En español | Can't hear in noisy restaurants? Missing important announcements in meetings? Tired of having the TV volume at painful decibels? You're certain your hearing is still pretty good, but you just need a boost sometimes? Electronic devices called personal sound amplification products — or PSAPs — offer many of the benefits of hearing aids at a fraction of the cost.
As the name suggests, PSAPs amplify sounds but do not address other components of hearing loss, such as distortion. However, they are considerably cheaper than hearing aids. Devices cost an average of $250 to $350 each, compared with hearing aids, which range from $1,000 to $3,000 each.
PSAPs have actually been around "for a while," says Robert Sweetow, professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. But thanks to advances in electronic circuitry and technology, they have gotten smaller, more sophisticated — and more popular, he says. PSAPs have not been approved as a medical device by the Food and Drug Administration; they are classified as wearable electronic products for occasional, recreational use by consumers who are not hearing impaired.
Alan Bernheimer, at least, is a fan. For several years the marketing executive missed out on conversations in restaurants and at parties. He just sat there, nodding, grinning — and feeling uncomfortable. Hearing tests indicated that his loss was not severe enough for a hearing aid, but Bernheimer wanted to do something. Then he read about the Soundhawk, an electronic device designed to help people like him. It comes with a Bluetooth-like Scoop for the ear and a small optional wireless microphone. Bernheimer tried the Scoop when he and his wife were waiting for their table at a restaurant. "I put the Scoop in my ear and when my wife started talking, I told her she didn't have to shout," Bernheimer says. "I could hear her just fine."
Don't skip the hearing test
The price of the Soundhawk — around $350 — and similar devices makes them attractive to consumers. And purchase is easy. PSAPs are ready-to-wear right out of the box. They don't require any testing or fitting. That's the main concern expressed by audiologists and hearing health professionals: that in the rush to get low-cost hearing help, a potentially debilitating condition might go unexamined. A professional hearing test can determine if your hearing loss is simply age-related or the result of another medical cause, which can range from ear wax to a tumor.
Manufacturers are sensitive to this criticism. "Getting a PSAP is not a substitute for going to a professional," says Gail Gudmundsen, an audiologist and managing director of sales and marketing at Etymotic Research Inc., the Elk Grove Village, Ill., company that makes the Bean Quiet Sound Amplifier. "But for some people, it's a first step," she says.
The devices make use of available Bluetooth technology and come in different styles. For example, Etymotic's Bean fits into the ear canal and is practically invisible. The Soundhawk looks like a Bluetooth headset, as does the CS50+ from Sound World Solutions. A newer model from Sound World Solutions, the Sidekick, is designed in the style of an unobtrusive behind-the-ear hearing aid.
Syncs with smartphones
"Like most other Bluetooth headsets, our products let you take phone calls directly through the device and stream music or audio from your phone to the device," says Shawn Stahmer, vice president of business development for Park Ridge, Ill.-based Sound World Solutions. That is important to Richard Einhorn. In 2010, a virus caused the New York composer to lose all the usable hearing in his right ear. Since then he has used assistive devices like hearing aids and PSAPs interchangeably — including the CS50+ that looks like a Bluetooth headset. "Actually it is a Bluetooth headset," Einhorn says. "It transmits music and audiobooks and also helps me hear live sound."
The Soundhawk comes with a free app that allows the wearer to choose a program optimized for different environments — inside, outside, restaurants, driving — "and then to optimize the sound in that environment by dragging your fingers across your smartphone," says Drew Dundas, president and chief scientific officer at Soundhawk. In essence, it allows you to customize the device. The optional microphone that comes with the Scoop is good for one-on-one conversations or to put near your TV speakers, says Alan Bernheimer.
The Sidekick and the CS50+ can also be customized via a smartphone app. "Your smartphone becomes your remote control," says Sound World's Stahmer. "You can fine-tune and customize the device to your own preferences."
Battery life varies
Accessories include compact carrying cases, different size ear tips so customers can get a good fit and, in the case of the Soundhawk and CS50+, charging kits. The Bean uses batteries, but they last longer than most hearing aid batteries — about 10-12 days.
Some users have found PSAPs a useful addition to their hearing aids. "The Bean works better than my hearing aids in most settings except presentations," says William de Groot, a retired pulmonologist in Galveston, Texas, who tested the Bean for AARP. One version comes with a T-coil that is compatible with hearing loops, thin strands of copper wire installed around the perimeter of living rooms, churches, theaters, museums and airports that help hearing aid users compensate for poor acoustics.
All of these devices can do the job of amplifying sound, but one might work better than another in certain situations. In my own testing, the Soundhawk was best in helping me hear fellow members on my local planning board. I put the wireless microphone at the far end of the table and with the Scoop in my ear could pick up everything that was said. The behind-the-ear-style Sidekick from Sound World Solutions is brilliant in one-on-one conversations and in restaurants. My husband tried the Bean at the Metropolitan Opera in HD and was amazed at how well he could hear the music. He also uses the Bean to watch TV.
"If someone simply needs a little boost in loudness, why should they pay thousands of dollars for hearing aids when they can get something like this?" asks Robert Sweetow. And they enhance communication. "It is essential for mental and physical health for hard-of-hearing people to stay connected," Einhorn says.
Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.