If hearing loss is the invisible disability, then sound is the invisible hazard. Without even being alert to it, the sounds we subject ourselves to could be producing permanent hearing loss that grows irreversibly year after year.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
A typical 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: recurring exposure to any sound in excess of 85 decibels can bring about permanent hearing loss. That’s why hearing protection is specifically crucial for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as straightforward as just avoiding the sound. Most of us are not willing to resign our jobs or go without attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we grow old. The only resolution is a compromise: protecting our hearing by decreasing the volume of the sounds we’re exposed to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Custom versus disposable earplugs
The goal of any earplug is obvious: lower the volume of sound. And although it’s true that any earplug can accomplish this, it turns out that it’s not that easy, 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 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) handle 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 advantage in three vital areas: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Disposable foam earplugs block out all sound and all frequencies, generating 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 all-around sound quality and create a confined feeling.
Custom-molded earplugs, on the contrary, come with specialized filters for an exact, 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, preserving the quality of speech and music.
Foam earplugs, to be effective at reducing volume, have to form a deep seal within the ear canal, creating a sustained feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” feeling is nearly universal.
Custom earplugs, however, are shaped to the contours of each patient’s ears by a hearing professional, producing a secure, natural fit without the feeling of constant pressure. Custom earplugs are also manufactured with soft, medical-grade material that doesn’t shrink or change shape.
In addition, foam earplugs are unable to adjust well to variations in ear size and shape. Since custom earplugs are specially shaped for each patient, differences in ear size and shape present no problem whatsoever.
Let’s do some quick calculations, beginning 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 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 top 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.
Not to mention that by using the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll avoid the waste associated with throwing out over 1,000 pairs of foam earplugs.
Custom hearing protection and disposable earplugs will both reduce volume and protect your hearing, but that’s where the commonalities end. Custom earplugs have far better sound quality, are more comfortable, and cost you and the environment, in the long term, much less.