Brands like Bose and Jabra now offer affordable hearing aids
The audiologist's office isn't the only place to get hearing aids.
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Despite hearing loss affecting 48 million Americans, only one in four adults who could benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one. This is unfortunate, as untreated hearing loss has been associated with serious conditions like depression, anxiety, and dementia.
One reason is likely the prohibitive cost. Audiologist Abram Bailey, who started independent hearing aid resource HearingTracker.com, surveyed over 2,000 people and found that the average price for a pair of hearing aids was $4,673. When purchasing a single hearing aid, the average was $2,560. The price was also dictated by the number of advanced features it had.
This cost doesn’t even include the required audiologist visits. Some places bundle the hearing aid and services into one price, while others price the aids separately and charge per follow-up visit. Regardless of how the purchase is made, insurance rarely covers the hearing aid.
Large companies like Bose, Apple, and Jabra have taken notice of this need and are beginning to produce products and features that can improve hearing at a fraction of the cost of traditional aids, and without a prescription. An iPhone and a pair of AirPods may be all the hearing help many need to counter mild hearing loss.
Making hearing aids more accessible
Back in 2017, Congress hoped to change the industry by passing a law to allow over-the-counter sales of hearing aids. Theoretically, this would lower prices and increase competition, since the four largest hearing aid manufacturers control 84% of the market. But no further progress had been made until President Biden ordered the FDA in September to produce rules for these OTC aids by mid-November. The law is expected to take effect by summer 2022.
In the meantime, Bose and Jabra are poised to change the market with direct-to-consumer aids. Apple is also hyping software features in its products that can benefit people with hearing loss.
Who are these over-the-counter hearing aids for?
It is important to note that direct-to-consumer hearing aids are only meant for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. OTC aids are best for people who are excellent with technology and apps on their cell phones, says Ashley Eisen Graney, audiologist at Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center in Buffalo, New York. “The users should be good at troubleshooting technology themselves, as they won’t have the support of an audiologist to walk them through the process or counsel them on usage, care, or difficulties they may encounter (which is the bulk of what an audiologist does),” she adds.
Other characteristics that make for a good OTC hearing aid candidate are having good manual dexterity (for inserting and cleaning the hearing aids) and being determined to succeed, says Bailey.
Apple Live Listen and Conversation Boost
People gravitate toward Apple because its products are designed to work well with each other and often with products from other companies. iPhone-compatible hearing devices are the result of Apple working with manufacturers to make hearing aids and sound processors that work well with Apple’s phones. Users can pair with more than one device and control all of them from their iPhone.
Free iOS features include Live Listen, which turns the iPhone into a remote microphone that sends sound to a hearing aid or even to AirPods. Live Listen enables you to hear whatever is near your phone, which means you can set your iPhone in front of a friend in a noisy restaurant and hear them clearly through your AirPods. Or, you could hear the TV better by setting your phone next to its speaker.
Apple is also hyping Conversation Boost for AirPods Pro, which is more similar to a PSAP (personal sound amplification product) than to a hearing aid. It utilizes computational audio and beamforming microphones to focus on the voice of the person in front of you. Unlike most Apple devices and features, Conversation Boost requires a lot of steps to set up each time.
Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids
Bose, a company founded over 50 years ago and known for its innovative audio products, is a big player in this market. One of its newest is a direct-to-consumer hearing aid called Bose SoundControl, which lists for $849.95.
Though this is a fraction of the cost of standard aids and it's eligible for flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings (HSA) reimbursement, it is still a high cost for many.
Only available through Bose, SoundControl is lightweight at three grams. With directional audio, the aid is designed to fine tune mumbled sounds, clarify consonant sounds, and enhance softer voices.
The aid is paired with the Bose Hear app. Customers can call or text the customer service line six days a week, but this isn’t the same as getting help from a licensed audiologist.
While there’s a 90-day risk-free trial, the SoundControl lacks many features that prescription hearing aids have like Bluetooth compatibility, audio streaming, and rechargeable batteries. It only comes in one style and one color (gray). It’s important to note that the SoundControl is only FDA-cleared, not FDA-approved (meaning that the FDA hasn't approved this specific device, but the manufacturer has demonstrated that it works similarly to another device that has been approved). The user is responsible for setup, tuning, adjustments, and ongoing care.
As for its lack of features, Bose says it wants to focus on getting the hearing experience right. If the response to SoundControl is positive, the company will likely be rolling out more feature-rich aids in the future.
Jabra Enhance Plus hearing aids
Another player in the direct-to-consumer hearing aid market is Jabra, which is known for making Bluetooth headsets and other business-oriented audio products.
Jabra Enhance Plus is expected to be released in late 2021 or early 2022, but the price has not been announced yet. The tiny 3-in-1 earbud can act as a Bluetooth headset for phone calls, a hearing aid, and a set of headphones. It was designed to help users benefit from hearing enhancement sooner than they would pursue traditional hearing aids.
In contrast with the Enhance Pro PM, Jabra's more traditional aid sold at Costco hearing centers, the Enhance Plus look like a pair of in-ear wireless headphones. They can be purchased without a prescription from a licensed hearing care professional, but the audiologist doesn't program them. That’s left to the consumer.
Graney details the process: “The patient downloads an app, then takes a hearing test through the devices and the app, and then the software auto sets them to the test results obtained."
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.