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 creating permanent hearing loss that accumulates irreversibly year after year.
Who’s in danger of hearing loss?
An everyday 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 a deafening 145.
Here’s the issue: repeated exposure to any sound above 85 decibels can lead to permanent hearing loss. That’s why hearing protection is especially critical 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 unwilling to abandon our jobs or go without attending concerts just to assure that we can hear better when we get older. The only resolution is a compromise: protecting our hearing by limiting the volume of the sounds we’re exposed to. Welcome to the world of earplugs.
Disposable versus custom earplugs
The goal 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 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—specific frequencies call for 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) deal with 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 crucial categories: 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 sense of a “hollow” or “booming” echo-like sound in their own voice. Foam earplugs therefore reduce all-around sound quality and produce a confined feeling.
Custom-molded earplugs, conversely, come with special filters for a precise, 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 at reducing volume, have to form a deep seal within the ear canal, producing a sustained feeling of pressure, and this “plugged up” sensation is nearly universal.
Custom earplugs, conversely, are shaped 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.
In addition, foam earplugs are unable to adapt well to differences in ear size and shape. Given that custom earplugs are specially molded for each patient, differences in ear size and shape create no problem at all.
Let’s do some quick calculations, beginning with foam earplugs.
Assume that you work in a profession 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 throwing away 1,040 pairs of earplugs!)
Let’s do a comparison of that $197 to the cost of a pair of custom earplugs.
A quality pair of custom earplugs can last four years or longer, but let’s just say 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 get greater sound quality and comfort in return.
Not to mention that by wearing the same custom earplugs for four years, you’ll avoid the waste connected with throwing out over 1,000 pairs of disposable 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 term, much less.