Good Vibrations

Wayzata native Jackson Mann brought his innovative ear plugs to ABC’s Shark Tank.

A ruptured eardrum inspired Jackson Mann to create an innovative new product that landed him on national TV. Earlier this year, Mann—a graduate of Wayzata High School and the University of St. Thomas—appeared on the ABC reality show Shark Tank, pitching his high-fidelity earplugs called Vibes to “the sharks,” a panel of potential investors. Although the sharks didn’t end up taking the bait, business at this startup is booming nevertheless.

The idea for Vibes came to Mann about about two years ago. He left a concert with potentially permanent hearing damage, rupturing his eardrum by standing next to one of the speakers. Eager to avoid making the same mistake twice, he made sure to grab a pair of earplugs before the next concert. But, the desire to protect his hearing health came at a cost. “I instantly realized that [those earplugs] destroyed the sound quality and are not designed for music,” he says. “So why have they been the go-to ear protection at concerts for decades?” There had to be a way, he thought, to balance both priorities—to fully enjoy live music and prevent hearing loss. From there, Vibes was born.

Simply put, Vibes are earplugs designed for live music. “They allow you to protect your hearing without sacrificing sound quality or clarity,” Mann says. Foam earplugs are commonplace at concerts, but they simply block the noise and muffle the music in the process. Vibes, in contrast, filter acoustics to lower decibel levels without distorting the sound.

For Mann, the need for such a product was clear. While researching, he came across a World Hearing Organization study that found over 440 million people are at risk of hearing damage each year, and live entertainment—whether at bars, nightclubs, sporting events or concerts—is among the top threats. It’s common to leave a concert with ringing ears, but every time that happens, it’s a sign irreversible hearing damage has occurred.

The first Vibes prototype took six months to make. Mann and his team started with 3D-printed models and collaborated with audiologists at the University of Minnesota to perfect them. Less than six months after putting together a business plan, Mann presented it on Shark Tank, which he calls “the most intense experience of my life.” His presentation was edited down to a 10-minute segment for the episode, but in reality, it was an hour long. “It is far from the normal investor pitch,” he describes. “They know nothing about you before you walk in. You have no notes, no breaks, no pleasantries or small talk. Just the cameras, lights and your one shot.”

Mann was not a winner on the show, but Vibes has still seen a great deal of success. Mann says he is grateful for the experience, as it forced him to fine-tune his business product and consider things from a new angle.

Although Vibes were designed with concerts in mind, new uses are continually being discovered. From bartenders to flight attendants, Vibes can prove useful to people in a variety of occupations. Mann says he is especially excited about their benefits to people with sensory disorders. “We are constantly hearing from parents who say their child has sensitivity to sound, who don’t see earplugs or earmuffs as a solution,” he explains. “The virtually invisible design of Vibes also allows the child to not feel stigmatized.”

The company has made doing good a top priority by pledging to donate a percentage of its revenue to the Hear the World Foundation, which provides free help to individuals with hearing loss in 39 countries across the world. “Our vision is to adopt one of [Hear the World Foundation’s] initiatives in a country and get members of the Vibes community to participate,” Mann says. “We see the purchase of a pair of Vibes as a virtuous cycle—you can protect your hearing while helping others protect theirs.”

Vibes are available at music festivals, venues and events, in addition to a variety of independent retailers, including the Electric Fetus, Twin Tower Guitars and Fifth Element. They are also available online at Amazon and at the Vibes website here.