As a frequent concertgoer, Vibes founder Jackson Mann, knows how damaging the loud speakers can be. At first he thought the ear ringing he experienced after going to a concert was normal, and nothing he should worry about. But that all changed when he ruptured an ear drum after one too many loud shows. His doctor suggested he start wearing hearing protection at shows, but after Mann tried the earplugs he was frustrated by the way they changed his concert experience. He wanted to find a way to make a better option.
“I put in foam earplugs and instantly realized that they were not designed for music or sound quality. They completely muffled and distorted all the sound, and it took away from the whole concert experience, which is what you paid to come see,” Mann said. “So it was kind of at the time that there was a disconnect between people’s understanding of sound levels, sound and the sound experience, but also the need for a product that not only kept people safe and lower sound, but also kept the sound quality to be able to hear the music, clearly and without distortion.”
Mann worked with project designers in the University of Minnesota’s audiology department to make a new and improved earplug, creating prototypes and printing them with a 3D printer. After taking those prototypes into a sound lab, and testing them on people Mann started Vibes in 2017, selling the new ear plugs that work completely different from the foam ones.
“If you’ve ever been at a party somewhere where there’s a speaker in a room next to you, or maybe you have a roommate who’s playing music when you’re trying to sleep and all you can hear is the thumping of the bass through the wall, that’s what a foam earplug is. It’s blocking that sound and cutting out all the highs and all the treble,” he said. “With Vibes, it’s letting all those frequencies through evenly from bass to treble. You’re still hearing the music exactly as it comes through the speakers, just at a lower decibel level. It’s the equivalent of a volume knob. It’s not distorting sound, it’s just lowering decibels.”
While concertgoers are Vibes’ main focus, the earplugs also work well for people who spend time in loud environments, like bartenders, mechanics and motorcycle drivers, but still need to communicate with others. Mann said it also works well for people who are on the autism spectrum or have a sensory disorder, where everyday sounds can be painfully loud.
“We’ve had a huge embrace from that community of people using it, and have heard lifechanging stories of families being able to do different activities, to go on vacations again, go to the mall with their kids again and things they normally wouldn’t be able to do.”
Mann took Vibes to Shark Tank last year. Although he didn’t land funding on the show, he made an impressive demonstration with the help of the Twin Cities’ McNasty Brass Band.
With the growing success Mann has had with Vibes, he is now able to give back to organizations like the Hear the World Foundation, giving low-income people in Peru access to things like screenings, hearing aids, surgeries and other hearing health services, and he hopes that more people will start thinking about their own hearing too.
“I think there’s going to be a shift the same way that you won’t go out in the sun for ten hours without putting sunscreen on, most people don’t go for a long bike ride without putting their helmet on, and most people put their seatbelt on when they get into the car,” Mann said. “I’m kind of hopeful that there will be this big shift in people’s behavior where they realize that loud concerts can be damaging. I am still able to hear the music and sometimes better because you’re not overdone with the loudness of sound and it’s become more common place for people to be thinking about their hearing health the same way they think about other aspects of their health.”
Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.