Hearing improvement technology has marched forward at a slow-but-steady pace, but a new recent law has opened the floodgates. In a rare bipartisan consensus, Congress approved and President Trump signed into law legislation that includes the Over the Counter (OTC) Hearing Aid Act. The act stipulates consumers can directly purchase hearing improvement devices without seeing a medical professional. It also means companies can sell products that claim to improve your hearing without going through the process of qualifying them as medical devices. While the devices will still be FDA regulated, the greater access to consumers is already leading to increased innovation and lower prices. Many current units sell for less than $ 500 now (while medical device hearing aids can cost from $ 2,000 to $ 10,000), and some are planned for as little as $ 150.
This new class of device is aimed at users with mild to moderate hearing loss — which statistically is most people as they age. For those with major hearing loss, the medical route will still make the most sense. After trying out many of this year’s crop of devices, a few stood out that we’ll cover here. Note that most of the exciting new devices I demoed at CES 2018 aren’t available just yet, but should begin rolling out soon.
Hearing Versus Listening
Many traditional hearing products simplify amplify everything. If you’re one of those people who can’t hear someone speaking otherwise, that makes perfect sense. But a much larger group of people can hear pretty well in a quiet environment, but have trouble listening to and understanding conversations in noisy environments. In this case, amplification only makes everything louder, not easier to understand. So companies are now touting their ability to intelligently separate background noise from conversation and help you hear the latter without being distracted by the former. In previous years at CES I’ve been disappointed with the devices I was able to test, but there were several exciting new products this year that gave me a lot of reason for optimism.
Almost all of the below devices rely on recent versions of the Bluetooth spec to serve a range of applications, including listening to music, making phone calls, and listening better.
Nuheara entered the market a year ago with its IQbuds (See on Amazon); now the company will be expanding its product line with higher-end models this year. The current $ 300 product is positioned as a fairly traditional set of Bluetooth wireless earbuds that also include what Nuheara calls noise control. You can even use their smartphone app to create your own mix of ambient sound and whatever you’re listening to on your phone. Its new products move upmarket, closer to $ 500 — taking advantage of the Hearing Aid Act — to provide hearing assistance as a primary goal, in addition to allowing phone calls and listening to music. Its IQbuds Boost model, due out this spring, employs AI to build a personal hearing profile for each user; the profile can then be loaded into the ear buds for optimum soundfield modification.
Startup Lizn takes the conventional approach of amplification a little further with a couple twists. First, it has a directional microphone, so it is able to focus on amplifying the conversation in front of you — hopefully including the person you are listening to. Second, because they’re fitting in-ear units, they will automatically block some of the ambient noise. Finally, the company offers some type of selectivity in its amplification, as they stress it amplifies consonants in speech to best improve intelligibility.
I tried a pre-production pair of the Lizn hearing devices at a press event, and was quite impressed given the price. For the limited use of better understanding the person I was speaking with, they provided a good experience. They’re not invisible, but are fairly non-intrusive, depending on your choice of red, gray, or black models. The best part is that the Lizn is only $ 149 if you pre-order, and is expected to ship “around March.”
Eargo‘s hearing aids are all but invisible. They are not only super-tiny, but most of the unit sits well inside your ear. The well-funded startup is directly aimed at disrupting the traditional hearing aid market and its $ 2,000+ products. When I demoed a pair, the noise reduction and speech amplification were both quite impressive. However, the resulting sound field seemed somewhat unnatural, and even a bit uncomfortable, to me. From the limited time I used them I don’t know whether that is something people will get used to.
Since it was a demo situation, I was also unable to take advantage of the company’s audiologists and hearing test to customize the units to my hearing and preferences. I’m also sure sound quality is something the company will continue to tweak as it ships its new Eargo Max units this month. If you really don’t want anyone to know you’re wearing a hearing device, this is the one for you. If not, I think you’ll be able to get surprisingly similar performance in a slightly larger form factor later this year from some of the other companies we looked at.
Dutch research spin-out Samplified Audio is working on the problem from a different angle. It’s building a sound processing platform called Clementine, which can intelligently amplify conversations while suppressing background noise. However, the signal processing platform won’t necessarily be built directly into a hearing aid. Instead, it can instead be run on a tiny device you can clip on to your shirt or even place on the table in front of you, which then communicates the modified soundfield over Bluetooth to a standard pair of earphones or earbuds.
While in some ways this adds complexity for the user, it has a couple nice advantages. First, you can use your favorite earphones with it. Second, you can place the “listening device” near the person you are listening to — perhaps on the table in front of you. That gives it a leg up compared with the results from a device simply sitting in your ear. I tried a prototype of the sound processor and was very impressed by how well it performed, even on the noisy show floor. But until Clementine is actually available in a consumer product, it’ll be hard to evaluate its real-world performance.
Medical device maker Resound continues to pursue many of these same innovations, although through the more complicated, and more expensive, channel of medical professionals. Perhaps the biggest advantage Resound has is it provides a whole family of hearing improvement products, for just about any type or degree of hearing loss. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to demo their in-ear offering this year; last year I found it amplified well, but didn’t reduce the noise as much as the company claimed it would. We look forward to giving it another go-around at the earliest opportunity.
Is Now the Time to Look for Help for Your Hearing?
If you’ve been put off by the hassle and expense of a full-fledged medical device hearing aid, but know you want some help hearing in tough environments, I’d definitely give one or more of these products a try. However, based on my experience demoing quite a few of them, make sure you have a chance to evaluate them personally before you commit to purchasing one of them (although I guess the Lizn is inexpensive enough you might just take the risk). That said, the technology is also moving quickly, so if you can wait a year or two you’ll see some major improvements and possibly more price reductions. You’re also likely to see the integration of more active hearing technology in “everyday” headphones and earbuds. Even IoT devices and smartphones that support voice recognition are likely to start to incorporate more of these technologies over time.