Just as hearing loss is known as the invisible disability, sound is known as the invisible threat. Without even being conscious of it, the sounds we expose ourselves to might be creating permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly over the years.
Who’s at risk for hearing loss?
An average 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 concern: recurring exposure to any sound in excess of 85 decibels can lead to irreversible hearing loss. That’s the reason why hearing protection is particularly critical for musicians, concert-goers, hunters, and construction workers.
But it’s not as easy as just staying away from the sound. Most of us are not willing to abandon our jobs or forgo attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we get older. The only solution is a compromise: safeguarding our hearing by decreasing the volume of the sounds we’re exposed to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Disposable versus custom earplugs
The function 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 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 various types of sounds, or frequencies, differently.
As you’ll discover, custom earplugs achieve these two feats better than foam earplugs and have the advantage in three vital categories: sound quality, comfort, and cost.
1. Sound Quality
Disposable foam earplugs shut out all sound and all frequencies, generating 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 therefore reduce all-around sound quality and produce a confined sensation.
Custom-molded earplugs, alternatively, come with advanced 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 certain types of sound more than others, conserving 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” perception is practically universal.
Custom earplugs, on the other hand, are shaped to the contours of each patient’s ears by a hearing professional, creating a secure, natural fit without the feeling of continuous pressure. Custom earplugs are also crafted with soft, medical-grade material that doesn’t shrink or change form.
Additionally, foam earplugs do not adapt well to differences in ear size and shape. Seeing as custom earplugs are specifically molded for each patient, differences in ear size and shape create no problem whatsoever.
Let’s carry out some quick calculations, beginning with foam earplugs.
Let’s say you work in a profession that calls for the daily 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 the period of 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 assume 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’ll attain greater sound quality and comfort in return.
Not to mention that by using the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll reduce the waste associated with throwing out over 1,000 pairs of disposable earplugs.
Custom hearing protection and foam 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 term, significantly less.