If hearing loss is the invisible disability, then sound is the invisible threat. Without even being alert to it, the sounds we expose ourselves to could be producing permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly over the years.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
A regular 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 concern: repeated subjection to any sound in excess of 85 decibels can bring about irreversible hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is especially essential for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as simple as just keeping away from the sound. Most of us are not willing to quit our careers or forgo attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we grow old. The only resolution is a compromise: safeguarding our hearing by limiting the volume of the sounds we’re exposed to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Custom versus disposable earplugs
The purpose of any earplug is obvious: reduce 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—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—different frequencies require 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 better than foam earplugs and have the advantage in three important areas: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Disposable foam earplugs block out all sound and all frequencies, producing 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 overall sound quality and produce a claustrophobic sensation.
Custom-molded earplugs, alternatively, have special filters for a precise, even level of noise reduction (attenuation). The earplugs can be customized to reduce volume only by the necessary amount, and can filter specific types of sound more than others, preserving the quality of music and speech.
Foam earplugs, to be effective, have to form a deep seal within the ear canal, creating a sustained feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” feeling is practically universal.
Custom earplugs, on the other hand, are cast to the contours 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 do not adapt well to variations in ear size and shape. Since custom earplugs are specifically shaped for each patient, variations in ear size and shape create no problem at all.
Let’s do some quick calculations, starting 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 disposing 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. 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.
In addition, by wearing the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll avoid the waste associated with discarding 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 similarities end. Custom earplugs have far better sound quality, are more comfortable, and cost you and the environment, in the long term, much less.