According to several studies, more than 35 million Americans have experienced some level of hearing loss. The same studies project that this number will increase to 40 million by 2025. Add to this another 50 million Americans suffering from tinnitus, a condition which causes ringing in the ears (Source). For many, prescription hearing aids are too expensive, averaging $2300 for each ear.
Thankfully, a bill signed into law in 2017 provides relief for those who cannot afford the cost of prescription hearing aids. The new law – the Over the Counter Hearing Act of 2017 (OTC Act) – has made it easier for technology companies to manufacture affordable earbuds that function like hearing aids.
Although it is still essential to consult a medical specialist if you have hearing problems, the OTC Act makes it possible for consumers to buy products that address their hearing issues without a prescription.
We looked at the market to identify some of the best available products. The article also attempts to predict what the future of earbuds that function like hearing aids looks like.
The Tinnitus and Hearing Loss Challenge
Many people experience tinnitus after exposure to loud noises such as traveling in a plane, attending a concert or being exposed to other forms of extremely loud noise. For most people, the ringing sound usually subsides after several hours. However, for some, it is constant. Even though tinnitus is not an indication of a serious health problem, it can be annoying (Source).
When the ringing sound in the ear lasts for over six months, it is termed “chronic tinnitus”. Tinnitus and hearing loss are can both result from prolonged exposure to noisy environments, which is why people who work in noisy places like airplane hangars, concerts, and construction sites have a higher risk of simultaneously becoming victims of both. However, the conditions can also be a consequence of aging, disease, or ear infections. Although rare, certain medications can also exacerbate tinnitus (Source).
Can Hearing Aids Provide Relief for Tinnitus?
Since the causes of tinnitus and hearing loss are generally the same, most people who suffer from tinnitus are likely to be using hearing aids. Hearing aids usually make it possible for the wearer to hear what is going on around them with better clarity. It is likely that when a wearer can hear more of the sounds around them, their tinnitus will not be as noticeable.
According to the American Tinnitus Association, “There is currently no scientifically proven cure for most cases of chronic tinnitus — in particular, the vast majority of cases caused by sensorineural hearing loss” (Source). The same association reports that the 2007 survey of hearing health professionals, reported that 60% of patients suffering from tinnitus reported experiencing some form of relief when using hearing aids. The report also indicates that slightly over 20% of the patients reported significant relief. Such conclusions support the view that aids like earbuds which function like hearing aids could be possible solutions for some cases.
A team at the University of Michigan is currently working on a device consisting of a pair of earbuds that produce a sound which matches the volume and frequency of the patient’s tinnitus. The device then sends a tiny electrical impulse to the head. Even though this research is still in the early stages, the team reports that “tinnitus sufferers have a genuine hope of being free from this condition sometime in the coming years” (Source).
Impact of Over the Counter Hearing Act of 2017
The OCT Act allows the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate over-the-counter hearing products. It also stipulates conditions that must be met, including:
- Such aids should provide reasonable efficiency and safety.
- It establishes labeling requirements and output limits.
- It defines the criteria to be followed when hearing aids are sold without a prescription, in person, online, or by mail. (Source)
The OTC Act is likely to create competition in the market. This kind of competition has the potential to bring down prices and increase accessibility. Without the need for a doctor-directed hearing test, users will have greater freedom of buying the hearing aids.
However, while the new Act may be great news for users looking for more affordable solutions to hearing problems, it presents some challenges. For instance, some users will self-diagnose. Failure to consult an audiologist can be problematic for people who have underlying issues that need medical attention.
Without the right knowledge, users are unlikely to know precisely what hearing aids they require to deal with their problems. If not handled properly, self-diagnosis could worsen instead of improving hearing problems. Hence, this Act should not be understood to mean that seeking specialist medical advice is no longer important.
What are Hearables?
Earbuds that can also be used as hearing aids are sometimes called hearables. These hearables make use of wireless technology to complement and improve the hearing experience of an individual suffering from hearing loss.
These devices aim to optimize sound in all situations. Some hearables also include features such as heart rate monitoring, smartphone syncing, GPS, and music.
Below, we feature hearables that may appeal to consumers looking for an affordable over-the-counter solution for hearing problems. In selecting these products, we looked at several elements, including the product’s features, affordability, and reviews by users and experts.
Nuheara IQbuds Boost
As people age, they may find themselves asking others to repeat themselves more often and also avoiding areas with loud noises. Nuheara’s IQbuds’ (older versions retail for $199 on Amazon, while the newer version retails for $499) may alleviate that situation. They come with noise control and speech amplification. An EarID app on your mobile device can be used to control the device.
