New sounds of silence drown out city noise

BARCELONA -- Ear plugs that you can actually hear through. Cubes of silence in the middle of busy squares. Peace from the city racket is coming to a Spanish city near you.

BARCELONA -- You can't go a day in the Madrid or Barcelona metros without hearing "The Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel. Whether it's on an accordion, a guitar, or an intriguing-looking Chinese string instrument, even those adding to the cacophony of Spain's largest cities are playing and praying for more silence. It's no surprise that start-ups looking to facilitate a sound barrier are popping up -- whether by trying to filter heavy metal and techno or creating spaces where people can lock themselves up in a silent cube for an hour.

One such start-up EarPeace will be premiering in Spain at the country's largest music festival Primavera Sound on May 22.  Founder Jay Clark is a diehard club and concert goer who set out to design specialized earplugs that soothe and protect the ear from harsh and damagingly loud music without affecting the listener experience. When you go to music events, the venue often gives out free foam earplugs, but that nobody uses them because they tend to deaden the music.

For director of EarPeace activity outside of North America, Sean Salloux, it's all about improving your musical experience. EarPeace earplugs allow you to stay and listen longer, feeling better afterwards. This is crucial in Barcelona, Madrid and Ibiza, which often see clubs and bars closing while the sun is rising. "The longer you are in the louder environment, the more possible the damage your ear will receive and so, over time, you start to lose hearing at certain frequency ranges," he says.

You can potentially risk your hearing after just a few minutes of exposure to levels around 90 decibels. Often the party at a Spanish nightclub can go from one to six in the morning with music blaring at levels that easily reach 110 decibels. This can lead to tinnitus, which can cause a constant buzzing or ringing in the ear, or even varying degrees of deafness.

EarPeace lowers the volume about 20 decibels while letting human voices pass through clearly. This means you can hear both the singer and your friends clearly over the din of the music. If you use the typical freebie foam plugs, you are muffling the sound quality, while still having to yell at the people next to you.

Salloux was a little reticent to tell us about the still patent-pending technology that goes into the tiny plugs, but he could give us some of the details. The design of the earplug is made out of hypoallergenic, medical-grade silicone that can be washed in soapy water and comfortably reused. He says a lot of other so-called reusable earplugs are made of plastic and tend to degrade over time.

The main advantage of EarPeace is the sound filter. The filter is made out of a plastic material in the shape of a small tube. Depending on how you adjust and design it, the earplug absorbs frequency waves. "We chose the design of the passage and the length to absorb high frequencies," he says. At the EarPeace frequency, voices are able to pass through, while the frequency of the music is lowered. Attenuation -- the gradual loss of intensity of anything, in this case sound, through a medium -- dims the music without lessening the quality.

"It's like lowering the volume on the radio, instead of muffling it all which foam does," Salloux says. He also notes that it's important to only insert the EarPeace plug in the recommended direction.

The goal of EarPeace to create a custom earplug experience at a throwaway earplug price. Salloux says that EarPeace is similar to high-end customizable earplugs, that start at around a hundred euros, but his only cost about 15 euros a pair. He says each EarPeace has the high-end features of design, without the electronic functionality that makes the fully customized ones so expensive.

A bonus is that it's small and comes in multiple skin tones, so it's basically imperceptible to the naked eye. He also says that, after a few minutes, the wearer ceases to notice it either. He says deejays in particular are fans because they can comfortably wear their headphones over the EarPeace plugs.

While Salloux says the company is only focused on the music industry, an entire Formula One team is using them, as well as folks in the construction and motorcycle industries .

But, let's face it, even outside nightlife, extreme racing and the construction backbone, the Spanish cities are just loud. From protests to tourists to street performers to despedidas de soltero (costume-filled bachelor and bachelorette parties), it's sometimes hard to find a moment's peace, which means EarPeace could be appealing to anyone.

For similar reasoning, Francisco Suarez and Domenico di Siena of the Urbanohumano urban innovation agency are trying to convert phone booths into Cubes of Silence. They want to turn the omnipresent and increasingly obsolete urban fixtures into soundproof booths with WiFi hookups that offer customers silence for up to an hour.

These boxes of solace are meant for the jet-setting corporate mogul who needs a moment of peace on his or her commute. Imagine crossing Plaça de Catalunya while on an international business trip and suddenly needing WiFi or the silence to have a quick, important conference call. This time-out would also be appealing to the many people forced by the crisis to share apartments and even rooms.

In our world of increasingly disconnected communication, Urbanohumano looks to even virtually link the cubes, to create the newest social network, arguing that while folks want to disconnect from the fast-paced city, they don't want to disconnect completely. This proves, yet again, that we city dwellers are addicted to our chaotic world, but we just want to organize it a bit sometimes.

Photos: EarPeace

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