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We Reviewed the Best Earplugs for Surfing

Conner Coffin, protecting an important asset. Photo: SurfEars


The Inertia

Earplugs are not sexy. It’s true. Even the best earplugs for surfing will never feature in a cover spread or be Instagrammed on a trip to Indo. They’re bulky, they can impede your hearing, they take extra cash to buy and time to put in, and they’re one more thing to lose.

But, they’re 100 percent necessary, specifically for surfers in cold water. And we don’t mean surfers in Ireland – cold water, like Southern California. Basically, if the water temperature gets below 64, and the wind ever picks up, it’s worth using earplugs. To learn more, take a look at our Buyer’s Guide below. Or, to see how the earplugs we tested line up against one another, check out the Comparison Table.

The Best Earplugs for Surfing of 2024

Best Overall Earplugs for Surfing: SurfEars 3.0
Best Value Earplugs for Surfing: Eartune Aqua U
Most Comfortable Earplugs: Mack’s Ear Seals with Leash
Best Budget Earplugs: Reedcale Audible Earplugs


Best Overall Earplugs for Surfing
SurfEars 3.0 ($60)Surf Ears 3.0

Pros: Multiple pieces included for perfect fit, seal ring to keep in place, removable leash, great case
Cons: Difficult to hear when in, pricey

SurfEars are widely regarded as the “top of the line” surf earplugs, and after ample testing of the newest version we can confirm – they are the best earplug for surfing, as long as money is not a huge factor for you. They work well to keep out water and wind, they come with many pieces to dial in the perfect fit, and they use both a seal ring and a “fixation wing” which help to keep the plug in place. They also come with a removable leash, which means if one does fall out (happened to our tester once), they aren’t lost, and if you need to take them out for some reason, you wont lose them, either.

Our main gripe with the plugs was the noise – all of the brand’s marketing materials show that SurfEars are scientifically better at letting noise through and keeping water out. Our tester’s hearing was good with SurfEars, but not incredible. He had to take one out to have a conversation on a windy day. The wings can also get a bit uncomfortable towards the end of marathon surf sessions.

All that said, they score the best on the (very scientific) range of metrics because they do pretty much everything great, if not exceedingly well. Yes, the brand charges a premium for that, but can you blame them?

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Best Value Earplugs for Surfing

Eartune Aqua U ($33)

Eartune Aqua U

Pros: Comfortable (relatively speaking) leashed plugs for just over $30
Cons: Bulkier than the Surfers 3.0 with a less secure fit

Like the idea of the Surfears 3.0 but don’t want to shell out 60 bucks for them? Check out the Aqua U earplugs from Eartune. These guys feature a similar leashed design, with a cord that goes around the neck, or could attach to the zipper or drawstring of your wetsuit, to ensure you won’t lose the plugs, as well as small wings that fit to the inside of your ear to keep things secure in the first place.

In comparison to the wings on the Surfears, though, these ones are a lot squishier, a good bit more comfortable, and not quite as good at holding everything in place. They do the job, but are a bit more prone to readjustment over time. That said, with extra wings and plugs, you can dial in a solid fit, and one of our largest complaints on the SurfEars was their long-term comfort. Pick your poison. 

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Most Comfortable

Mack’s Ear Seals with Leash ($14)

Mack's Ear Seals With Leash

Pros: Cheap, stayed in well, braided leash, can hear well when wearing
Cons: Don’t come in different size options

Mack’s makes many earplug products (as this list shows), and they are well known in the swim community. For surfing, we found the Ear Seals with Leash to be surprisingly effective. They are also incredibly cheap.

The Ear Seals use a seemingly simple combination of soft seal rings around a stiff core — and look like some super basic ear plugs. But they went in the ear without issue, rarely needed adjusting while in the water, and, most surprisingly, they stayed in even during head high wipeouts. The Ear Seals don’t have a “wing” — which generally helps keep the plug in the ear — so our tester was surprised that they stayed in so well.

The Ear Seals also come with a colorful, braided leash (not removable). They did fall out one time (as did every plug except Doc’s), and the leash kept them in place long enough for me to re-insert before the next set.