While the Nuheara’s IQbuds have great features, some reviews note that the product is uncomfortable when you wear it for long periods. They also report that connectivity and power management leave a lot to be desired.
Despite the problems noted, the IQbuds Boost is still a useful product. It delivers clear sound. Even though there may be some discomfort when wearing the earbuds for a long time, some users report that the product has been helpful.
Bose Noise-Masking Sleepbuds
The Bose Noise-Masking Sleepbuds promise to help you sleep better by masking “unwanted noise with soothing sounds.” Even though these earbuds have the same features as your standard Bluetooth headphones, they have been specifically designed to help the wearer to fall asleep. They ensure that once you are sleeping, you don’t get interrupted by unwanted sounds. The earbuds replace the noises that could disturb your sleep with soothing sounds.
Bose earbuds come with a charging case that delivers 16 hours of charge. Knowing that sleeping with earbuds can be uncomfortable, you may ask whether these earbuds work. According to some reviews, the product is so well designed that a few moments after putting then on, you will soon forget you are wearing anything.
The Avanco Hear
The manufacturers of the Palcodas’ Avanco Hear describe their earbuds as “the only Bluetooth hearing aid with a built-in hearing test.” The earbuds feature noise cancellation and voice recognition. They also feature voice control over smart assistants such as Alexa and Siri. Added to all these features is a language translator.
However, anyone who likes the Palcodas’ Avanco Hear earbuds will still have to wait for a little longer as the manufacturer is still developing the product. It is expected to hit the shelves around September 2019.
Users can also equalize and filter sound through the Avanco Hear’s dual Digital Signal Processor (DSP). If the comfort fit promised by this product does become a reality, the manufactures would have managed to solve a challenge many earbuds that function like hearing aids have been struggling with.
The main challenge with the Avanco Hear earbuds is that they are not yet in the market. However, in an April 29, 2019 update, the company said development is progressing smoothly. The manufacturers indicate that they want to ensure that when the product finally gets to the market, it is bug-free.
Sennheiser Set 880
The Set 880, by Sennheiser, promises an effortless listening experience. Among several features, the product comes with sound enhancement, pre-settings, and volume control. It can also connect to TV and radio.
The Sennheiser Set 880 has been praised for being simple and easy to use. It’s the product for someone who does not consider themselves to be tech-savvy. It comes with a few large buttons which are clearly marked. It also has a clear LED which shows the battery level and status of the connection.
It notifies you when the battery will die, so you don’t miss out. These earbuds provide 18 hours of battery life, which is impressive when compared to other products in the market.
If one ear is weaker than the other, you can adjust the sounds to be different on each of the ears. Another great feature is its ability to reduce background noise on TV; allowing you to hear voices with better clarity. It also has a high volume output. So, it is an excellent choice for more severe hearing difficulties.
The Future of Hearables
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is expected to play an increasing role in future hearable technology. Machine learning, a process of training computers to learn from collected data, is likely to be the leading driver of AI. What this implies is that future hearing devices will collect information which will be used to enhance features and customize solutions for different individuals.
Another element that hearables of the future are likely to do is to monitor health. For instance, Jabra’s Sport Elite can monitor the heart rate. In the future, these devices are also likely to improve; moving towards monitoring abnormalities and alerting loved ones if something goes wrong with the person wearing the device.
Experts like Poppy Crum, an adjunct professor at Stanford University and the chief scientists at Dolby Laboratories (an American firm specializing in audio compression/encoding and noise reduction), are already playing around with future scenarios. In a recent article, Crum paints a picture where hearables of the future will be able to monitor blood pressure and brain waves. This ability will enable them to determine what the wearer of a certain hearable is attempting to pay their attention to. The device would then increase the volume coming from that source. These hearables will be able to monitor mental effort to block out the voices a listener wants to ignore and amplify those they are attempting to hear. This feature could be useful in places such as restaurants and crowded bars.
Another critical step for the future of hearables is fuel cell technology. Fuel cell technology enables hearing aids to work without batteries. For instance, Methanol, a fuel cell, reacts with air to power the hearing aid. This technology will eliminate extensive charging so that users can enjoy excellent hearing for longer.
Changing laws and advances in technology are making it easier for tech companies to provide hearing solutions at affordable prices. Solutions for people with hearing problems such as tinnitus are likely to become more accessible, advanced, and available going into the future. These advances are also moving towards helping users alert others when there is a problem with their health.