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 producing permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly over the years.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
An average conversation registers at a volume of roughly 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 concern: recurring subjection to any sound above 85 decibels can induce irreversible hearing loss. That’s why hearing protection is particularly vital 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 give up our jobs or forgo attending concerts just to assure 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 objective of any earplug is obvious: decrease the volume of sound. And although 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—speech is different than background noise, and you’ll want to suppress the latter, not the former.
- Sound is dynamic—specific frequencies call for different handling, and volume shouldn’t be reduced 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 assorted types of sounds, or frequencies, differently.
As you’ll discover, custom earplugs accomplish these two feats better than foam earplugs and have the edge in three critical areas: 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 sense of a “hollow” or “booming” echo-like sound in their own voice. Foam earplugs reduce overall sound quality and create a claustrophobic sensation.
Custom-molded earplugs, on the contrary, have specialized filters for an exact, even level of noise reduction (attenuation). The earplugs can be customized to decrease volume only by the necessary amount, and can filter specific types of sound more than others, conserving 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 constant feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” feeling is nearly universal.
Custom earplugs, on the other hand, are molded to the contours of each patient’s ears by a hearing professional, creating a secure, natural fit without the feeling of constant pressure. Custom earplugs are also developed with soft, medical-grade material that doesn’t shrink or change shape.
Additionally, foam earplugs are unable to adjust well to differences in ear size and shape. Since custom earplugs are specifically shaped for each patient, variations in ear size and shape pose no problem at all.
Let’s carry out some quick calculations, starting with foam earplugs.
Assume that you work in an occupation 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 keep in mind the environmental cost: over the span 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 high 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 total 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.
Not to mention that by using the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll eliminate the waste associated with discarding over 1,000 pairs of foam earplugs.
Custom molded earplugs and disposable earplugs will both decrease 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 run, much less.