Again, surprisingly, our tester could hear very well with them. Mack’s designed this plug so that you can insert it a lot, or about halfway. Our tester found that when inserted halfway his hearing was excellent, and he didn’t feel wind or water in his ear. He’s probably losing some of the effectiveness when doing that, but, again, he found himself choosing comfort over 100 percent effectiveness often.

The case is a simple plastic rectangle, but the locking mechanism is sound and it’s large enough to fit a chapstick in addition to the plugs.

The only downsides are that it doesn’t come in different sizes, so if you have too large or too small ear-holes (technical term, we promise) they won’t work for you.

Our tester will continue to use these on days when it’s not bitterly cold and whipping wind because they are super comfortable, and he can hear when a wave is about to rip his head off.

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Best Budget Option

Reedcale Audible Earplugs ($7)

Pros: Premium design in a budget package, floats
Cons: No leash

The largest downside to having your ears plugged is fairly obvious: It restricts your ability to hear. Premium plugs like the Surfears and Eartune plugs, above do their best to get around that with “sound in, water out” waterproof mesh designs. Reedcale’s plugs sport the same design, for only $7. While they don’t have a leash, they float should they get dislodged and are recoverable should you manage to miraculously see it bobbing next to you after a wipeout. But chances are they’ll stay snug thanks to the ear wings that fit into the grooves of your outer ear to keep things secure. These guys also come with three sizes of wings and plugs to dial in the best fit. For just $7, these are certainly worth a shot if you haven’t found success with more “tried and true” options.

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Best of the Rest

Awesome Venting Feature

Doc’s ProPlugs ($11)

Pros: Latex-free, lots of different option/sizes, incredible venting feature
Cons: Cheap case, not comfortable initially

Doc’s ProPlugs — designed by Doc himself — were one of the original earplugs for surfing. They are a latex free, soft plastic plug that is shaped more like the inside of your ear than a traditional cone plug. It includes a “wing” by nature, and when fit right it should sit securely in your concha cymba, that weird crevice in the outer ear that seems perfect for holding something.

Now, Doc’s makes a few versions of the ProPlugs — we tested the red, leash-less, vented models. They also come in clear, leashed, and non-vented, and they come in eight different sizes. While the single pair you get isn’t adjustable, the sheer range of options means you should end up with a plug you love — as long as the overall style fits your ear.

Our tester preferred the leash-less vented model in medium, though both large and small technically work for him too. He didn’t love the leashed version of the Pro Plug, as the leash is prone to breaking over time, and gets so wound up it’s hard to untangle.

But the real joy of the Pro Plug is the venting feature. There’s a tiny hole poked into the end, which allows your ears to clear. Our tester typically duck dives, feels pressure, comes up, shakes his head, and waits for the plugs to vent. This helps significantly with his hearing, and removes that “underwater” sensation plugs can give you.

On the downside, the carrying case isn’t made of high-quality plastic and the closure will probably break over time. And, depending on your ear, the comfort can be sub-par. Doc’s claims these will mold to your ear over time, and we do think they get more comfortable the longer you wear them. But out of the box they feel huge in the ear, and our tester definitely noticed them while surfing.

All that said, they are quite effective though, and our tester never felt like he got excess water or wind in the ear canal after dawn patrol.

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JBL Hydro Seals ($18)

Pros: Two size options, solid wing
Cons: Don’t stay in well, cheap case

We were excited to test the JBL Hydro Seals — they are very cheap, designed robustly, and offer a solid wing and good-looking seal rings. Upon testing, though, they didn’t hold up.

The Hydro Seals don’t come with a leash, and popped out of our tester’s ears multiple times during a session. The case is made of very flimsy plastic, and stopped closing the moment our tester opened it. He stored them in competitor cases for the rest of his testing – never a good look.

When our tester could get them to sit right in the ear – which took some work – they were comfortable. They felt robust, and solid, and like they were blocking all the wind and water an offshore jetty session could hurl at him. But every time he got out of the ocean he had some water in his ear – like you get after swimming.

