Hearing protection is a topic I feel very strongly about, due to personal experience with the hearing damage than can quickly accumulate when unprotected ears are exposed to loud environments. In my teen years, during the late 1980’s, a good friend of mine organized several road trips to rock concerts in nearby cities. Every single one of these concerts was at an indoor arena of some sort, and after every one of those concerts my body was sending me warning signals that I was damaging my hearing. In those days, though, there were no tables with volunteers handing out free pairs of foam earplugs, and I had no idea I was permanently damaging my hearing. As a result, I have persistent tinnitus in my right ear, and mild hearing loss in certain frequency ranges, all 100% preventable with proper hearing protection.
These days, I’m deadly serious about my hearing protection. I double up with earplugs and over-the-ear muffs at indoor ranges, so the advent of decent affordable electronic over-the-ear (muff-type) hearing protection was very welcome. Amplified ear-pro allows me to turn up the volume a bit so normal sounds get past the earplugs, but I still get full protection when a loud sound triggers the suppression circuit. For the last 3+ years I’ve used the ubiquitous Howard Leight Impact Sports, which are an excellent budget option for electronic ear-pro. When I got serious about shooting, though, it was time for something that would be comfortable being worn all day, survive any weather conditions, and deliver great sound quality. Oh, and it had to be hat- and helmet-compatible…
Enter the MSA Sordin Supreme Pro-X Neckband hearing protection headset, the choice of professional trigger-pullers and hardcore beard-wearing operator types world-wide. (If you think I’m kidding about who uses these, check out pretty much any recent picture of an American special forces hitter in A-stan or Iraq.) That name is a mouthful, though, so let’s decode that product ID:
MSA Sordin: In 2004, US safety equipment giant MSA Corp acquired Sordin AB of Sweden and their entire line of hearing protection products. In an excellent example of how institutions refer to stuff by whatever is printed on the side when the first unit shows up, MSA hearing protectors are still referred to as “MSA Sordins” or just “Sordins” by folks who wear them to work in hard-use environments.
Supreme: Active electronic MSA ear-pro made for hard-use conditions with ridiculously awesome battery life
Pro-X: top-of-the-line digital sound enhancement circuitry, waterproof microphones, waterproof battery compartment, and a 3.5mm aux input
Neckband: over-the-top tension wires are replaced with a soft adjustable suspension strap, enabling comfortable wear with any headgear; tension wires are around back in a neckband arrangement positioned to sit below the rear lip of a helmet
Product Details: the good, the bad, and the inconvenient
Good: Extremely comfortable for all-day wear, especially with the optional gel ear-cups. Neckband style works equally well over an “operator cap” (aka ballcap with velcro panels), or under a hardhat or helmet. Amplification is amazingly good, and operates in true stereo with forward-biased microphones that mimic the directionality of unaided human hearing. Can be turned up loud enough to hear a coyote moving through a field at midnight, or down to minimize distraction in a noisy environment. Batteries last bloody forever, so always install top-quality new ones that won’t leak.
Bad: You get what you pay for — pay for the best, complain once VS buy entry-level product, complain every time you use it. The sound quality is 100% optimized for passing through ambient sound, so music brought in through the 3.5mm aux jack sound surprisingly awful. (When I wear these to the indoor range, instead of foam earplugs I frequently wear a pair of Nuforce in-ear headphones with Comply foam tips. None of the ear-pro I’ve tried has been worth crap as headphones for music, so the 3.5mm aux jack is a “doesn’t matter” feature to me.) In other words, there’s basically nothing worth considering “bad” where the Sordins Pro-X’s are concerned.
Inconvenient: One downside to the forward-biased mics combined with the neckband setup is that you can’t simply flip them around backwards in situations where that would be helpful, i.e. at a shooting school where the instructors are behind you all day. The volume control has very few steps between the quietest and loudest settings, and it took me quite a few sessions wearing them before I could remember which button was “volume up” on the first try as there’s no way to distinguish them by touch. It seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to make the vol-up button point up, and the vol-down button point down.
Mildly Annoying: At higher volume levels, the microphones are extremely sensitive to wind noise. I’m actively looking for fuzzy-kitten type microphone covers of the right size/shape to fit over the Sordin mics. If you happen to have a source for such, please let me know in the comments!
Professional grade ear-pro is not cheap. The uber-popular Howard Leights run around US$50, while my Pro-X Neckbands with the upgraded gel earcups were US$320 shipped. (These are NOT the sort of ear-pro you can find on Amazon Prime, which makes TheTrevor sad, as I would gladly buy everything but groceries via Amazon Prime if I could.)
Frankly, I haven’t been particularly impressed by the mid-range (US$90-$150) hearing protectors either. In my experience, they tend to add slightly more passive hearing protection than the Leights, which is basically negated by my practice of wearing plugs+muffs in environments where that would be useful. The sound quality isn’t significantly better than the Leights, and if anything, the electronics of the mid-range units seem to be slightly less durable and draw more power to boot.
So why would you pay that much for ear-pro, when for the same dollars you could buy Leight Impact Sports for your whole family? If you find the Leights comfortable for your uses, and you don’t spend much time in ear-pro, then there’s no reason to buy Sordins. Full stop. Just be sure to wear foam earplugs underneath them when you shoot indoors, or in close proximity to other folks running carbines or rifles.
If, on the other hand, you’re a serious shooter who may wear ear-pro all day during a week-long shooting school then go shoot a match that weekend, then the Sordins will pay off in 3 ways:
Quality: The Sordin Supreme Pro-X headsets are built hell-for-stout, and will keep working if you feed them good quality batteries and take decent care of them. I installed a new pair of Duracell AAAs in mine when I got them a few months back, and I set myself a calendar reminder to change out the batteries on 1 Jan 2015. Despite heavy use I expect that date will roll around before the Sordins demand a new set of batteries.
Comfort: With the gel earcups installed, I can wear these with headwear and eye pro all day long for weeks with zero discomfort. They’re adjustable to fit all sorts of noggin sizes and shapes.
Utility: The sound quality is stellar, and they’re great for anything from hunting song-dogs in the Northern California wilderness at midnight to hearing both class commands and quiet 1:1 feedback from an instructor during an all-day shooting school. If I were hunting bad guys, indoors or out, I’d want a pair of these to do double-duty as hearing protection AND hearing enhancement.
Highly recommended — don’t touch mine without permission or you might lose a body part.
If you do make the jump to a pair of Sordins, or you’re thinking really hard about getting them, check out my Pro-Tips guide for the MSA Sordin Supreme series of hearing protectors.