High-end hearing protection is not something that gets a lot of attention. Most people are happy enough to use foam ear plugs and imported electronic muffs like Howard Leights. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, as long as it works, but I’ll admit that I’ve been on a bit of a “Made in the USA” kick lately.
The trouble is that “better” electronic hearing protection usually means jumping to the nearly $1000 price point with something like Ops-Core AMPs. For most people having to foot their own bills, this price point is too high and offers capability they might not need.
When I started workout my flexible communications system, one of the integral pieces was a set of electronic hearing protection that I could plug into a speaker mic. My Howard Leights did that, and I went on a search to find something similar. During that whole research phase, I settled on Otto Engineering’s Storm speaker mic. While browsing their catalog, I discovered that they also made hearing protection. So I dove in.
There isn’t much in the way of reviews on the ear muffs, so let’s talk about what I’ve learned.
Otto Noizebarrier Range SA
Otto Engineering is an American company that proudly proclaims their “Made in the USA” status. They design, develop, and manufacture everything in Carpentersville, IL. Their marketing materials focus on Controls (i.e. knobs, switches, flight controls), manufacturing dies, and communications. For our purposes, we’re looking at communications.
The Noizebarrier line encompasses their “tactical” hearing protection products. Within the line are three products and a series of accessories. The product that’s gotten the most attention in the last few years is actually their Noizebarrier Micro electronic ear plugs. Maybe I’ll get my hands on those someday, but it wasn’t the focus for now.
Less common is their line of ear muffs. There really isn’t much information out there about them.
Officially there are two lines, the Noizebarrier TAC and the Noizebarrier Range SA. As far as I can tell, these two products are nearly identical, with the TACs being the communications model with microphone and downlead hardware. At a street price of around $800 for the TACs, they were still outside my budget. The Range SA, at about $480 was still expensive, but doable with some saving.
Both offer NRR of 23 DB (29 db SNR) and 100 hours of life on two AAA batteries. While the TACs have all of the hardware required to connect to a PTT, the Range SA literature referenced this line: “May also be configured to connect to a speaker mic or surveillance kit to receive clear, discreet communications and hearing protection in active tactical situations.”
As I would find out, this is true, but it’s not as easy as plugging in a simple 3.5mm TRS cable like my Howard Leights.
I purchased a set in OD green at retail price using my own funds. There has been no coordination of this review or my thoughts with the manufacturer.
Shell and Ear Cup Design
Taking the Noizebarrier Range SA out of the box, I immediately had a sense of “oooooh.” Compared to the Howard Leights I’ve been using for years, everything about the Ottos felt beefier and higher quality. The polymer material on the shells is thicker and feels like it would take a beating. The gel ear cups feel soft and way more comfortable than the thin foam I’d been used to. The gel cups do a much better job conforming around shooting glasses as well. Even the headband had a vented and plushier cushion around it.
Something that does literally stand out is the microphone and electronics housing. The bottom third of each shell protrudes away from the main body of the ear cup by about a half inch. Silicone covers protect the single battery compartment on each ear cup for easy battery exchange, and the protected microphones sit just in front of those. On the left side, two buttons indicate “up” and “down” for adjusting volume and turning the electronics on and off.
On the bottom of each ear cup is a threaded hole for where a boom mic attaches on the TAC model. Between that and the unused plug covers at the rear, it’s obvious to me that the Noizebarrier TACs and Range SA use the exact same shells with some differences of electronics on the inside.
The audio pass-through on the Ottos is very good, with very little “white noise” coming from just the microphones themselves. The soundscape is also detailed, helping me better locate where sounds around me are coming from in three-dimensional space (i.e. behind me and slightly to the left).
Unlike other electronic ear pro I’ve used, the Noizebarriers do something different when they detect a loud sound. Rather than a sudden “cut”, they do more of a “fade.” They still blunt the sound intensity, but it’s a smoother transition up and down.
