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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 highlight a toned ass or be Instagramed on a trip to Indo.

Surf earplugs are more like medical devices. 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 weather. And I don’t mean surfers in Ireland – cold weather, like Southern California. Basically if the water temperature gets below 64, and the wind ever picks up, it’s worth using ear plugs.

I tested seven of the leading earplugs for surfing for over a month, mostly in Ventura, as the Santa Ana winds kicked up and the water temps dropped. The verdict: there are plenty of excellent surf earplugs to pick from, each with their own merits.

Read below for what makes a good earplug and where you should drop your money but first, though – 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 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 off shores, 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 I 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.

Just get earplugs. Which earplugs, you ask?

The best earplugs for surfing.

What Features Matter for Surf Earplugs?

When I set out to test a new product category, I mentally start adding up all the features that matter. For surf earplugs, I found that there are five critical features. I 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 I found that all of the earplugs I tested were effective, certain models felt like they blocked a lot more wind and water than others.

In-Ear Comfort

An earplug’s in-ear comfort mattered (to me) almost as much as effectiveness. In fact, at times I 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.

I’ll note here that ears are shaped differently (shocker, I know). I used a size medium in every model (though I tried different sizes), and all of them did stay in my 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. I always felt more comfortable when I 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 me. Some cases were outstanding, others literally couldn’t be used. In the age when design, engineering, and materials are at a peak (and as a gearhead), I find the included carrying case for an earplug to matter a lot. I wanted my 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 two. 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.

So let’s get on with it:

Surf Ears 3.0

Surf Ears 3.0

 

SurfEars 3.0 – 4.6 average score

Effectiveness – 5

In-Ear Comfort – 4

Hearing – 4

The Case – 5

Adjustability – 5

SurfEars are widely regarded as the “top of the line” surf earplugs, and after ample testing of the newest version I can confirm – they are the best earplug for surfing, as long as money is not a huge factor for you. Given that surfing is often considered a wealthy sport – how many boards do you have right now? – I think coughing up money, once, for a pair of SurfEars is a good investment for those who surf cold water regularly.

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 me once), they aren’t lost.

The real highlight for me was, ironically, the case. It’s a silicone pouch with a magnetic closure and included carabiner. There are no zippers that can rust, the case has open vents for letting the earplugs air out, and it’s roomy enough to fit chapstick and a surf key inside.

My only 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. My hearing was good with SurfEars, but not incredible. I had to take one out to have a conversation on a windy day.

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?

 

Mack's Ear Seals With Leash

Mack’s Ear Seals with Leash

 

Mack’s Ear Seals with Leash – 4.2 average score

Effectiveness – 4

In-Ear Comfort – 5

Hearing – 5

The Case – 4

Adjustability – 3

Mack’s makes many earplug products (as this list shows), and they are well known in the swim community. For surfing, I found the Ear Seals with Leash to be surprisingly effective. They are also incredibly cheap — $4.99, or $55 less than a pair of SurfEars.

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 my 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 I 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, I could hear very well with them. Mack’s designed this plug so that you can insert it a lot, or about halfway. I found that when inserted halfway my hearing was excellent, and I didn’t feel wind or water in my ear. I’m probably losing some of the effectiveness when doing that, but, again, I found myself 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, I promise) they won’t work for you.

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

Doc’s Pro Plugs

Doc’s ProPlugs – 4 average score

Effectiveness – 5

In-Ear Comfort – 3.5

Hearing – 4.5

The Case 3

Adjustability – 4

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 — I 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.

I prefer the leash-less vented model in medium, though both large and small technically work for me too. I don’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. I typically duck dive, feel pressure, come up, shake my head, and wait for the plugs to vent. This helps significantly with my 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 I do think they get more comfortable the longer you wear them. But out of the box they feel huge in the ear, and I definitely notice them while surfing.

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

Gooq Premium Surf Plugs

Gooq Premium Surf Plugs

Gooq Premium Surf Plugs – 3.4 average score 

Effectiveness – 3

In-Ear Comfort – 3

Hearing – 3

The Case – 4

Adjustability – 4

It wouldn’t be a “best of” list without a go-to Amazon-only model. Gooq’s Premium Surf Plugs have gained some reputation on Reddit and other surfing forums as the “knock off” SurfEars, in that they have wings, they come with multiple sized seal rings, and they come with a decent zippered case.

I actually used these years ago, and have given less than stellar ratings because they popped out of my ears on the second use, and would continue to do so every surf until I eventually lost them in the water. Perhaps my ear fit was off, perhaps their seal isn’t solid. I’ve read that some surfers have a great experience with Gooq’s, but for me a plug that can’t stay in your ear during solid surf can’t be effective.

They also impacted hearing, and because they never stayed put I couldn’t find a comfortable spot for them. I still have the case, and while the zipper is on its last legs (sea salt and metal teeth don’t like each other), it’s a clever design. This is the only earplug I’ve ever actually lost in the water, and the moment I do lose one in the water, I won’t get it again. Fool me once, right?

Hydro Seals

JBL Hydro Seals – 3 average score

Effectiveness – 3.5

In-Ear Comfort – 4

Hearing – 3.5

The Case – 1

Adjustability – 3

I was 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 my ears on multiple times during a session. The case is made of very flimsy plastic, and stopped closing the moment I opened it. I stored them in competitor cases for the rest of my testing – never a good look.

When I 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 me. But every time I got out of the ocean I had some water in my ear – like you get after swimming.

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

Mack’s AquaBlock – 2.4 average score

Effectiveness – 3

In-Ear Comfort – 2

Hearing – 2

The Case – 3

Adjustability – 2

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, I found these to cut almost all the noise around me, so I felt like I was underwater the whole time, and had more weird, miming hand-gesture conversations than I’ve 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 me 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 I 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.


Mack’s Moldable
Silicone Putty Earplugs – 2.2 average score

Effectiveness – 5

In-Ear Comfort – 2

Hearing – 1

The Case – 1

Adjustability – 2

Finally, the infamous Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs by Mack’s. These are a step up from Bluetack, which I 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 six pairs of Silicone Putty Earplugs for seven bucks, and if that isn’t an indicator of the quality I 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 me most of sticking gum in my ears, a sensation that goes against my 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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