The need to block out unwanted noise is not a new problem. Earplugs have been around for centuries, a cheap and simple fix to an age-old quandary. Even though they’ve existed for what seems like forever, they’ve gotten a much-needed makeover only fairly recently.

In ancient times, earplugs might have been fashioned out of wax or clay. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that earplugs as we know them today were developed. The silicone earplug was invented in 1962 by Ray and Cecelia Benner and was initially marketed toward swimmers to prevent water from entering the ear canal and causing an infection. Ten years later, the first foam earplugs were invented by Ross Gardner. He got the idea from the foam padding in headphones.

Since then, the form and function of foam earplugs have remained essentially the same. In fact, the drugstore earplugs that I bought for my daughter just the other day mirror the ones I had sitting in my bathroom vanity drawer.

But apparently not enough people are wearing them. Noise-induced hearing loss is becoming more prevalent. According to the Better Hearing Institute, more than 6 million people between the ages of 18 and 44 suffer from some sort of hearing loss. It’s also the third most common illness in the United States, behind arthritis and heart disease.

Much of that hearing loss is entirely preventable. Hearing loss occurs when the hair cells inside our ears are destroyed. The damage happens when we listen to loud noises for a long time. Thanks to earbuds and ever-expanding portable music players, more people are listening to loud music for hours. At what level is loud noise damaging to our hearing? Typically at 85 decibels, about the level of a hair dryer or a food processor. Many people listen to music on their headphones at 110 to 120 decibels. Music at a concert clocks in at about 125 decibels, which is well over the recommended limit.

Enter Fritz Lanman’s Doppler Labs, which announced the release of its Dubs Acoustic Filters (read: fancy earplugs) in September. As described on the company’s website, “We wanted plugs that didn’t protrude out of your ears — making it embarrassing to wear at a club or a sports event — and didn’t get in the way of your listening experience, but we couldn’t find anything like that. So we decided to invent it.” The product’s design could help turn earplugs into something fashionable, as does the affordable price tag; Dubs can be purchased for $25 a pair.

How do they work? Unlike traditional earplugs, which muffle sound and sacrifice the quality of your listening experience, the Dubs engineers developed a mechanical series of high- and low-pass filters that reduce volume without distorting sound quality. It essentially works as a volume control that rests inside your ear.

So we’ve leaped from inexpensive foam earplugs to cool (and costly) mechanical ear filters. Maybe the change will prevent some hearing loss. In any case, we'll look good trying.

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How the earplug has evolved
A new generation of earpugs aims to reduce noise-induced hearing loss without distorting sound quality.