Before getting this article started, we’re going to reiterate our disclaimer here:
Nothing on this site is medical or audiological advice – all such advice should come from a properly licensed and qualified professional.
Should you wear hearing protection while using a powered mower?
Permanent and cumulative ear/hearing damage can occur at volumes that might not seem all that loud or uncomfortable, and most power tools, including mowers, easily exceed that threshold. Moreover, ear/hearing damage can accumulate for years without symptoms, only for a person to realize its too late once they do experience symptoms.
Plain old ear plugs or safety muffs can work fine, but mowing can get pretty boring, and fortunately there are a variety of headphones and earbuds that are designed to also provide hearing/ear protection.
How loud are common/popular lawn mowers to the user?
Sources seem to vary, and this will also depend on a variety of brand and environmental specific factors, but here’s a rough guideline:
Electric push mower: 75 dB
Gas powered push mower: 85 dB
John Deere/gas powered tractor mower with cab: 95 dB
John Deere/gas powered tractor mower without cab: 100 dB
Something worth noting here: if a lawn mower sounds unusually loud it could be a sign of it being in suboptimal condition – it might need maintenance or a part replacement.
How much hearing protection do you need while mowing?
Sound that reaches around 70 dB, which is about what the average household vacuum cleaner reaches, is where prolonged exposure can start to cause hearing damage. Safe exposure time decreases rapidly as dBs, an exponential measurement, increase.
Ideally you want to get enough noise reduction to be decently below the 70 dB threshold. If you’re not sure a single piece of equipment you have will get you there, you can always double up a pair of earbuds or earplugs with a pair of noise cancelling/isolating headphones or earmuffs.
PSA: it’s better to be safe than sorry! Yes that’s a tired platitude, but hearing loss, even mild, can be uncomfortably debilitating and generally stinks to deal with. Ask any multi-decade veteran in the music industry and they will almost always tell you to use hearing protection with maniacal enthusiasm!
Do noise cancelling headphones offer hearing protection?
Yes – noise cancelling headphones/earbuds actually emit a second sound wave that’s called “anti-noise.” This anti-noise is out of phase with, or an inversion of, the actual noise coming in from the outside, which essentially neutralizes the air pressure differential (that’s what a sound wave basically is) which would otherwise vibrate your eardrum and register sound in your brain.
This is opposed to noise isolation, which simply blocks the outside sound wave or reduces it’s potency, or air pressure differential, to safe and/or tolerable levels.
Is noise isolation or cancellation better? pros and cons
Either, if used properly, can provide adequate hearing protection and make mowing safe. The differences between the two are mostly a matter of practical preference:
Factor #1: cost – Good noise cancelling headphones can get expensive, running up to a few hundred dollars or even more, whereas good noise isolating headphones are available for a small fraction of that price. And of course plain old earplugs are pretty cheap.
Factor #2: comfort – Noise isolating headphones or earplugs often need to be inserted pretty deep into the ear canal to function properly. They also tend to exert a fair amount of feelable pressure. They can also exacerbate issues with wax build up and impaction.
Noise cancelling headphones can feel pretty bulky and heavy. They might move or slide around on your head, or, the ones intended for use while doing manual labor or other physical activity can have a pretty tight clamp force in order to stay in place. Noise cancelling headphones can also cause a so called “pressure” feeling, or a sensation like your ears need to pop, but many users report that if they do experience this feeling it often goes away after you get used to using noise cancelling headphones.
Any of the aforementioned possibilities can cause comfort issues that might dissuade someone from using one or the other.
Factor #3: battery dependence – noise cancelling headphones use active electronics to produce the anti-noise, and thus need batteries or to be charged, whereas simple wired noise isolating headphones do not and can just be plugged into your source device at any time.
Factor #4: bulk/usability/convenience – noise isolating headphones can be as small and light as any pair of earbuds, whereas noise cancelling headphones are, said again, unavoidably large and bulky to a degree. It’s entirely likely that you’ll want to be able to use hearing protection headphones generally – not while just mowing the lawn – so ease of commuter style use is definitely worth considering.
Specifics to look for in hearing protection headphones or earbuds
Good clamp force – Heavier and bulkier headphones can slide around as you walk, move, and perpetually look down while mowing. In addition to that being extremely annoying while trying to mow or do some other physical labor, it runs the risk of compromising the seal and hearing protection.
Weather resistance – It’s good for any pair of headphones you’re going to use in an outdoor environment, even one that’s relatively temperate, have some degree of weather resistance. Look for something that has an official IP code certification for protection against moisture and dust.
Noise attenuation/reduction rating – any pair of isolating headphones or earbuds should have a specified level of noise reduction, often abbreviated NRR, in decibels (dB), so you can be sure you get well below the threshold of hearing safety.
Specific products we like and recommend
The best noise isolating earbuds in our opinion are made by Etymotic Research – the company specialize in hearing protection as well as does research and makes equipment for professional grade audiology.
Their popular mk5s (read our review here), have 35-42 dB of noise attenuation, which is enough to reduce the noise of just about any non-commercial lawn mower on the market to safe levels. They don’t even have to be on with music playing to work, and can also function as simple earplugs.
These are also great for general noisy commuter use on planes, crowded trains, and such.