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Welcome to Clout Patrol, the semi-regular series where we put much-hyped gear to the test. If something is worth the money, we’ll confirm it; if not, we’ll find you something that is.

These days, it seems like we can’t use the internet, watch a YouTube video, or check social media without getting an advertisement for Axil hearing protection. While most marketing materials for shooting ear protection are squarely aimed at the tactical crowd, cornering the market on U.S. service members would be a massive win for any company, and Axil appears to be prioritizing your business.

To be honest, Axil doesn’t necessarily have the brand recognition of, say, Peltors or Walkers. According to Axil’s website, the company has been selling “the finest performing hearing enhancement and protection devices available” for more than 60 years. This is technically true, as the company was formed in 2012 by combining and rebranding SportEAR (founded in 2000) and Harris Hearing Group (founded in 1958). According to a May media release, Axil is scheduled to be acquired by Reviv3, a hair- and skin-care e-commerce company, which is, well, a bit weird.

What does all this mean for you? Does picking up a set of Axil hearing protection open up a world of cutting-edge technology backed by decades of industry-leading expertise? Before we get into our testing and evaluation, take a look at the selling proposition from Axil.

The hype

Axil’s homepage boasts “superior hearing for professional, recreational, and everyday wear.” The company’s product lineup includes hearing aids, earbuds, earmuffs, earplugs, ear care, and even an online hearing test. That looks like a pretty comprehensive approach to protecting your hearing. The idea of an at-home hearing loss assessment seems like a good idea, but there are a lot of variables that could throw a wrench into the test’s efficacy so you should probably take any results with a grain of salt.

If you’ve been on Instagram lately, there’s a good chance you’ve been targeted by what appears to be an extremely well-funded Axil marketing budget. The brand’s ads and sponsored content are seemingly everywhere. Every last influencer is in great shape and the photos deliver all the beards, bikinis, tats, and high-speed gear you could ask for. Axil’s sponsored shooters are certainly accomplished, but you might feel like the marketing folks are pushing a lifestyle image rather than a product. This wouldn’t be the first time a company pushed its product on service members and veterans with military visuals and messaging. Brands like Black Rifle Coffee Company, Hardhead Veterans, and Armed Forces Brewing Company (don’t miss our taste test) have all found degrees of success in moto-monitization. Axil is just one of the tactic’s latest adopters.

The advertising is also in heavy rotation on YouTube, where Axil’s video production is seriously good. The company’s YouTube channel has several 30- to 60-second spots that look like action movie trailers. Sure, there’s a predictable mix of shooting and Crossfit (why must we have the Crossfit agenda forced upon us at every turn?) for the tacti-cool segment but the production quality is commendable. Where things get weird is the longer “reviews” by people who are clearly speaking on behalf of Axil. These video advertorials raised a few eyebrows around here.

The test

Evaluating hearing protection can be fairly subjective since everyone has different perceptions of proper fit and sound quality. To account for this, three of us —  commerce reporters Scott Murdock and Matt Sampson and commerce editor Daniel Terrill — each got our own set of Axil’s GS Extreme 2.0 earbuds, Trackr BLU ear muffs, and Trackr ear muffs. All three provide active hearing protection, meaning they allow sound to pass through to your eardrum while reducing loud noises like gunshots to a more manageable level.

Eager to get to work, we all unboxed the ear pro right away and started wearing them around the house. We cranked up our favorite songs and podcasts over Bluetooth, ran the vacuum, and used a variety of power tools. We wore the earbuds to the gym and on walks with the dog. In the case of the earbuds, we swapped out the various earplug options to test for fit and sound-blocking performance. Over a week of daily use, we got a solid idea of how each product performs.

To evaluate performance on the range, all three products got time on the firing line with the tack-driving Smith & Wesson Volunteer DMR. The sound of 5.56×45 NATO echoing between a metal roof and concrete shooting platform is familiar to military and civilian shooters alike. There are louder rounds out there, but America’s most popular rifle is the ideal test platform for this kind of thing.

