Once upon a time, earmuffs were mostly used to protect the ears from cold. Many people still use them for this purpose but they have also evolved in both function and design since they were first invented.
We now have noise-canceling earmuffs that are instrumental in blocking out unwanted sounds. Besides giving you the luxury of alone time, they can help protect your hearing from damage, especially in the workplace.
Regular noise-canceling earmuffs share a lot of physical similarities with headphones but they work in different ways.
What are earmuffs?
Noise-canceling earmuffs are worn over the ears to give protection from noise while providing warmth.
They are designed to look like headphones and could be mistaken as such at first glance. Earmuffs are made from thermoplastic or metallic headbands with a cushioned cup that acts as a covering for the outer ear.
This also acts to filter sound and keep you warm. Advancements in technology have meant that some can work as headphones too.
What are earmuffs made from?
In the earliest years, earmuffs were made of nothing but beaver wool, velvet, and some farm wire. Today, all earmuffs use pretty much the same materials for their skeleton: a headband holding two ear cups in place.
This headband may be designed using metal or plastic, depending on who produces it. A variety of different materials are used as ear covering these days. The number one material is still wool, especially in thermal earmuffs, but to prevent allergies, provide warmth and add some style, a lot of synthetic materials are often used.
Acoustic, or noise-canceling earmuffs, have more functions than providing warmth so their design is a lot more detailed. They usually have extra padding, made from materials that are targeted to reduce noise to the barest minimum. The outside is usually made of foam and decorated with other materials, such as faux – or sometimes real – fur.
How do noise-canceling earmuffs work?
When you find yourself in a place where loud sounds are being made, you need to take precautions to protect your hearing. By loud sounds, we mean anything from 85 decibels upwards.
Earmuffs are usually lined with sound-deadening materials. An acoustic foam lining absorbs the sounds coming from the environment by increasing air resistance, which in turn reduces the amplitude of the external sound waves. This process converts the sound waves into heat energy, which is why your ears feel hot when you wear earmuffs.
Normally, earmuffs reduce external sounds by 23 decibels (based on laboratory tests). It has been proven, however, that in real-life situations, it is considerably lesser than that. When choosing earmuffs, you should consider how effective that protection is at different frequencies, depending on where you intend to use them.
To achieve the best results, some people go for dual hearing protection. This involves the simultaneous use of both earmuffs and earplugs in an environment where sounds of more than 103 decibels are being produced.
Types of noise-canceling earmuffs
Noise-canceling earmuffs are also known as acoustic earmuffs or ear defenders. Due to the sound-deadening material used in their production, they resemble a mix of headphones and thermal earmuffs.
On most construction sites, they are incorporated into the hats of the workers. However, they are more generally worn as headbands. People suffering from sleep disorders are advised to make use of these earmuffs to make it easier for them to sleep.
There are two major types of noise-canceling earmuffs. They are:
- Passive earmuffs
- Active earmuffs
These earmuffs employ certain materials to attenuate external sounds. Generally, cupped foam covered with plastic is used to stop sound from passing through.
In some cases, they are equipped with electronic components like microphones as a means of communication between the user and other workers on the same team on a worksite.
A common example of this is factories in which workers are required to receive a general command that goes out to everyone.
These earmuffs employ the use of Active Noise Cancellation technology to block out external sounds.
To do this, they are equipped with an inner circuit, a speaker and a microphone. The modus operandi is very simple. As the microphone picks up sounds, the inner circuit repels them back to the location in which they were produced, canceling the signal completely.
They are most effective against low-frequency signals that run continuously, including airfields, heavy tractors, and diesel locomotives.
Pros of noise-canceling earmuffs
They are super easy to use: all you need to do is pick them up, wear them over your head and ensure they cover your ears. It’s that simple.
They fit easily as they are basically one-size-fits-all, which is why they are mostly used in construction work or at factory sites.
Finally, they provide comfort and warmth, especially in cold regions. They are easy on the ears and therefore can be worn for long periods of time.
Cons of noise-canceling earmuffs
They are not as effective as earplugs as they can only provide protection from sounds that are 103 decibels or less, and your ears will get hot very quickly if you use them in warmer climes. Earmuffs are definitely cold weather gear, unless you have no other choices!
Maintaining earmuff hygiene
Earmuffs are bound to deteriorate after using them for a period of time but you can prolong their shelf-life by caring for them properly.
The first step is to regularly inspect the cushions for any cracks or leaks. If you find any, try to replace the cushion immediately. In fact, the cushions should be replaced every three or four months anyway.
You can wash standard ear cups with mild soap and clean water but don’t do this very frequently if you can help it. They shouldn’t be submerged in the water, just wipe them using a washcloth.
A brief history of earmuffs
To understand any invention, it can be best to start with the first time that invention was ever mentioned or publicized to the world.
The story of earmuffs began in 1873 with a man called Chester Greenwood. His aim was to create a covering for his ears because they were very sensitive and would turn blue from cold during the winter.
While others were comfortable using wool scarves, Chester couldn’t do so himself because they made his skin itch. By leveraging on his grandmother’s sewing skills, he came up with a device that would keep his ears sufficiently warm.
His ear shield was designed with black velvet on the inside and beaver fur on the outside. He used farm wire to create a headband so that he could wear it over his head. In less than no time, kids in the neighborhood were demanding their own ear shields from their parents.
Earmuffs didn’t hit the scene as an instant success. Chester saw a flaw in them that needed to be fixed. The ear coverings flapped about a lot and that didn’t keep his ears warm enough. This led to him changing the band to flat spring steel and as a result, the ears were firmer against his head.
Shortly after this, earmuffs became a phenomenon as not just kids but everyone else wanted them. Chester Greenwood was 18-years-old at the time but, in 1877, he bagged an award from the US Patent Office.
Noise-canceling earmuffs are a great investment for your hearing, especially when you work in noisy environments. Choose from a range of different styles and sizes to suit your specific needs, and you’ll be good to go.