If hearing loss is the invisible disability, then sound is the invisible hazard. Without even being alert to it, the sounds we expose ourselves to might be producing permanent hearing loss that grows irreversibly year after year.
Who’s in danger of hearing loss?
An everyday conversation registers at a volume of around 60 decibels. City traffic registers at about 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 issue: repeated subjection to any sound in excess of 85 decibels can result in permanent hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is particularly crucial for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as straightforward as just circumventing the sound. Most of us are unwilling to give up our careers or go without attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we get older. The only solution is a compromise: protecting our hearing by decreasing the volume of the sounds we’re exposed to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Custom versus disposable earplugs
The goal of any earplug is obvious: lower the volume of sound. And even though 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—The sounds of speech are much different than the sounds of background noise. You want to suppress more of the background noise than of speech or music.
- Sound is dynamic—specific frequencies call for 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) reduce the volume of sound, but not by too much or too little, and 2) handle various types of sounds, or frequencies, differently.
As you’ll discover, custom earplugs achieve these two feats better than foam earplugs and have the advantage in three crucial categories: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Foam earplugs block out all sound and all frequencies, creating what is called the occlusion effect for the user, which is the feeling of a “hollow” or “booming” echo-like sound in their own voice. Foam earplugs therefore reduce all-around sound quality and produce a confined feeling.
Custom earplugs, in contrast, have specialized filters for an exact, even level of noise reduction (attenuation). The earplugs can be programmed to reduce volume only by the necessary amount, and can filter select types 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, producing a sustained feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” sensation is practically universal.
Custom earplugs, however, are molded to the curves of each patient’s ears by a hearing professional, producing 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.
In addition, foam earplugs are unable to adapt well to differences in ear size and shape. Seeing as custom earplugs are specifically molded for each patient, differences in ear size and shape present no problem at all.
Let’s carry out some quick calculations, beginning with foam earplugs.
Let’s say you work in a profession that requires 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 bear in mind the environmental cost: over the span of four years you’d be throwing away 1,040 pairs of earplugs!)
Let’s do a comparison of that $197 to the cost of a pair of custom earplugs.
A high quality pair of custom earplugs can last four years or longer, but let’s just say four. The majority of custom earplugs cost under $100, so your overall cost after four years is less than half the cost of the disposable earplugs—and you’ll receive better sound quality and comfort in return.
In addition, by using the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll avoid the waste connected with throwing out over 1,000 pairs of foam earplugs.
Custom molded earplugs and disposable earplugs will both reduce volume and protect your hearing, but that’s where the commonalities end. Custom earplugs have better sound quality, are more comfortable, and cost you and the environment, in the long term, much less.