|Vibes Hi-Fi Earplugs. Photo from www.discovervibes.com|
[image: White earplugs resting in a black box with red sides.]
First off, I am quite sensory sensitive/defensive to noise. “Bad” sounds shut me down and hurt, even at low volumes, if it is the wrong type of noise.
My existing coping mechanisms have been playing music through in-ear headphones, and foam earplugs. I haven’t tried many stand-alone active noise-canceling products, save for a few hi-fi music headphones with noise cancelling features.
In reviewing the Vibes earplugs, I am primarily contrasting them with foam earplugs.
The Vibes come in an attractive small package, containing items similar to what you would expect from music earbuds: the earplugs themselves, additional small and large fit rubber earbud inserts, and matchbook-sized carrying case. For anyone who has carried foam earbuds in a pocket, the carrying case is a bonus. Though the case is fairly low-grade plastic, but the earplugs themselves feel well made and sturdy.
Comfort, Fit, Appearance
These areas are where the Vibes shined for me. The large size was the best fit for my ears, and I found them by far to be the most comfortable earplug (or music earbud) I have ever worn. This is high praise. They are very light, and unlike foam earplugs, they do not apply pressure to your ear canal when sealed.
In one case, I spent about a minute searching around my desk for one of the earplugs. I found that I still had it in my ear. I never “forget” I have stuck something in my ear. Ever.
The ear plugs are almost invisible when in. My wife, knowing I was wearing them, could not see them in my ears from five feet away. This makes them far less visible than neon foam earplugs, and over the ear devices. However, this also means people will not recognize you are wearing earplugs and increase their conversational volume to accommodate you.
Performance and Sound Quality
This is where the Vibes turn into a bit of a mixed bag.
Pros: They work about as well as foam earplugs in reducing volume. They transmit a better frequency range of sound than foam earplugs. However, take manufacturer claims of sound quality with a big grain of salt.
The Vibes website, www.discovervibes.com/our-products, states these earplugs “lower decibel of your environment without sacrificing sound clarity.” Erm. They do much better than foam earplugs in transmitting a broader frequency range with less “muddying,” but they still take away quite a lot of higher frequencies.
I tested the sound quality by inserting the Vibes and then putting on a good pair of over the ear headphones. I chose Metallica’s Black Album to test the sound quality, as the Black Album “sound” is characterized by a heavy bass guitar line on the low end, vocals in the middle frequency, and wailing guitars and cymbal crashes on the high end. Famously, the drum mix favored the high end without booming bass drum sounds, so the result is little overlap on the soundstage.
I listened without the Vibes, then inserted the Vibes and increased the volume back to the same listening level. I found the cymbal crashes almost disappeared from the sound stage, so clearly the Vibes are filtering out more high-end frequencies than low end. “Hi Fi” is a serious stretch here, you are losing a lot of sound frequency.
Cons: For me, an immediate, visceral, “bad sound” con was the sounds that these earplugs make rubbing against my ear canal. The closest I can explain is that the sound was like that of a dry Q-tip in one’s ear: plastic-y “rubbing” noises that occurred whenever I moved my head, every step I took, every time something made my ears move. Not good. For the several hours that I tried the earplugs, this sound was present. However, the noise attenuated over time—I believe in part because of the earplug break-in process, in part because earwax “greased” the rubber of the earplugs. At first it was very unpleasant, but over time, it got to where I didn’t personally feel it was a deal breaker. However, it never went away and I doubt it will.
Effectiveness As Adaptive Tech for Autistics
It is hard to quantify this factor, as everyone has their own personal diet of good and bad sounds. While wearing Vibes in an office setting, I found that they reduced (but did not eliminate) the air conditioning droning. In a street setting, traffic noise and rustling of leaves in the breeze was very attenuated, and it was in this setting where it felt the noise reduction was most effective in filtering unwanted extraneous noise. In a vehicle, again it felt effective at lowering the extraneous engine and climate control noise.
I found it hard to carry on a conversation while wearing the earplugs. At a conversational volume I found myself pulling the plugs out to hear. Obviously that means they are effective at lowering the sound volume, but I suspect most autistics would prefer a solution that allowed them to have conversations without removing the device.
Disclosure: A Vibes rep provided earplugs for the author to use in his review.