The Earbuds

Our testers agree that the GS Extreme 2.0 works well around the house. It made listening to podcasts easy while tuning out the sound of vacuums, drills, circular saws, and removing plaster from studs with a hammer. The active hearing also functioned well in the gym, where clanking metal plates can interrupt your perfectly crafted workout playlist. The cord was another matter; it became a nuisance while running and made us miss the cordless earbuds we’re used to.

The controls received unanimous praise as intuitive and easy to use. Separate control panels make it easy to adjust active hearing and Bluetooth separately. This corded style isn’t ideal because it’s a major snag risk, but there’s no doubt that the controls are easier to master than touch-sensitive panels like the ones on the Caldwell E-Max Shadows or the tiny buttons on Walker’s Silencer BT. Axil provides several types of earplugs: clear silicone, short foam, and shooter’s foam. Only shooter’s foam creates an adequate fit for use on the range, but one of our testers noted that it got slippery with sweat and became prone to falling out of the ear canal.

We came to mixed conclusions on the range. Although everyone heard small sounds like weapon manipulation loud and clear, voices were another story. Some came through fine; others seemed to get filtered out, making communication difficult. We all agree that our own voices sounded loud and garbled like a terrible head cold. Heaven forbid you find yourself using pass-through hearing on a cold day because a little sniffle will damn near blow your eardrums out. We also noticed quite a bit of static or white noise, and even around other sources of sound and electricity, these were very susceptible to electronic interference Sure, it’s a fine pair of earbuds, but it doesn’t perform as well as other $200 earbuds designed specifically for listening, and the hear-through function is nothing to write home about.

The Headset

The over-ear Axil Trackr BLU was in many ways the opposite of the GS Extreme 2.0 earbuds. Sound quality when listening to music was very tinny, leaning far toward the treble end of the spectrum with almost no bass and low mid-tone delivery. For once, laptop speakers sounded good by comparison. In the face of power tools, the ear muffs did a better job of blocking out external sounds with a tradeoff in terms of comfort when compared to the in-ear GS Extreme 2.0.

Once again, the controls were a strong point for Axil. Bluetooth pairing is activated with a single button and there are separate volume dials for Bluetooth and ambient sound. The earmuffs are adequately padded and the rigid band is adjustable. The whole setup feels just like a lot of other products — more on that in a minute.

The over-ear Trackr and Trackr BLU did a much better job at the range than the GS Extreme 2.0 earbuds. In general, earmuffs are bulkier and less comfortable than earbuds, but they’re hard to screw up. Even if the electronics aren’t that sophisticated, they can at least be counted on to offer protection against loud noises. Both Trackrs did a fair job of managing the sound of gunfire while allowing voices to pass through. At the range, sound quality is less noticeable than it is when listening to music in a quiet house and we agree that the Trackr variants are both preferable to the GS Extreme 2.0 for shooting hearing protection.

Unfortunately, the issue with the Axil Trackr and Trackr BLU is that they’re rebranded Prohears, so if you must have these, you can get them for $80 and change elsewhere. At the end of the day, you’re getting rebranded hearing protection for more than four times the price it costs Axil to buy wholesale. That’s a pass from us.

The verdict

Here’s the bottom line: the Axil hearing protection we used is all hype and very little heat, showing that slick advertising can’t overcome poor-quality base materials.

Axil presents itself as an all-things-hearing-protection company. That results in a wide product offering, but a noticeable lack of specialization. Are the GS Extreme 2.0 earbuds usable Bluetooth headphones? Sure, there were instances when we enjoyed them. They aren’t something we can recommend as hearing protection while shooting, though, and we’re not the only ones. Maybe Axil’s sponsored shooters can enlighten us, but we weren’t impressed — especially with a price tag of $199.99. 

