Driving snow pellets shot into the back of my neck as I sat hunched in my treestand waiting for the gnarly old whitetail to cruise a ridgeline trail in the waning winter light. I hadn’t seen him in two days, but maybe with the rotten weather my luck would change. As I felt the darkness of the winter cold chisel down my spine, I settled in, anticipating an evening full of activity. I tugged my cap to keep the snow from pecking at my eyes, and there he was, a heavy-antlered brown blur, hustling below my stand, trotting quickly down a rarely used trail that ran smack beneath my tree. I jumped, startled, at the apparition. As quickly as he appeared, he was gone. I never tightened my bowstring because I never even heard him coming.
That was then.
Hunter-Focused Hearing Devices
Like a lot of hunters, my hearing isn’t as good as it once was. Many hunters suffer hearing impairments from a lifetime of gunshot blasts, construction jobs, accidents, heavy machinery, table saws, mowers, rock music, and more. Mine, according to my audiologist, was from exposure to loud farm machinery when I was a lad, plowing my father’s alfalfa ground under with tractors sporting sad mufflers. All those extremely loud things take a toll on hearing, and creeping up in age doesn’t help matters any. You break a leg, it heals; you cut your hand, it goes on the mend. Hearing loss is permanent, and with time it just gets increasingly worse.
For avid bowhunters who use sight, sound, and smell as their arsenal of tools in the quest for quarry, having one of the key senses impaired can cost you the shot of a lifetime.
But there’s help.
There are now myriad electronic devices to enhance hearing for sportsmen, many of which not only digitally massage incoming sound, but simultaneously protect ears from loud sudden noises, like gunshot blasts.
They come in two basic categories. Ready-made, which is an off-the-shelf product that fits anyone’s ears and is ready to go, and custom-made, a more high-end device that usually encompasses a host of customizable features fit to an individual’s ear canals.
And, like everything else in life, you usually get what you pay for.
Zach Meyer, a representative of WildEar Hearing Boosters, explains the difference. “A ready-wear product is a ‘take what you get’ device. It might work for you, or it might not. It might fit, it might not. In my estimation, it gets down to the fit of it. When I’m taking silicone impressions of people’s ears to make custom ear boosters, I’ve seen giant ear canals like a one-inch drill bit down to a really small ear canal, like the tip of a fork. Everyone is built so differently.
“Our product is all about fit and comfort. Some customers will wear them constantly for a seven-day hunt out West.” They can prove useful in other ways outside of hunting, too, he explains. “Custom fits are a lot of money, and you really want to get it right so that you’ll reap the benefits of it. For bowhunting, our Master series has a venting system, which is a hole in the shell that vents the ear, leaving it open like normal hearing, only with amplification. It creates a sound bypass, so when you don’t need protection from gun blasts, as in bowhunting, it does away with that ‘plugged ear’ sensation, leaving the ears feeling more open and natural. When shooting a gun, you put the plug back in. Best of both worlds.”
Meyer continued, “A lot of people who hunt will wear them all the time. Hearing boosters are not technically a hearing aid, so due to state health licensing regulations we can’t call ours a ‘hearing aid,’ but we get calls all the time from hunters who say that just using them has changed their daily life. One guy was turning up the TV to level 70 so he could hear, and his wife who had more normal hearing liked it set at 12. That fixed that daily life problem for them. Now they’re both fine at 12!”
Products marketed to hunters are known as enhancement devices, or boosters, and can be bought over the counter by anyone. In order to call a device a hearing aid, most states regulate the licensing of them to include examinations, audiology testing, and custom fitting after the initial visits, and more. According to Meyer, all the hearing aids carry technically the same physical makeup as most hearing devices. To get away from the regulatory portion of the sales, “We choose to call ours a hearing enhancement device.”
Some expensive digital hearing aids, up over $4,000 a pair, still can’t be used for the shooting of firearms because they don’t incorporate baffling technology. Therefore wearers aren’t protected from harmful sounds, chain saws, lawn mowers, pistols, rifles and shotguns. Meyer continued, “So we’ll fit our units with our baffle technology, and with the other mechanical advantages we enhance their hearing for hunting as well.”
Ben Smith of Walker’s Game Ear says that his company has found that archery hunters typically gravitate towards their Game Ear HD Elite BTE (behind-the-ear) models. Even though all of their BTE models feature what they call a Sound Activated Compression (SAC) circuit for hearing protection as well as amplification, Smith mentioned they usually jump right to their high-end model that features Adjustable Frequency Tuning (AFT). Most archers like adjustable tuning, and if they know they’re going to buy a unit, they want the best of the best. Many of their higher-end units, like those of other manufacturers, offer adjustable frequency tuning or variable levels of adjustment to bass and treble. “Some hunters have hearing loss in one or both ears and can customize adjustments to each ear individually. This is important since each ear’s ability to hear is different,” Smith continued.
