If hearing loss is the invisible disability, then sound is the invisible threat. Without even being aware of it, the sounds we expose ourselves to might be causing permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly over the years.
Who’s in danger of hearing loss?
A regular conversation registers at a volume of around 60 decibels. City traffic registers at approximately 80, a rock concert at 100, a sporting event at 105, a power saw at 110, and a shotgun blast at an earsplitting 145.
Here’s the problem: repetitive subjection to any sound in excess of 85 decibels can induce irreversible hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is particularly vital for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as straightforward as just staying away from the sound. Most of us are not willing to abandon our careers or forgo attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we get older. The only resolution is a compromise: safeguarding our hearing by decreasing the volume of the sounds we’re subjected to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Disposable versus custom earplugs
The function of any earplug is obvious: reduce the volume of sound. And while it’s true that any earplug can accomplish this, it turns out that it’s not that easy, for two reasons:
- All sound is not created equal—speech is different than background noise, and you’ll want to suppress the latter, not the former.
- Sound is dynamic—specific frequencies necessitate different handling, and volume shouldn’t be decreased by too much or by too little.
So, for an earplug to be effective, it has to 1) limit the volume of sound, but not by too much or too little, and 2) manage assorted types of sounds, or frequencies, differently.
As you’ll see, custom earplugs accomplish these two feats much better than foam earplugs and have the advantage in three crucial areas: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Foam earplugs block out all sound and all frequencies, generating what is known as the occlusion effect for the user, which is the feeling of a “hollow” or “booming” echo-like sound in their own voice. Foam earplugs reduce overall sound quality and create a claustrophobic sensation.
Custom earplugs, alternatively, have special filters for a precise, even level of noise reduction (attenuation). The earplugs can be programmed to decrease volume only by the necessary amount, and can filter specific kinds of sound more than others, preserving the fidelity of music and speech.
Foam earplugs, to be effective at reducing volume, have to form a deep, tight seal within the ear canal, creating a sustained feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” sensation is nearly universal.
Custom earplugs, however, are cast to the curves of each patient’s ears by a hearing professional, creating a secure, natural fit without the feeling of continuous pressure. Custom earplugs are also made with soft, medical-grade material that doesn’t shrink or change form.
Additionally, foam earplugs do not adapt well to variations in ear size and shape. Seeing as custom earplugs are specially shaped for each patient, variations in ear size and shape pose no problem whatsoever.
Let’s do some quick calculations, starting with foam earplugs.
Assume that you work in a profession that calls for the daily use of earplugs. Assuming an average cost of $0.19 per pair, with use on 5 days a week over 4 years, the total cost would be:
$0.19 X 5 days X 52 weeks X 4 years = $197.60 total cost.
(Also keep in mind the environmental cost: over the period of four years you’d be discarding 1,040 pairs of earplugs!)
Let’s do a comparison of that $197 to the cost of a pair of custom earplugs.
A quality pair of custom earplugs can last four years or longer, but let’s just say four. Most custom earplugs cost under $100, so your total cost after four years is less than half the cost of the disposable earplugs—and you get better sound quality and comfort in return.
Not to mention that by using the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll reduce the waste connected with discarding over 1,000 pairs of foam earplugs.
Custom molded earplugs and foam earplugs will both decrease volume and protect your hearing, but that’s where the similarities end. Custom earplugs have better sound quality, are more comfortable, and cost you and the environment, in the long run, significantly less.