November 12, 2020
Waterfowl hunters have had a rocky history with hearing protection devices over the years. Less politely stated, many have never worn a pair while hunting a day in their lives. And those who have often end up ditching them later. Many will suffer some degree of hearing loss as a result.
Although this damage is self-induced, hearing loss isn't something waterfowlers actively court. Most wear muffs or pop in foam plugs when shooting a round of skeet or sporting clays. However, hunting is a different story.
While most want to protect their ears, they still want - and need - to hear certain sounds while hunting, such as wings whistling overhead, a blind mate's whispers about birds circling the spread, and their duck calls.
Few hearing devices have met these needs, so few hunters have worn them. And this is problematic because, in addition to difficulties communicating, studies have shown that those with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic health problems later in life.
A new company, TETRA Hearing, has set out to address this issue. Founded by two audiologists who are also avid hunters, TETRA manufactures products designed to protect hunters' hearing while clearly delivering the sounds of their given pursuit. The company's new Waterfowl AlphaShield ($699.00; tetrahearing.com), an in-ear hearing protection device specifically programmed and optimized for waterfowl hunting, is one such product.
Last season, Bill Dickinson and David Gnewikow, TETRA's founders, invited me and several other outdoor writers on a couple duck hunts to experience the Waterfowl AlphaShields firsthand. I also tested the devices extensively on my own personal hunts in Kansas. Over this time, I found myself consistently impressed with their sound enhancement and protective capabilities, as well as their comfortable fit in the ear.
INTO THE TIMBER
The first of my hunts with the AlphaShields took place in Ballard County, Kentucky, located near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Our group of hunters arrived at our destination in the pre-dawn darkness, split up into two boats and shoved off into an expansive maze of flooded timber.
In the windless morning, we traversed a narrow course between the trees marked by reflective posts. In several spots, this channel was scarcely wider than the boat itself. However, our driver, with his hand on the tiller, navigated this route with a series of deft pivots - obviously the result of many repetitions - and we came into a large clearing in the timber.
Two floating blinds and an armada of decoys greeted us. Each boat took a blind, and we settled in for the morning, eagerly awaiting wave after wave of ducks.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. The morning was slow. Few birds were flying, and even fewer came within striking distance. We did shoot a handful, though, including a first for me: a black duck.
The slow action, while not ideal, offered ample opportunities to hear how the AlphaShields handled human speech. And with a few brief shotgun volleys, I also experienced the AlphaShield Compression technology in practice. Blind mates' banter and storytelling came through clear and undistorted - no muffling of voices. Meanwhile, loud shotgun blasts were quickly muted without injury or irritation to my ears.
Still, while we were there to test out the AlphaShields, our main goal was getting into ducks. The more the better. And our hosts decided this wouldn't happen at our current location. We needed a new game plan.
Luckily, the folks leading our hunt had another spot a few hours south in Tennessee along the Mississippi River, and the guys who hunted there that morning had limited out by 10 a.m.
This proved all the persuasion our group needed. That afternoon following our hunt, we quickly repacked our vehicles and shot south into The Volunteer State.
A PLAN COMES TOGETHER
After our arrival and after obtaining new licenses, we had a few hours of sunlight left, so we decided to check out our new digs for the next morning's hunt. A brisk boat ride later, and we were there.
While the blinds we hunted in Kentucky were impressive, they paled in comparison to this one, which was almost house-like in its dimensions. The blind had a comparable enclosed boat port, but the similarities stopped there. The first door off the docking area led into a large front lounge space with a recliner, couch, oven and stovetop, among other features. Another door at the back of this room granted access to the blind's shooting area, with multiple well-brushed-in shooting lanes and space for at least 10 hunters. Out front an arrangement of motion and floating decoys - equally impressive as what was on display in Kentucky - sat ready to capture the attention of high-flying birds.
In those few hours, we saw tons of ducks flying, most likely to an evening feed in a nearby field. With each group of birds, we grew more and more excited for the following morning. We left a little before dusk and boated back to our accommodations.
The next day, our impromptu audible paid off. Despite a lack of wind most of the morning, we had solid action from legal shooting light until we stopped hunting around midday.
Most duck hunters live for the sight of mallards, wings cupped and feet down, slowly descending into a decoy spread. We experienced this many times throughout the morning, and everybody in the blind was pretty thrilled as a result.
According to the folks who'd hunted there the day before - and who were hunting with us again that day - fewer birds were landing with the lackluster breeze. However, we were all pumped to be seeing, and getting shots at, as many birds as we were. It was certainly more action than we had in Kentucky.
While many of the really large groups weren't committing, a couple did, and we had quite a few smaller groups, pairs and even singles drop into the spread. Each time someone spotted a bird, or several, flying, they'd whisper it to the group, and - because we all had the AlphaShields - we'd hear them clear as day regardless of our position in the blind. Even better, when all 10 or so of us would fire on a group of birds, the barrage wouldn't leave your ears violently ringing as it normally would. Instead, we'd get right back to talking amongst ourselves, awarding praise to those with good shots or gentle ribbing to those with inexcusable misses.
Overall, this second morning was a success in two ways. It provided some great shooting opportunities on greenheads, and it gave us ample opportunities to see - and hear - the AlphaShields in action.