This almost never happens to our tester, with or without ear plugs. There’s a good chance the Hydro Seals just don’t fit his ear, as we’ve heard good things about them. But the lack of a leashed version made them hard to hold onto session after session. They also come in two sizes. Our tester tried the large, but it was way too big for his ear. All that said, and because fit matters quite a bit, they are still definitely worth a try. We’d consider them an in-between of the ProPlugs and Reedcale in terms of function.

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Mack’s AquaBlock ($12)

Pros: Affordable
Cons: Extremely difficult to hear when wearing, not comfortable

Mack’s AquaBlock are seemingly identical to the Ear Seals, sans leash. But, upon testing, they are definitely not. The AquaBlock seems like a great plug for swimming — you stick them in, they totally plug up your ears, and you do lap after lap.

But for surfing, our tester found these to cut almost all the noise around him, so he felt like he was underwater the whole time, and had more weird, miming hand-gesture conversations than he’s ever had in the water. They also felt like a lot in the ear – something about how deep they get lodged to block the water not only cuts noise, but made him think about them every few minutes.

Top that off with a few instances of them popping out, not coming with a leash, and the tiny case that doesn’t allow extra storage, and we can’t recommend them while the Ear Seals with Leash are readily available and cheap. If you’re staring at a selection of Mack’s ear plugs, definitely go with the Ear Seals. Use these in a pinch, but don’t expect to keep them through years of surf.

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Mack’s Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs ($13)

Pros: Affordable, block wind and water well
Cons: Can’t hear when wearing, not comfortable

Finally, the infamous Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs by Mack’s. These are a step up from Bluetack, which our tester didn’t put on this list because there are truly good earplug options for under $10. That said, the Silicone Putty Earplugs are still at the bottom of this list.

You get 12 pairs of Silicone Putty Earplugs for 13 bucks, and if that isn’t an indicator of the quality we don’t know what is. The biggest issue with Silicone Putty Earplugs is that they’re weird – you mold them into a ball, fit them over the outside of the ear (do NOT put it in the canal), and they block literally everything – sound and water and wind.

So, they are quite effective. Your ear becomes impenetrable. But they’re not comfortable, you can’t hear anything, and they take some extra work to fit correctly compared to all the other plugs on this list. They aren’t easy to fiddle with and reminded our tester most of sticking gum in his ears, a sensation that goes against his nature. These are old school, and there are better options. But if, for some reason you want a 100 percent seal on your ear that comes in a six-pack, the Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs are the way to go.

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Best Earplugs for Surfing Comparison Table

Model Price Features
SurfEars 3.0 $50 Precise, secure fit
Eartune Aqua U $33 Premium plugs for only $30
Mack’s Ear Seals with Leash $14 Soft seal, stiff core
Doc’s ProPlugs $11 Optional vented model
Reedcale Audible Earplugs $10 Customizable and cheap
JBL Hydro Seals $18 Robust design
Mack’s AquaBlock $12 Similar to Ear Seals, but not our favorite
Mack’s Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs $13 Can hold your poster on the wall

How We Tested The Best Earplugs for Surfing

We’ve been testing the best earplugs for surfing since 2020 when our lead tester, Daniel Zweier, tested seven of the leading earplugs for surfing, mostly in Ventura, as the Santa Ana winds kicked up and the water temps dropped. His verdict: there are plenty of excellent surf earplugs to pick from, each with their own merits and drawbacks, and some will work better for others depending on what you’re looking for. With that in mind, we wrote this review to describe the differences and relative pros and cons of the top earplugs for surfing on the market, and help you make an informed buying decision.

Since 2020, we’ve continued to keep this article updated with the latest and greatest surf earplugs. For our most recent November 2023 update, Gear Editor Will Sileo tested and included the Eartune Aqua U, a style that we were just informed about, and compared this new earplug to the others previously tested for accurate rating and comparisons.

Earplugs for Surfing Buyer’s Guide

Why Do Surfers Need Earplugs?

The simple answer: surfer’s ear.