The Trackr series ear muffs felt comparable to several other products we’ve tested, but the price seems way out of line at $159.99 for the Bluetooth-enabled Trackr BLU. Perhaps they’re just superior ear muffs, you might say. Not so fast. When pairing the Trackr BLU with our phones and computers, we noticed that they appeared in the Bluetooth menu as EM030BT rather than Trackr BLU. A quick search revealed that the EM030BT is a product sold under other brands, including ATN, Epicshot, and Prohear. That’s right, you can order a pair that appears to be identical from Alibaba for just $24.00. We don’t care if you want to represent your favorite brands with a logo on generic, up-priced ear protection, just be aware that might be what you’re doing.

Meet the competition

Not convinced by the hype? Here are a few alternatives we think you should consider.

Matt’s Pick

Sordin has been making military headsets for years now, with some of the slimmest and most comfortable headsets on the market. Their improved brother, the Sordin Supreme Pro X made our list of the best powered hearing protection, and that’s for a good reason. These Swedish-made earmuffs provide incredible durability and a slim profile that will fit handily under your kevlar, meaning that these are a must-have for the professional user on a budget.

Sordin proves that $150 and change can go a long way when it comes to powered hearing protection, and while these are hardly the fanciest offering in the Sordin catalog, they’re still a Swedish-made option that costs just as much as the TRACKR Blu, with none of the dodgy origin story drama. I’ve personally owned 2 pairs of Sordins, and they’re standard-issue at my unit for artillerymen, so the brand pedigree is there for sure. Find a used pair, or some surplus ones, and you can have them for an extremely low price.

We tested the original Walker’s Silencer BT prior to the launch of this iteration. It took some getting used to, thanks to the various modes and adjustments that are controlled by tiny buttons on the earpieces. A year or so later, the Silencer BT has made us believers. First is the fitment. Rather than relying on foam or silicone inside the ear canal for sound protection and physical stability, these earbuds use foam to seal the ear canal and soft rubber to secure the earbuds to the contours of the outer ear for a much more comfortable fit. Both components come in small, medium, and large sizes you can mix and match to create the ideal fit.

In keeping with the theme of customization, sound profiles include universal, clear voice, power boost, and high-frequency boost. Cycling through these modes with a button on one earbud is easy enough. In day-to-day life, our test pair serves as the go-to for everything from exercise to inflight entertainment. After hearing (or not hearing) what they can do to the sound of a commercial airliner, it will be hard to go back to anything else for Bluetooth travel earbuds.

On the range, these earbuds definitely exceed the audio quality of most consumer-grade active hearing protection (as they should, with a $300 MSRP). The universal mode works well enough to be the default, but having the option to boost others’ voices is a really nice touch when shooting as a group. Volume can be adjusted individually. One setback that continues to torment Walker’s is the useless app. It’s intended to allow a visual interface with the earbuds’ controls, but I’ve never had any luck with it and, from what I’ve read online, that’s the consensus. It’s a bummer, but the Silencer BT is still a solid piece of gear on its own.

FAQs about hearing protection

More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief. 

Q. How much does good hearing protection cost?

A. Usable active hearing protection costs as little as $40 in the case of Walker’s Razor Slim ear muffs, which earned a thumbs-up in our hands-on testing. Prices go to $300 and beyond for premium hearing protection and can approach $1,000 for custom-molded earpieces.

Q. How do I know which type of ear pro is right for me?

A. Unless you’re on an extremely tight budget, active hearing protection is the way to go. Choosing between earmuffs and earbuds is a matter of personal preference. In-ear hearing protection is more expensive but weighs less and is less likely to interfere with proper cheek weld or your helmet.

Q. Is active hearing protection worth buying?

A. We believe it is. Unless you’re just trying to block the sound of motorized equipment while you work alone, the advantages of being able to hear people around you far outweigh the additional cost. With options as low as $40, why not take advantage of active hearing technology?

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