Spotlight on the TEP-100

We’ve discussed at length 3M’s sophisticated level-dependent hearing protection technology, but this is a good place for a quick recap. Passive hearing protection, like the Optime 105 from our last post, blocks out most to all sound without discerning between one sound and another. Active protection (fancy protection, smart protection, expensive protection, call it what you will) incorporates an ambient microphone and sensory technology into its design that actually measures the noise level coming in, determines if it is dangerous based on a preprogrammed threshold, and either allows the sound to go through or cuts off the mic feed based on the result. All that happens in a fraction of a second. Today’s spotlighted product is also an active protection item, but instead of a headset like you usually see, the TEP-100 takes the form of a pair of removable earplugs.

 

At first glance, outfitting earplugs with this kind of technology seems like a bad idea. Plugs are notoriously prone to falling out, and adding a chunky piece of tech to the end would seem to make the problem worse. Fear not. Each plug is only 0.13 oz (about 3.7 grams), so if they’re being worn properly they should be secure in the ear. They’re also water-resistant, making them ideal for application in challenging environments.

 

The TEP-100 is designed to provide excellent hearing protection when things get loud and equally excellent ability to hear in quiet situations. In promotional materials, 3M particularly focuses on the tactical applications for law enforcement and soldiers. The online brochure has pictures of a line of armed men in silhouette, a man speaking into a walkie-talkie in night-vision green, a helmeted trainee pointing a gun around a corner. Tactical would seem to be the main context they want these to be used in. There’s a wrinkle to this, however. Amazon user E. B.’s review caught my eye while I was researching, and seems to indicate that 3M has somewhat oversold the TEP-100’s capabilities. It doesn’t mean they’re useless, just that you can’t always take a company’s information at face value. E. B. describes the plugs as being highly susceptible to wind noise (which the brochure says the mic port on the side is specifically meant to minimize) and that, because the units are identical, one of the mics is always facing backwards. He describes this creating a phenomenon of muffling in the left ear.

E. B. claims to be an avid shooter (“several hundred to several thousand rounds per month”), hunter, and Iraq veteran who has led dozens of combat patrols. I’m inclined to believe him based on the detail with which he fills his review (and others on his profile). A man with such credentials knows exactly what a tactical earplug needs. The sound quality must be pristine, and the sensors need to be sophisticated enough to indicate which direction the sound is coming from. The left-ear muffling in particular severely curtails perception of depth and direction. These flaws, he points out, make the TEP-100 “unusable for most types of serious hunting,” and would be “downright dangerous” on the battlefield. Personally I’m inclined to trust the vet, and if I were working at 3M I’d offer this guy a consulting job and rebrand the TEP-100 in a way that highlights the situations where it shines most: the shooting range.

 

Most people who work in a field that would require tactical ear protection probably have some degree of enthusiasm for guns and shooting, and may frequent a range for fun. Despite his harsh criticism, E. B. absolutely loves how these earplugs work when he’s at the range with friends. Everyone shoots in one direction (unless there’s an accident, God forbid) and the level of sonic detail that’s required in the woods or at war isn’t necessary there. You only need to protect your ears from shot blasts, but you also need the situational awareness that active protection can provide. The TEP-100 fills that role perfectly.

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