Exostosis is the most common medical issue that’s often referred to as “surfer’s ear,” and it means you’ve got a bunch of bone growing in your ear. For obvious reasons, you don’t want extra bone in your ear. As fellow The Inertia author Dave Freisen writes, “It’s primarily caused by repeated exposure to the cold wind and water (although it can still affect surfers who surf in warm water). Cold temperatures cause the ear canal to develop growths of bone that block the ear canal and eardrum, resulting in a number of symptoms, including pain, hearing loss, and infection.”

Exostosis starts as a small loss of hearing. “No, man, I didn’t hear you call me off that wave!”

Then occasional aches in the ear. Also known as the lasting head tilt after a long session. Is it water? Is it pain? Are you going nuts? Then there’s real pain. You dread dawn sessions and howling offshores, even though you know the surf is better when it’s cold and blowing right in your face.

Then, finally, you go to the doctor because you keep getting infections, and they tell you what exostosis means (like we just did), that you’ve got extra bone in your ear, and that you should have worn earplugs. The eventual solution to exostosis is to remove the bone. That’s surgery with a drill or micro chisel, a month or more of recovery, and the knowledge that all of this was probably avoidable.

The doctor will tell you to get earplugs and wear them religiously, because the bone growth will come back if you don’t. And you’ll repeat the entire experience. You could stop surfing, too. But that’s not realistic, practical, or advisable for your mental health.

What Features Matter for Surf Earplugs?

When we set out to test a new product category, we mentally start adding up all the features that matter. For surf earplugs, we found that there are five critical features. We list these in order of importance, and scored earplug after at least three sessions in the water and side-by-side comparisons during single sessions.

Effectiveness

This one is rather obvious — how effective is the earplug at reducing water and wind to your ear canal? Or, how effective will it be at stopping bone growth and surfer’s ear? This is why we’re wearing surf earplugs in the first place, so rather important. While we found that all of the earplugs we tested were effective, certain models felt like they blocked a lot more wind and water than others.

Best Overall Earplugs
Best Overall Earplugs

SurfEars are top of the line earplugs that live up to their reputation. They keep out wind and water, they come with many pieces to dial in the perfect fit, and they use both a seal ring and a “fixation wing” to keep the plugs in place.

Price: $60

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In-Ear Comfort

An earplug’s in-ear comfort mattered (to us) almost as much as effectiveness. In fact, at times we picked a more comfortable plug than one that is more effective, because it sucks to sit out in the lineup, nature swirling around you, fiddling with an ill-fitting earplug.

We’ll note here that ears are shaped differently (shocker, we know). Our tester used a size medium in every model (though he tried different sizes), and all of them did stay in his ears when dry (vigorous headshakes).

Much like a wetsuit needs to be tried on to determine the final fit, an earplug is unfortunately in the same boat. But you can’t just try an earplug, can you? People don’t share waxed up plugs like that. If you want to make sure they’ll fit, buy an earplug with lots of adjustability, or beg your buddy to try theirs. You may have to try a few types before you find the one that really does work for you. In short: take this one with a few grains of shorebreaky salt.

Hearing

Hearing can be critical to surfing. If you surf at a crowded break there are a lot of small sounds that indicate who is paddling for a wave, what that splash was, and just how fast the wave is breaking behind you. We always felt more comfortable when we could hear. It’s a sense, after all. That said, crystal clear hearing isn’t 100 percent necessary for surfing most of the time.

The Case

As much as this is about the earplug, the included case was a curiosity to us. Some cases were outstanding, others literally couldn’t be used. In the age when design, engineering, and materials are at a peak (and as gearheads), we find the included carrying case for an earplug to matter a lot. We wanted our plugs to be easy to access, find, and store.

Adjustability

Finally, is the earplug adjustable? The answer is no for every earplug on this list, save three. But some brands offer their plugs in different sizes, so you can at least adjust accordingly over time to the right size. Adjustability only matters if you’re sharing, or if you don’t know exactly what size plug (and type) fits your ears.

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Owen Wright, a few years after his head injury, surfing at Teahupoo
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Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.

 
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