Trying out the latest hearing protection

James Marchington tries out the latest in electronic hearing protection from Mercury Custom Plugs

James found the plugs very comfortable to wear for extended periods of time

How times change! As a teenager, my dad lectured me about the importance of protecting my hearing when shooting, and handed me a square of loo roll.

I would tear it in half, roll up the pieces and stuff one in each ear. Job done, except at least one of them would fall out before I’d gone 100 yards. Nowadays, any shooter worth their salt will have something almost as sophisticated as their iPhone in their ears – and costing nearly as much too. It’s all progress, and with luck those taking up shooting today won’t have my persistent ringing sound in their ears when they reach my age.

Having worked my way through squidgy foam plugs, Sonics, and a variety of passive and active muffs, I thought I had found the ideal solution. I’ve been wearing a set of moulded plugs with passive filters from Mercury Custom Plugs for game shooting.

At a clay ground I’d use Peltor SportTac headphones, which I’ve found give excellent protection but remain comfortable, if sweaty, for extended periods of time.

Then at the London Fishing and Shooting Fair earlier this year, Darren collared me as I passed the Mercury stand and urged me to “have a look at this” with a conspiratorial tone, as if he was about to pull some contraband from under the table. In fact it was much more exciting than that; he had what he told me was the very first sample of the Otto Noizebarrier Micro to reach the UK.

It’s a kit based around a pair of sophisticated electronic plugs which promise military-grade hearing protection, with up to 40dB of noise reduction when it matters, and the ability to amplify soft sounds up to five times.

If that wasn’t clever enough, they come in a pocket-sized waterproof plastic box which incorporates a battery as well as various accessories. When you’re not wearing the plugs, pop them in the case and they are charged up from the battery, which will top up the plugs’ charge multiple times before needing charging itself with a standard USB cable.

The plugs and case have a reassuringly military feel about them. This is not just a marketing trick – Otto in the USA make a whole range of military gear, from SWAT team headsets to attack helicopter joysticks.

The plugs are controlled by a simple push button on each unit

When they say these things are rugged, they’re not talking about a tough day down at the Skeet range. I don’t plan testing the box by running it over with a tank, but it would certainly survive being sat on by a couple of labradors in the back of the car.

So I was certainly impressed when Darren showed me the kit, and even more so when he explained that he could take an impression of my ears and supply the kit with moulded plugs to fit precisely into my lugholes.

The basic Otto kit comes with the option of flanged plugs or squashable foam plugs, and the foam ones get a noise reduction rating of 28dB, which is as good as many over-the-ear muffs. I figured a moulded plug had to be better still.

So I submitted to the indignity of having my ears filled with goo from what looked like a builder’s mastic gun, and in due course my plugs arrived. As a proud Brit, of course I had gone for the red white and blue option, but if you wanted pink sparkles or plain orange or whatever, Mercury can oblige.

This was the moment of truth. Ratings and specifications are all very well, but until you actually stick the things in your ears, you have little idea how they will feel in real life.

Manufacturers never suggest it, but a quick lick works wonders when you’re fitting plugs and these were no different. I soon had the Otto inserts fitted into the plugs, worked out which ear was which and pushed the plugs into my ears with a slight twisting movement to ‘screw’ them in.

Don’t take that too literally, but your ear canals are slightly curved, so a small amount of rotation is needed – anticlockwise for the right ear, and clockwise for the left. The opposite rotation will help when the time comes to remove them.

Using my passive plugs, I have learned that it’s important to make sure they are fully in, with the relevant part of the plug hooked under the flangy bit at the upper front edge of your ear. That way they stay put, rather than working loose and allowing sound to sneak in through any gaps.

Plugs inserted, it was time to switch on, and… wow! OK, I haven’t owned any other high-end electronic plugs so I can’t give you a subjective comparison. But the clarity of sound is close to wearing no plugs at all.

If you press the button twice you enter the enhanced mode, with every tiny sound amplified so that walking on gravel sounds like a tipper truck emptying its load. Handy if you’re listening out for a bird breaking cover, or a squirrel scritching up a tree trunk.

The sound reduction on firing the gun is equally impressive, and as expected I found the moulded plugs extremely comfortable to wear for hours at a time, certainly much more pleasant than wearing headphones, especially on a hot day.

It’s a cliché, but I honestly did forget I was wearing them. The controls are simple and intuitive – just one large button which you press and hold for a second or two to toggle between the modes or switch on and off. Drawbacks? None really, although inevitably you have to remove the inserts from the mouldings each time in order to place them in the charger case.

All in all I was hugely impressed. Whether or not they’re impressive enough to part with £699 is up to you. It’s a lot of money when you can protect your hearing with disposable foam plugs for a few pennies – but then these allow you to enjoy the experience so much more, whether you’re shooting game or clays. And of course you can’t put a price on your hearing.

Find out more at mercurycustomplugs.com, or track down the Mercury team at all the major shows and game fairs.

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