If hearing loss is the invisible disability, then sound is the invisible threat. Without even being mindful of it, the sounds we expose ourselves to could be producing permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly year after year.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
An average conversation registers at a volume of about 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 problem: repetitive exposure to any sound above 85 decibels can result in irreversible hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is specifically critical for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as simple as just staying away from the sound. Most of us are unwilling to quit our jobs or go without attending concerts just to make certain that we can hear better when we grow old. The only solution 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 goal of any earplug is obvious: lower the volume of sound. And though it’s true that any earplug can accomplish this, it turns out that it’s not so simple, 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 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 various types of sounds, or frequencies, differently.
As you’ll see, custom earplugs accomplish these two feats much better than foam earplugs and have the edge in three important categories: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Disposable foam earplugs block all sound and all frequencies, creating what is known as the occlusion effect for the user, which is the perception 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-molded earplugs, on the contrary, have specialized 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 certain types of sound more than others, conserving the fidelity of music and speech.
Foam earplugs, to be effective, have to form a deep seal within the ear canal, causing a sustained feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” perception is nearly 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 constant pressure. Custom earplugs are also created 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 create no problem whatsoever.
Let’s do some quick calculations, beginning with foam earplugs.
Let’s say you work in a profession that requires the every-day 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 span of four years you’d be discarding 1,040 pairs of earplugs!)
Let’s compare that $197 to the cost of a pair of custom earplugs.
A top quality pair of custom earplugs can last four years or more, but let’s just assume 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 get better sound quality and comfort in return.
Not to mention that by using the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll avoid the waste connected with throwing out over 1,000 pairs of disposable earplugs.
Custom hearing protection and foam earplugs will both reduce 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.