If hearing loss is the invisible disability, then sound is the invisible threat. Without even being alert to it, the sounds we subject ourselves to could be causing permanent hearing loss that grows irreversibly over the years.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
An ordinary conversation registers at a volume of approximately 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 a deafening 145.
Here’s the issue: repetitive exposure to any sound above 85 decibels can result in permanent hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is especially vital for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as easy as just circumventing the sound. Most of us are unwilling to resign our careers or forgo attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we grow old. The only solution is a compromise: protecting our hearing by limiting the volume of the sounds we’re subjected to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Custom versus disposable earplugs
The objective of any earplug is obvious: decrease the volume of sound. And although it’s true that any earplug can achieve this, it turns out that it’s not that simple, 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 lowered 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) 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 edge in three vital categories: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Foam earplugs shut 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 reduce all-around sound quality and create a confined feeling.
Custom earplugs, conversely, have specialized filters for an exact, even level of noise reduction (attenuation). The earplugs can be customized to reduce volume only by the necessary amount, and can filter select kinds of sound more than others, preserving the fidelity of speech and music.
Foam earplugs, to be effective at reducing volume, have to form a deep seal within the ear canal, causing a constant feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” perception is nearly universal.
Custom earplugs, on the other hand, are cast 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 adjust well to differences in ear size and shape. Since custom earplugs are specially molded for each patient, differences in ear size and shape pose no problem at all.
Let’s carry out some quick calculations, starting with foam earplugs.
Let’s say you work in a profession that calls for 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 bear in mind the environmental cost: over 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 high quality pair of custom earplugs can last four years or more, 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’ll receive greater sound quality and comfort in return.
In addition, by wearing the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll avoid the waste connected with discarding over 1,000 pairs of disposable 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 term, significantly less.