Many readers have asked me for suggestions for true wireless earbuds and noise reduction earmuffs that work well together.
Others already own a specific earbud model (e.g., Soundcore A40, AirPods Pro) and are wondering which earmuffs would be compatible, if any at all.
In this post I’d like to point you in the right direction and give you some data, but also caveats and warnings; please read the complete article.
Why would you want to wear earbuds together with earmuffs?
- You want to improve on the everyday noise reduction performance of your earbuds (e.g., while studying, relaxing, vacuuming, or on an airplane).
- You want to boost everyday low frequency noise reduction of both active noise cancelling earbuds buds and earmuffs (e.g., to cope with your neighbor’s subwoofer bass or party box).
I don’t recommend using consumer earbuds underneath earmuffs in hearing protection situations. The charts and conclusions in this post are not meant for such situations. See below for more details.
If you need hearing protectors with audio or the ability to communicate, rated ear defenders with Bluetooth and a volume limiter are readily available.
What kinds of earbuds work best with earmuffs?
In my experience, small stemless true wireless earbuds (left image) work much better underneath earmuffs than stem-based models. The stem of all stem-based buds (e.g., AirPods Pro) I have tried so far interferes to some degree with fit and wearing comfort.
That said, there is a trick you can try to make some stem-based models work underneath earmuffs (see AirPods section below).
If you have the budget, I would go for a small stemless model with active noise cancellation (such as the Soundcore A40).
See my Soundcore A40 test and review for more info on these earbuds.
This gives you a couple of advantages:
- The ANC helps to improve on the low frequency noise reduction performance of your earmuffs (chart below).
- When you wear true wireless earbuds (that seal your ear) underneath muffs, body-generated sounds (own voice, chewing), walking impact sounds, and the sound of your heart beat can become amplified. For example, with every step you might hear an annoying thump.
Active noise cancellation helps a lot to reduce this unwanted noise amplification.
Note: this so-called occlusion effect can occur even when you wear earbuds alone, but it becomes more disturbing when you wear ear defenders on top and move around.
If you are mostly sitting still and just want relief from chatter, crying, etc. while listening to your music or podcast, a model without ANC (e.g., the JLAB Go Air Pop) is an economical alternative. Just note that earbuds without ANC are not very effective against bass noise.
Which noise reduction earmuffs work well with earbuds?
Two aspects mainly determine how well earmuffs fit over earbuds, ear cup opening size and inner ear cup depth.
I have tested several models. The following earmuffs worked well for me when wearing true wireless earbuds underneath:
- Peltor Sport Ultimate (NRR 30, my preference when wearing earbuds)
- 3M Pro-Grade (NRR 30) (essentially the same as the Sport Ultimate but in red)
- Peltor Sport Bull’s Eye (NRR 27) (same ear pads as Sport Ultimate, lower profile and lighter, but less noise attenuation)
See my comparison of the Peltor Sport and Pro-Grade earmuffs for more details.
All three earmuffs have the same ear pads, sufficient ear cup depth, and foam lining that is recessed enough so it doesn’t push against the earbuds.
The above-mentioned true wireless earbuds work with these muffs using the standard foam ear pads.
But, if you need more comfort, 3M even offers inexpensive, optional gel cushions that fit all three earmuffs. Gels give you even larger ear cup openings.
I also tested the Honeywell Verishield VS130 (NRR 30, review) as an alternative to the above-mentioned muffs.
I find them comfortable with earbuds and compared to wearing the buds alone they too improved things a lot.
However, compared to only wearing the VS130 muffs, the performance of the combination was quite a bit worse against mid frequency noise.
So, in terms of noise attenuation, adding earbuds to muffs was not always benign.
The following muffs don’t work so well with earbuds
The excellent Peltor X5A (NRR 31) (and X4A) have much smaller ear cup openings and interfere with many earbuds to some degree. The Howard Leight Leightning L3 have a block of foam isolation that reduces the inner ear cup depth significantly and can push against the buds.
How much noise reduction did I get with the combination vs earbuds/earmuffs alone?
- The following chart and discussion are meant as guidance and inspiration for everyday annoyance reduction only, not hearing protection! Don’t take this instead of noise reduction ratings or official attenuation data.