HEARING THE HUNT
This is a great story, you may be thinking, but what makes TETRA's AlphaShields different from other electronic hearing protection products? Well, perhaps it's best to start at the heart of the AlphaShields. Or maybe the brain might be a better metaphor.
Central to the AlphaShields - and TETRA's other hearing protection gear - is a type of high-end integrated circuit, or microchip, similar to those found in premium hearing aid technology. This microchip allows for sophisticated programming not found on most electronic hearing protection used for hunting and shooting. It gives TETRA's audiologists incredible control over the types of input sounds allowed into the device and how they are processed and outputted to the ear.
Founders Bill Dickinson and David Genwikow knew that in addition to protection they wanted hunters to be able to hear crucial hunting sounds just as well, and often better, than they could without devices. To this end, they've conducted extensive testing to determine specific frequencies that occur with sounds unique to each hunting pursuit - in the case of waterfowl models: whistling wings, quacks, calls being blown, etc.
"We digitally recorded what it sounds like to blow a duck or goose call, and we actually did that at the eardrum of an expert caller," Dickinson says. "We would record when nothing was in their ear to find out, ‘What are the frequencies to make that call sound like a duck call or a goose call at their eardrum?'"
They've also done this for sounds that hunters don't want to hear in the blind. Things like wind interference (which often plagues electronic devices) and shotgun blasts.
Once frequencies for both the desirable and undesirable sounds are isolated, next comes programming the devices. Through a patent-pending process the company refers to as Specialized Target Optimization (STO), TETRA programs devices to amplify targeted sounds based on specific hunting pursuits. This allows sound to pass through the AlphaShields at a natural level, be reduced to a safe level or be blocked completely.
Low sounds - for example, whistling wings - are amplified so hunters can better detect them. Low-level duck calling may be allowed to pass through naturally.
On the other hand, loud calling, which can prove damaging above certain frequencies, is reduced to hearing-safe levels. However, the AlphaShields accomplish this reduction without distorting the quality of the call's sound, instead simply lowering its volume. So, a hail call still sounds like a hail call. It's just not assaulting your ears with a damaging level of sound in the process.
Meanwhile, AlphaShield Compression technology specifically targets and blocks frequencies associated with shotgun blasts. This, too, happens differently than with most electronic hearing protection. When most devices detect a damaging sound, they temporarily block all sound coming into the device by shutting off the entire circuit. Because of the AlphaShield's sophisticated chip, and because TETRA has isolated the frequency ranges common to damaging muzzle blasts, only those frequencies are blocked.
This offers several benefits. First, other, non-damaging sounds can still pass through the devices. Second, because of the premium microchip inside TETRA devices, the compression of frequencies only associated with gunshots can be shut down extremely fast. For this same reason, reactivation after the blast also occurs faster with the AlphaShields.
Additionally, Waterfowl AlphaShields have three different volume settings and a ClearComm mode, which focuses on human speech. It's perfect for chatting after the hunt or general use if you already experience hearing loss.
The amount of programming in the AlphaShield is incredible, considering its small size. And it's really what separates this product from many other electronic hearing protection options.
FIT AND FUNCTION
The technology above sounds great, but it means little if devices are uncomfortable to wear or don't perform as advertised. Thankfully, neither is true of the Waterfowl AlphaShields.
The devices are quite comfortable, particularly compared with large electronic muffs, which can also impair proper shotgun mounting at the cheek. While not a custom-molded fit (TETRA does offer this with the Waterfowl CustomShield), the AlphaShields fit my ears quite well.
In fact, on several occasions while hunting, I'd forget that I was even wearing them. On the hunts in Kentucky and Tennessee, we'd be boating back from our blinds and I'd realize that I'd never taken them out after hunting. The comfy fit and relatively seamless hearing were such that I hadn't been aware of their presence. I can think of no higher praise than that regarding comfort, and it also speaks well to their performance.
According to Dickinson, this fit should extend to most of the hunting population. He and Gnewikow have taken hundreds of impressions, digital scans and high-resolution photos of ears, and then used computer-aided design (CAD) to tweak the AlphaShield's shell to fit into as many ears as possible. Right now, Dickinson says they have achieved a fit rate of 96 percent with the AlphaShield. That's impressive when you imagine the wide variety of ear shapes and sizes possible.
All in all, there's a lot to like about TETRA's Waterfowl AlphaShields. The AlphaShield Compression technology cuts off damaging muzzle blasts almost instantly, and the sealed silicone and foam tips offer additional passive protection. Fit is also great.
However, the STO technology, which TETRA and its customers also call "pursuit-based hearing," is the real showstopper. The ability to hear the sounds crucial to your given hunting needs while keeping your ears totally protected cannot be overstated. With the Waterfowl AlphaShields, commands and comments from blind mates come through clearly, calling sounds natural, and key quiet sounds (like wings or distant calls) are more easily heard. In my experience, the AlphaShields' targeted programming delivers these sounds to the hunter in a way that's unrivaled among current electronic devices. If you're serious about protecting your hearing while still enjoying the sounds of the hunt, then the Waterfowl AlphaShields may be worth considering.
AlphaShields operate on commonly available size 10 hearing aid batteries. They come in a waterproof case with two smaller, pocket-sized cases and several different silicone and medical-grade memory-foam tips.