Just as hearing loss is known as the invisible disability, sound is known as the invisible threat. Without even being alert to it, the sounds we subject ourselves to could be producing permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly over the years.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
A normal 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 a deafening 145.
Here’s the concern: repeated subjection to any sound above 85 decibels can induce irreversible hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is specifically vital for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as easy as just staying clear of the sound. Most of us are not willing to quit our careers or go without attending concerts just to make certain 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 subjected to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Custom versus disposable earplugs
The purpose of any earplug is obvious: lower the volume of sound. And even though 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) limit the volume of sound, but not by too much or too little, and 2) deal with various types of sounds, or frequencies, differently.
As you’ll see, custom earplugs achieve these two feats much better than foam earplugs and have the advantage in three important categories: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Disposable foam earplugs block out all sound and all frequencies, creating what is called the occlusion effect for the user, which is the perception of a “hollow” or “booming” echo-like sound in their own voice. Foam earplugs reduce all-around sound quality and produce a claustrophobic feeling.
Custom earplugs, alternatively, come with special 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 certain kinds of sound more than others, preserving the quality of speech and music.
Foam earplugs, to be effective, have to form a deep seal within the ear canal, producing a constant 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 crafted with soft, medical-grade material that doesn’t shrink or change shape.
Additionally, foam earplugs do not adjust well to differences in ear size and shape. Given that custom earplugs are specifically shaped for each patient, differences in ear size and shape pose no problem at all.
Let’s perform some quick calculations, beginning with foam earplugs.
Assume that 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 bear in mind the environmental cost: over four years you’d be throwing away 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 longer, but let’s just say four. Most 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 reduce the waste connected with throwing out over 1,000 pairs of foam earplugs.
Custom hearing protection and foam 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, significantly less.