- There is quite a bit of variability in the noise reduction depending on how well the earbuds seal.
The following chart shows the average noise reduction against pulsed noises at increasing frequencies (1/3rd octave steps) I have been getting when wearing:
- Soundcore A40 ANC earbuds, with ANC set to high
- Peltor Sport Ultimate earmuffs (NRR 30)
- A40 earbuds (ANC set to high) underneath Sport Ultimate muffs
For everyday noise reduction, wearing the Ultimate muffs on top of the A40 buds (red line) provided a huge benefit across the frequency range compared to wearing the earbuds alone (blue line).
Adding the muffs allowed me to shut out most normal environmental noises and listen to music, podcasts, or white noise at a much lower volume.
Compared to wearing the earmuffs alone (black line), the A40 earbuds helped mainly against low frequency noise <250 Hz, and there they helped a lot. The earmuffs also boosted the active noise cancellation of the earbuds in the same frequency range, so the two devices were synergistic.
So if you want help against bass noise (e.g., neighbor’s party), the combination makes a big difference compared to wearing either device alone.
Against mid- and high frequency noise (crying, birds, screaming, etc.) the earbuds didn’t really add to the excellent noise reduction of the muffs.
In fact, depending on the fit, adding earbuds did even negatively affect mid frequency noise reduction of the muffs to some degree.
Playing a masking sound (e.g., white noise) via the earbuds helps to drown out the remainder of such noises.
- This potential negative effect is not something I am concerned about when it comes to everyday annoyance reduction. The performance still beats the earbuds by a mile.
- However, this is one reason why I don’t recommend the combination for hearing protection.
How can you make AirPods Pro (and some other stem-based buds) work with earmuffs?
AirPods Pro’s stem extends beyond the pinna. They don’t fit well under earmuffs, but there is a trick you can use to make them work:
Swap the left and the right earbud and put them in your ear upside down. That way the stem faces upward and doesn’t extend outward.
How well did this work for me?
Inserted upside-down, the Pro still passed the AirPods fit test for me, and they fit underneath the Peltor Sport Ultimate and Bull’s eye earmuffs. They also worked underneath the Honeywell VS130.
The obvious downside is that the audio channels are reversed, so this isn’t a solution for audiophiles, but I find it good enough for some easy listening and podcasts.
To be clear, if you are specifically looking for earbuds to wear underneath your muffs, I don’t recommend getting the AirPods Pro.
But, if you already have these buds (as many of us do), you can try this workaround.
 Hat tip to Himni for the upside-down tip (Reddit).
Why I don’t recommend wearing earbuds underneath muffs when you need hearing protection
- Unlike rated Bluetooth hearing protection earmuffs, consumer earbuds typically don’t limit the audio volume to a safe level. You might get protection from external noise only to damage your hearing by listening to music at an unsafe level.
- You might inadvertently crank up the volume of you earbuds to keep your audio from being drowned out by loud machinery and thereby miss cues that your hearing protector is insufficient.
- At certain frequencies, I have found a negative impact on the noise attenuation when adding earbuds underneath compared to when wearing muffs alone. For some combinations this negative effect may be small or non-existent, but you can’t be sure.
- Combining muffs and buds is different from doubling up with foam earplugs, which are much more adaptable to ear canal changes. Earbuds sit loosely at the ear canal entrance and the fit can change over the course of a couple of hours or in response to muff adjustments.
If you need hearing protectors with audio, consider Bluetooth earmuffs with a noise reduction rating instead. If you additionally need the ability to communicate plus situational awareness in high noise environments, the 3M Pro-Comms (review) can do both.
In any case, don’t use earbuds alone to protect your hearing
I know of people who use AirPods Pro or other noise cancelling earbuds alone (i.e., no muffs on top) when running loud power tools or sitting on their gas-powered lawn mower.
They are impressed by the effect of the powerful active noise cancelling function on lower-pitched machine/engine noise.
I have to admit, it is tempting, but this is a bad idea: the fit of these buds simply isn’t reliable enough and the ANC function doesn’t work against higher pitched noise.
You have no performance guarantees or ratings whatsoever. Consumer earbuds are designed for comfort and everyday noise reduction not hearing protection.