Combining advanced hearing modes and selectable noise reduction in a surprisingly ergonomic and easy-to-use platform, the XCEL digital electronic muffs take hearing protection to the next level. For serious shooting enthusiasts, the days of using passive hearing protection are pretty much over. Sure, we all keep a few packs of foam plugs or a set of battery-free muffs in our range bags just for good measure, but for regular shooting duties at the bench or on the course of fire, nothing rivals active sound suppression. Veteran shooters also realize that electronic muffs are more than feature-rich luxuries—they are an essential part of range safety. The ability to clearly hear what’s happening up and down the firing line or to be instantly aware of range officer or instructor guidance is something every practiced firearm enthusiast understands and fully appreciates. Active hearing protection has been around for years, and each year, it seems, manufacturers continue to find new ways to refine sound compression and audio enhancement technology to make life on the range safer in more ways than simply protecting our hearing. Recently, Walker’s pushed that envelope to the outer edge with the introduction of their new XCEL line of digital electronic muffs—the XCEL 100 and the XCEL 500BT. Walker’s XCEL 100 Muffs Our initial impression of the XCEL muffs went something like, “Well, that’s a whole lot of headgear.” Specifically, the unconventional interface gave us pause. We’re all used to having the user interface consisting of an ON/OFF volume knob located somewhere on the ear cup. The XCEL, by contrast, features a control panel as part of the headband. At first glance, the design looks heavy and potentially cumbersome. Place the XCEL on your head, though, and such notions quickly disappear. The control panel (right side) and battery compartment (left side) are light, slim, and completely unobtrusive. This radical relocation (by conventional industry norms) of the electronic control module and battery storage is more than, “Let’s do this just to be different.” It delivers two important and beneficial functions from the shooter’s perspective. First, moving the control module and batteries out of the cups allows for more air space inside the muffs, making them more comfortable and providing a solid cup design (no holes or seams) to deliver an impressive 26 Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). Second, the control panel design offers enough acreage to include the high-gain omni-directional mics plus large, soft-touch control buttons that let you easily manipulate the XCEL’s expanded audio features—even when wearing shooting gloves. No more fumbling for buttons or dial knobs on the ear pieces. Much as we appreciate this new approach to the physical layout of electronic muffs, the real benefits of the XCEL are found in the digital electronics. For example, the XCEL delivers four distinct listening modes that the shooter can select depending on need and environmental conditions: Universal, Speech Clarity, High-Frequency, and Power Boost. Most electronic muffs, by comparison, come with only one preconfigured sound mode. The XCEL’s Universal mode offers the expected qualities for general sound amplification under typical shooting conditions. The Speech Clarity Mode, on the other hand, is calibrated to minimize ambient background noise while refining vocal sounds. This is an important feature for receiving or giving instructions on an active range, or to have more comfortable conversations with your range partners. For long-range steel shooters, the High-Frequency mode is a real treat, as this tunes the XCEL to pick out those sometimes-subtle rings even at extreme distances. Finally, there is the Power Boost mode, which amps the overall audio discrimination without having to up the volume. All these functions are selected via the buttons, of which there are four, on the headband-mounted control panel. One button is dedicated to ON/OFF. The two vertically stacked central buttons adjust volume. The fourth button lets you select between the four sound modes. Sound confusing? Not really. What makes it even easier to operate is the voice menu. Rather than having to guess what mode you’re in, the XCEL voice prompt tells you each mode as you scroll through them. That’s a function we especially appreciate because it allows us to keep our focus on the range instead of trying to figure out where we’re at in a menu. In addition to the four listening modes, the XCEL has a couple more programmable digital features that anyone who has used active muffs for some time will stand up and applaud (we sure did!). The first is wind noise reduction. Although we did not get to test this in hurricane conditions, the XCEL certainly reduces that all-too-familiar headache roar whenever a stiff breeze blows our way. Walker’s XCEL 500 Muffs Finally, there is the auto shut-off feature. Have you ever pulled your electronic muffs out of your range bag, turned them on, and then heard…nothing? Yep, we’ve done it too many times to count, always forgetting to turn them off, only to find dead batteries for the next shooting session. The XCEL’s auto shut-off stops that ongoing annoyance dead in its tracks. You can choose between 2, 4, or 6 hours for the XCEL to shut off automatically in case you don’t trust yourself to do it manually. There is also a low battery warning, so you’ll know to swap batteries before starting your course of fire. One thing is for sure—that little feature is destined to save us a lot of money in the long haul. Another slick feature of the XCEL is one that works in the background, so to speak, but represents a refinement of the sound compression technology that all active hearing protection devices are base on. The XCEL is the first in the Walker’s line to offer Variable Dynamic Sound Suppression. Rather than a fixed-time-duration compression event (the moment when the mic picks up a loud sound, shuts off the amplification, and then turns it back on), the VDSS automatically adjusts this compression to match the power level and duration of the harmful noise. With this technology, hearing protection is maximized for any loud sound event. As mentioned, the XCEL is currently offered in two models. Both the XCEL 100 and the XCEL 500BT offer the same base features and functionality described. The XCEL 500BT, however, also includes Bluetooth connectivity, allowing you to tap into your mobile device to hear notification alerts or to take calls in a noisy range environment. We’ve all experienced the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” concept in many shooting products—items so loaded with “stuff” that the extraneous stuff gets in in the way or detracts from the product’s core mission. We’ve used some hearing protection that’s done just that. Fortunately, the new Walker’s XCEL digital electronic muffs don’t fall into that category. Are these muffs feature-packed? Absolutely, but the enhancements are delivered intelligently and with an ergonomic approach that not only doesn’t interfere with the shooting experience but elevates it in terms of comfort, convenience, and, most important of all, hearing protection. We’ll take that to the range any day. SPECIAL OFFER! For a limited time only, you can purchase of a pair of Walker’s XCEL 500BT electronic muffs for only $124.99! Simply follow the link HERE for instant savings!