Smith said, “With regards to our gun hunters and shooters, our buyer is different. Most don’t require the highest quality digital sound and simply want protection first and amplification second. Even though we offer a high-end digital muff, the majority of our Walker’s Game Ear muffs with analog sound quality work just fine for the average shooter. It is important to note that there’s a big difference in quality among manufacturers. As referenced earlier, we utilize a SAC. With an inferior circuit, you’ll hear the unit shut on and off between muzzleblasts, and it will not come back on for close to a full second.
“With our SAC circuit,” Smith says, “the harmful sound waves between 85 and 90 decibels are compressed instantly with an extremely fast response time, eliminating the annoyance of the unit clicking on and off continuously while shooting. Our muffs will also amplify any safe noises under 85 decibels up to five or nine times depending on the model. This allows you to shoot all day with comfort, all while having the hearing amplification you need to hear range commands or carry on a casual conversation, and still protect your hearing from harmful muzzleblasts. I have found if you can demonstrate to a shooter the differences by putting muffs on their head, they’ll buy them on the spot.”
Price points at retail from various manufacturers run from $25 for a one-ear low-end analog device to nearly $1,100 for a fully customized fitted pair for bowhunting and firearms use. High-end units can incorporate four microphones for better directional sound, up to five times normal hearing compensation, and more.
There are a few other differences, too. For instance, WildEars have a lanyard system built in, so they can be worn around the neck until needed, with less chance for loss, but the lanyard can be removed for freedom of movement in case it gets caught up in clothing. Zach Meyer explains, “We get lots of kudos for the lanyard, especially from duck hunters…it’s an integral part of the WildEar system. Our company is made up of hunters and shooters, and we design the product for our contemporaries. We field test with real hunters and shooters all the time and use their feedback to improve our products.” With WildEar a user can experience up to five times normal hearing ability, changeable in half-point clicks. Ten volume bumps up or down. Meyer says, “So, for using them for pheasant hunting, walking through tall grass with sounds highly amplified might prove bothersome for some hunters, but with the wide variance in hearing ability and loss, customizable levels of enhancement are a good idea.”
Most high-end units from various manufacturers offer level changes and programming.
One problem? Guard those little jewels. I’ve lost two pairs to dogs. Ear wax that builds up on the outside of the plastic cases attracts inquisitive pups. I’ve left mine on the dashboard and on the console of my truck, only to come back and discover munched-up electronics my Jack Russells and Labs thought were chew toys.
Lasting Silicone Impressions
All custom ear fittings need the wearer to get an impression, made of a gooey silicone substance that sets up and creates a mold, which the manufacturer builds out with electronics to make your ears your own. Zach Meyer states, “On my impressions I try to get up into the second bend of the ear canal so they can be worn sunup to sundown for a week straight with no irritation…that’s the most important detail. Our kit doesn’t take long to set up, and it comes with directions as well as a link to a YouTube video. It’s an at-home kit, but to make good impressions it’s a two-person job, so get a buddy or wife or someone to help with that.”
Steve Personius of Delano, Minnesota, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran, was a perfect candidate for hearing enhancement. Struggling with sounds while bowhunting was a real frustration for him. His biggest revelation after wearing a single Walker Game Ear unit? “Volume. Once I put it on, I could hear more things. Considering I have really poor hearing, that was a big improvement. In a hunting environment, if it is quiet and no wind, I could hear animals walking and could distinguish between a squirrel, a rabbit, or a deer. And if they were feeding, I could hear them crunching on kernels of corn, and the rustling of the leaves of dry corn as they walked toward my bow. Pretty exciting. I don’t think I’d heard that since I was a kid.”
Personius used a single enhancement product first and was so intrigued he later picked up a set of behind-the-ear digital devices, which matched up both his ears. With a single ear enhanced, he had a hard time telling the exact location of where sounds were coming from. “With a matched pair,” he said, “I had my normal ears back.” Directionality was back, for him.
“Being able to adjust volume is also a big help,” Personius continued. “If I could hear something that was on the edge, I could turn my ears up and hear better. Flip side of that, wind noise also covers everything else up, so sometimes the amplifiers were less effective.”
He wears them all the time because, once he was able to regain hearing ability, it was hard to not use them in daily life. “When I go visit my boys at their house, they have the television volume set so low that I’m not sure the TV is even on. Once I put the digital ears on, I could hear just as well as they do.”
And his best story. “I sat in my ground blind, busy focusing on five whitetail does in a clearing out front. I was thinking about sending an arrow into a doe for meat when I detected a slight rustling sound off to my left in the thick woods. I decided to wait it out, and an 8-point buck sneaked into view. I waited him out, and when he got into position,” he said, “I drew an arrow and sent that big sucker into the freezer.”
The information presented in this article is not medical advice; it is intended for general information purposes only. If you suspect a hearing loss or other hearing disorder, see a licensed audiologist for a hearing evaluation or an otolaryngologist for medical diagnosis and treatment.
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