure you can do better.
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