Hearing protection: if you’re shooting, you’re gonna need it.  Even exposure to certain suppressed guns can accumulate over time to cause permanent damage.  The problem with the most effective methods of ear protection (earpro) is that they’re effective against all sound.  If you’re stalking a deer or listening for range commands, hearing (or not) can be the difference between a great day and a monumentally borked one.  This is why electronic earpro such as the ubiquitous Howard Leight Impact Sport (hereafter just Sport) have gained such popularity: amplifying normal volume sounds, while dampening loud noises.  The downsides being they’re battery operated (Murphy’s Law), provide less of a noise resistance rating (NRR) than passive muffs and are usually uncomfortable with eye protection (without aftermarket gel cups).  With the popularity of the Howard Leight Sport’s, it was with great anticipation that many of us waited for the improved version, the Howard Leight Impact Sport Bolt earpro (hereafter just Bolt’s).

Many have remarked that the images of the Bolt released as far back as 2017’s SHOT Show bore a remarkable resemblance to the elder Sport model.  That’s because externally, almost nothing changed.  On the inside, Honeywell (manufacturer of a great deal of OSHA related workplace safety equipment) opted for a hardware revamp.  Digital compression circuity replaced the outmoded analog circuitry, leading to a much faster “attack time”, or the speed at which the circuitry detects a noise over 82 dB and shuts down the electronic amplification dampening the loud noise.  This digital circuitry comes at a price however, as battery life plummets from ~350 hours with the Sport set to ~150 hours with the Bolt set.

Howard Leight Impact Sport Bolt
The elder on the left, the youngling on the right

Aside from the digital circuitry improving attack time and granting some improved low-level noise amplification (as the cost of battery longevity), the performance metrics are identical to the previous generation.  A 22 dB NRR means the Bolt’s are as effective as the Sport’s for attenuating noise once the circuit is compressed.  Other shared features are “Airflow control technology”, 4-hour auto-shutoff, 3.5mm AUX jack for audio input, folding design, AAA battery usage and recessed microphones.

Howard Leight Impact Sport Bolt: Attack the noise
Cheekweld? Just fine, thanks.

The headband on the Sport was never lacking, but the material used to line the Bolt seems to be a step up.  The ear cups on the Sport were never much good and were replaced with aftermarket Sightlines gel cups to good effect.  The Bolt shares a similar set of ear cups as it’s predecessor, meaning replacement would equal improvement.

Howard Leight Impact Sport Bolt
The exposed internals of the Bolt (left) and my modified Sport’s on the right

I want to pause this review for a moment to tell a little story.  My first experience with electronic ear pro was terrible, but I’ve since come to respect that they have a place.  The location was Nasiriyah, Iraq and the event was the rescue of American POW Jessica Lynch.  We had received a few sets of first-gen Peltor electronic earpro a couple weeks prior, and on that night my squad leader decided to ditch his and I jumped on them.  Shortly after being dropped off by chopper, we made our way into the heart of the city.  The droning of support helicopters overhead and the overly “digital” sound of anything that wasn’t dampened was too jarring and I bailed on the set not a half hour after disembarking the bird.  I never wore electronic earpro again while in the service.

Why do I mention the preceding story?  Well as it turns out, I love electronic earpro.  The first gen Howard Leight Sport‘s are among my favorite, with Peltor also in regular rotation at my range days.  Besides the constant “limiting out” of the issued Peltor’s I used on that mission (which was unavoidable with helicopters in such close proximity), the problem I had was with the overly digitized noise quality I was hearing.  It was like kids stringing wire between tin cans, but only if someone made a poor cassette copy of that game and played it back.  The Leight Sport set has great sound quality, so the Bolt with it’s upgraded audio equipment should be a big improvement.  While the “attack time” is improved, the digital circuitry seems like it’s always one bad turn from shrieking feedback into my ears.  Minute noises are amplified excessively.

Howard Leight Impact Sport Bolt
Bolt stock earcups (left) and Sightlines aftermarket gel cups (right)

The solution is to simply turn down the volume right?  Well, no.  The problem isn’t with my volume being cranked up, it’s the actual compression circuitry.  Turning it down just means the overly sensitive, digitized sound is quieter, along with everything else.  This really negates the benefit of electronic amplification versus simple (and cheap) passive ear muffs.  This leaves me in a tough spot, as the Howard Leight brand has engendered a lot of consumer goodwill with the Impact Sport brand, but has missed the mark with the Bolt lineup.  Perhaps this is why the Bolt was delayed so long?  I know my review set was one of the early ones out the door, and I’ve had it for a while wanting to give it a thorough break in period before the review was up.  Perhaps I got a buggy early model, or perhaps the Bolt came out a bit prematurely.  Either way, I’ll stick with my Sport set until the problems are ironed out, or a new model is released.

Howard Leight Impact Sport Bolt
Again, old and new side-by-side

The Bolt set runs $89.95 on the Honeywell website, and can be found for just a couple bucks cheaper elsewhere.  If you’ve had a different experience with your set of Bolt‘s, sound off in the comments below!

-Rex Nanorum

@Rexnanorum