Hearing aids may be undergoing a revolution, with new devices coming on the market that do not need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can help people with near-normal hearing hear better.
The new wave of devices — called personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs — are smaller and sold over the counter, appealing to younger people who have some hearing damage, perhaps from listening to loud music, reports Melinda Beck at The Wall Street Journal. Unlike your grandfather’s bulky hearing aid, these new products can hardly be seen at all. Sometimes they look like phone headsets or MP3 players, and even have smartphone apps.
The PSAPs are much cheaper than traditional hearing aids, which can cost more than $4,000 per ear and are not covered by Medicare or many insurers. The PSAPs, whose costs range in the hundreds of dollars, fine-tune hearing, much like reading glasses help people see the fine print better; the devices can boost sounds in the high frequencies, which many people lose the ability to detect first.
The devices are intended to help people who hear well hear better in noisy restaurants and large gatherings. As mentioned, they do not need FDA approval, unlike hearing aids that are medical devices for the hearing-impaired.
In fact, the PSAPs allow consumers to bypass tests from audiologists, who have traditionally given hearing tests and then sold custom-programmed hearing aids. Audiologists warn that the PSAPs could harm one’s hearing. Further, skipping the tests might mean that consumers miss fixes for hearing problems, such as excessive ear wax or auditory tumors.
On the other hand, industry observers say that the new devices could get more consumers hearing assistance, especially those who have been resisting getting traditional hearing aids. “If friends and family are bugging you because you ask them to repeat themselves too often, and if you can’t hear the TV without turning it up, a PSAP is a great way to address the problem initially,” says David Copithorne, a marketing executive who writes the influential blog, HearingMojo.com. “You can buy a PSAP over the Internet, stick it in your ear, and see if it helps. For a lot of people it will.”
One new PSAP, called the Able Planet Personal Sound AMP 2500, is the size of a Cheerio. It reduces background noises while amplifying frequencies that carry speech. Walker’s Game Ear amplifies the sound of game in the woods, but protects against loud noises, like gunfire.
Later this year, a company in Massachusetts plans to introduce a smartphone app, called Real Clarity, that will turn the phone into a hearing-assistance device. The phone’s microphone will pick up sounds and then send the enhanced signal to the user’s earpiece.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.