This is an important point for me, as it was one of the driving factors in my selection. While the marketing materials talk about the ability to connect the Noizebarrier Range SA to a speaker mic or surveillance kit to receive communications, I couldn’t find anything about how it did it.
My assumption was that it would be a 3.5mm audio jack just like that on my Howard Leights. However, I was wrong.
On the back of the left ear cup, the Range SA has a plug that accepts an oddly-shaped two-prong cable. This is where you would connect the headset to an external audio source. The problem I ran into was that no corresponding cable was included in the box, and I could not find any such cable on Otto’s website.
At one point, I thought I found what I needed and ordered two cables, one each for a 2.5mm and 3.5mm audio source, for $30 each only to find out that it was the wrong cable.
It took me another day of scouring dealer parts catalogs and a few email exchanges to figure out what I actually needed. There are no pictures of the correct cables. I had to reference technical schematics that Otto sent me to identify the right ones- then I ordered two, again a 2.5mm and 3.5mm, at $36 each.
For the record, the correct part numbers are V3-10746 for the 2.5mm plug and V3-10744 for the 3.5mm version.
Radio Pass Through Audio
Configured with the correct cable and connected to my speaker mic, the audio quality from the radio to the headset is loud and clear. I think the radio pass through uses a different set of speakers in the headset all together. I base this on two things.
First is the way that the radio chatter continues to function normally even when the sound dampening kicks in for environmental audio. Second is the fact that the radio audio works even when the headset themselves are not powered on. That’s a great feature for me, as it means I can still use my communications gear and listen through the headset even when the batteries die.
Shooting Impressions and Final Thoughts
To wrap this up, let’s talk about using the Noizebarrier Range SA at the shooting range. While my overall impression of the ear protection is fantastic, there is one notable drawback that I can’t ignore.
The protruding compartment that houses the battery and electronics is on the bottom third of the ear cup. When shooting, this can get in the way of a solid cheek weld.
I haven’t had it be an issue when shooting in an upright position or a more “tactical” stance. But when I was bearing down on the stock of a Sako S20 hunter in 300 Win Mag, the cheek piece was “scooping” up under the ear cup. During firing, the recoil of the rifle sometimes knocked the ear cup away from my head all together.
To be fair, this could have happened with any hard shell ear protection and such a rifle is a better fit for ear plugs anyway (which I also had inserted as secondary protection). That said, I do still think the larger horizontal profile of the Noizebarrier Range SA (and TAC for that matter) could present issues in some shooting situations. Note that the other two “high end” ear pro models (Ops-Core AMP and Peltor Comtac VII also share this issue).
Should You Buy It?
Overall, though, I’m very pleased with this ear pro and I plan to get many years of use out of them. However, given that they were nearly $500, I would hope so. On top of that, I spent another $100 to get two of the right cables for connecting to my radio, and mistakenly spent another $70 on the wrong cables.
All told, that was nearly $700 for the whole experiment. That puts me very close to the TAC model, which would have brought additional functionality. Had I realized that the boom mic was removable when not in use, that probably would have been the way to go in the end. I asked Otto if there was any kind of conversion kit for the Range SA to include a boom mic (since the connection is already there) and the answer was no.
Do I think the Otto Range SA is worth it? For most people, probably not. The combination of foam ear plugs and Howard Leight electronic ear pro (or Walkers for that matter) has served many thousands of shooters very well for a long time, and it’s certainly a lot cheaper than these more premium options.
That said, if you are in the market for higher end ear pro that’s built tough and made in the USA, then I think the Range SA (or better yet, the TAC) represents a great option without breaking the bank as bad as Ops-Core or Peltor.
With my over-the-ear needs met, I’m curious to try some of the in-ear options on the market. One is the Noizebarrier Micro model, which also has an available communications pass-through kit. The other is the Silynx XPR or FX2 models.
The Silynx system uses in-ear protection as well as bone-conducting microphones built into the ear pieces. It seems like a very lightweight and low profile option that would work fantastic for me, especially in hot weather where gel ear cups could cause a lot of sweat issues.