Tech giants revolutionize hearing aids, breaking cost and stigma barriers

As over-the-counter hearing aids gain traction in the market, consumer electronics giants like HP, Sony, and Bose are teaming up with established hearing aid manufacturers to make hearing devices as common as reading glasses. The shift follows FDA approval for over-the-counter sales, breaking down barriers of cost and accessibility. With brands like Apple and EssilorLuxottica entering the fray, the hearing aid landscape is evolving, attracting younger users. As technology advances, these discreet and feature-rich devices are challenging the traditional stigma associated with hearing aids.

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Hearing Aids Are About to Become as Common as Reading Glasses

By Matthew Kronsberg

(Bloomberg Businessweek) —

When friends I hadn’t seen in years passed through New York recently, I knew the perfect place for a late-night catch-up: Bar Goto on the Lower East Side. The Japanese-style cocktail lounge’s amber lighting makes everyone look good, and the drinks are some of the best in the city.

And the music? Well, it’s usually subdued, but when my highball was served, Motörhead’s God Was Never on Your Side thrummed over the speakers. Although it played at nowhere near the ear-splitting volume the band was famous for, I still strained to hear what was being said three seats down the bar. Having a conversation in the din of a night out can be a struggle for me these days, thanks in part to countless nights spent in noisy clubs and too many Motörhead concerts.

Rather than missing out or leaning in, I popped in a pair of HP Hearing Pros. They look like a normal pair of earbuds—and often act like them, too, letting me stream music and take calls—but they’re part of a new wave of over-the-counter hearing aids. Their noise cancellation technology reduced the music to a faint background rumble, while Focus Mode, controlled from an app, trained their microphones on the people in my conversation.

HP Inc. is just one of several familiar consumer electronics brands that have teamed up with established hearing aid manufacturers to make the idea of wearing a listening device as common as putting on a pair of reading glasses.

Last year, Sony Corp. released the CRE-C10s, which fit invisibly into your ear canal and use batteries that last up to 70 hours. Sennheiser Electronic GmbH’s All-Day Clear Slim hearing aids combine a behind-the-ear body with an earbud-style receiver that doesn’t go all the way into the ear canal. They can also stream music, calls and even the feed from your TV.

About 48 million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Council on Aging, but only about 20% of them do anything about it. Among those with mild hearing loss—the largest group—the percentage is even lower.

The typical span between suspecting some hearing loss and getting fitted for a hearing aid is about 10 years. “They’re a market that the end user would rather not be part of,” says Niels Granholm-Leth, head of equity research at Carnegie Investment Bank AB. That reluctance is partly because hearing aids have historically been expensive: The average price for a pair is $4,672, according to a recent survey by website HearingTracker.

But that’s begun to change since last year, when the US Food and Drug Administration began allowing over-the-counter sales to consumers. Before, you had to buy hearing aids from a professional, who would test your hearing and fit and configure the gear for you.

“Our business ten-x’d overnight when these regulations changed,” Nic Klopper says. He’s the co-founder and chief executive officer of South Africa-based Lexie Hearing, which teamed up with Bose Corp. in 2022 on a line of over-the-counter hearing aids. Their $999 B2 model is far more comfortable for all-day use than normal earbuds, and it includes in-app chat, text and video support—important, Klopper says, because customers are looking for an ecosystem, not just a device.

Most makers of over-the-counter aids offer simple hearing tests on their sites, which alert those with more serious hearing loss to seek professional care. Some devices, like the HP earbuds I was wearing, will also guide you through a hearing test as part of an initial setup to create a custom setting for your needs, with a clever visual to show what frequencies you’re missing. The technology behind all of this comes largely from Australian company Nuheara Ltd., which teamed up with HP in 2020. Oh, and the Hearing Pros are only $499.

The other reason people don’t get hearing aids is the social stigma around them. Thankfully, that’s also changing. The blend of price and brand familiarity is winning over a new audience. “Ninety percent-plus of our customers are first-time wearers,” says Klopper. They’re also younger. “The typical hearing aid customer is around 70 to 71,” he says. “From what we’ve seen on the data, our cohort of customers—which are tens of thousands of users—are about nine years younger than that.”

Attracting young users, not just younger ones, is part of a changing picture of hearing health. Studies have shown that millennials and Generation Z—groups that grew up wearing earbuds all the time—are experiencing hearing loss at rates of about 10% and 17%, respectively.

“We’re looking at a very different generational mindset and attitude when it comes to hearing aids,” says Lisa Yong, director of consumer tech for trend forecaster WGSN. “Users are younger these days, and there is less of a barrier to acceptance. Older generations tend to be more self-conscious, while younger cohorts are used to wearing earbuds and see hearing aids as another audio device.”

Separating the signal from the noise when it comes to features can be challenging. An Amazon.com search for over-the-counter hearing aids yields dozens of results, many from non-FDA-approved “bad actors,” observes industry consultant Thomas Powers, who fitted Ronald Reagan and other US presidents. Some will make claims of being able to restore your natural hearing, work for severe hearing loss or “the one I love, that they’re using CIA technology,” Powers says. “I’ve never worked at the CIA, but I don’t think they license their technology.”

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There’s still a lot of room to disrupt a market that’s valued at $7.71 billion and poised to double in the next decade. In the first quarter of 2023, just 1% of the hearing aids sold by members of the Hearing Industries Association were over-the-counter devices.

This month, JVCKenwood USA Corp. will release the $1,000 EH-Z1500 hearing aid with artificial-intelligence-driven chat and video support as well as 24/7 telehealth services, according to Patrick Koehn, a vice president at JVCKenwood.

And then there’s Apple Inc., which leads the wireless earbuds market. It accounted for about 32% of sales last year, according to data from Canalys. The company is working on a hearing test feature for future AirPods that will play different tones and sounds to allow the earbuds to determine how well a person can hear.

Even eyewear maker EssilorLuxottica SA is getting in on it, acquiring the Israeli startup Nuance Hearing to develop traditional rectangular-framed glasses with built-in hearing aids. You can look like Clark Kent and have some of Superman’s powers.

Five Hearing Aids That Are Like Reading Glasses for Your Ears

Lexie B2

These behind-the-ear-style hearing aids, made in partnership with Bose, offer refreshingly natural sound and fit comfortably enough for all-day use. The accompanying app contains preset configurations for different listening environments such as “outdoors” and “noisy indoors,” as well as “front” focus settings for the B2’s microphones. Real-time video chat support is available, too. Streaming for calls is currently available only to iPhone users. $999

Sony CRE-C10

These bean-size hearing aids tuck securely, comfortably and almost invisibly inside your ear—ideal for those who wear glasses. Their small size necessitates some compromises: Rather than rechargeable batteries, they use tiny disposable ones. And they don’t offer Bluetooth connectivity, so you can’t take calls or listen to podcasts. The app to control the hearing aids uses high-pitched chirping tones played on your phone, a low-tech but effective method. $1,000

Sennheiser All-Day Clear Slim. Source: Vendor

Sennheiser All-Day Clear Slim

Combining a behind-the-ear body with an earbud-style receiver that sits outside the ear canal, this hearing aid may prove a more comfortable fit for some. App controls are simple: A three-band equalizer and a toggle for wind noise reduction are as complicated as it gets. The Bluetooth connection also allows for calls and streaming music. A three-hour charge in a clamshell case—which must be plugged in—gives about 16 hours of use. $1,500

HP Hearing Pro

For those unsure if they need a full-blown listening device, consider these. They’ve got impressive performance given their entry-level price, and their size, while larger than others on this list, helps them look like normal earbuds. (You can even switch off the hearing aid functionality and use them as headphones.) They can be recharged in their case—useful, since battery life is about eight hours as hearing aids and up to five hours for Bluetooth streaming. $499

Jabra Enhance Plus

This inconspicuous earbud-style hearing aid has four microphones, multiple ear tip sizes and above-average noise cancellation. It also makes for comfortable listening, particularly for earbuds. Despite their small size, they get 12 hours on a charge, and, just like AirPods, the case has a battery capable of nearly two full recharges so you’ll have plenty of juice on the go. Setting up a hearing profile is easy and clear. They are, however, only iPhone-compatible. $799

You May Already Have a Hearing Aid in Your Pocket

Apple’s AirPods Pro, combined with an iPhone’s accessibility features, can give your hearing a boost, even if they’re not certified as hearing aids. Here’s how:

Turn your phone into a microphone

If you’ve ever found yourself across the table at dinner from a Seinfeldian “low talker,” turn on the Live Listen function and set your phone in front of the person you want to hear. It amplifies the sound and feeds directly into your AirPods.

Block out the unwanted noise

Conversation Boost, part of Transparency Mode, blends active noise cancellation with a process that adjusts the signal from the AirPods’ microphones to focus on the voice of the person talking to you.

Customize them your own way

Hearing loss rarely happens evenly, across all frequencies, in both ears. The Headphone Accommodations setting can use an audiogram of your hearing (an app such as Mimi can generate one) and apply it to all of the audio coming from your phone.

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