A current buzz phrase in the hearing aid industry is “disruptive technologies.” Many of the disruptors being discussed are personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), or hearables.

It’s safe to say that hearables “have arrived” and are here to stay, at least for the near future. With recent advances in Bluetooth technology and circuitry, PSAPs (or hearables) can be more powerful and less costly than hearing aids, according to Bloomberg Business and Yahoo! Finance. But because hearables are not considered “hearing aids” by the FDA, they are not regulated.

How popular are PSAPs or hearables?

No matter what regulators consider them, or whether you call them “PSAPs” or “hearables,” these devices are growing in popularity. In fact, manufacturers of these wearable electronic devices are eyeing the $6 billion worldwide market for hearing technology. They’re also taking note that a whopping 75% of the 34 million Americans who have hearing loss do not use hearing aids, and so they are jockeying for a piece of this untapped market.

Why should hearing care professionals be up-to-date on the hottest hearables?

Given the current market, now may be a good time to learn what hearables offer…and what they don’t. It’s vital that hearing care professionals find out which hearables or PSAPs are gaining ground and how to address the growing trend in a private practice. You can become a well-informed resource on hearables, and thus reach an entire population of patients exploring alternatives to hearing aids or wanting to boost the benefit of hearing aids.

Categories of PSAPs and accessories that are “hot” in the hearables market:

The Dash from Bragi, a hearable

The Dash from Bragi, a “hearable” device

Wireless “smart” headphones/earbuds: These are cable-free listening devices. Two of the top names in this market are Bragi Dash and Samsung Gear IconX.

These earbuds each have a charging case, “no-touch” control buttons, and a stand-alone media player (with 4GB of storage). Each includes optical heart rate sensors and fitness tracking. Prices from $199 – $299.

Key differences between the Dash and IconX:

  • Bragi Dash – Has a bone-conduction microphone. Lithium battery is 100mAh, which lasts about 3 hours. Connectivity is Bluetooth 4.0. The Bragi Dash interface has a simple tap, hold, and swipe. It’s also waterproof up to 3.3 feet (1 liter). Compatible with iPhone 4s+, iPod 3rd gen+, iPod touch 5th gen#, Windows 10 mobile limited support, Android 4.3+. ($299/pr.)
  • Samsung Gear IconX hearable

    The Samsung Gear IconX is a hearable marketed as a wireless earbud with many features.

    Samsung Gear IconX – This has many similar features to Dash, but offers an ambient-sound microphone. Its battery is different: 47mAh earbud battery (1-3 hours). Connectivity is Bluetooth 4.1. Plus, it offers a 315mAh charging case battery. Splash resistant. Compatible with Android 4.4+. (Pricing starts at $199/pr.).

  • Apple Wireless Earpods (AirPods) – The buzz in the tech world is that Apple is dropping the audio jack on its iPhone 7. This enables streaming of phone calls from the iPhone 7 and other audio to the user through Bluetooth.
Apple AirPods are wireless hearables

Early buzz indicates that the Apple iPhone 7 comes with wireless AirPods (Shown: prototype)

In-ear device, quiet sound amplification device: The top name in this market is The Bean (by Etymotic, Elk Grove, Ill), with high fidelity sound amplification that has a “low-distortion output amplifier” and K-AMP® circuitry, which is the product’s “engine” that produces high sound quality.

The Bean, a hearable from Etymotic

The Bean is a hearable from Etymotic

Etymotic’s website touts the many advantages of The Bean, especially its “excellent speech intelligibility in both quiet and noisy conditions.” It comes in two models – The Bean and the T-coil Bean. The latter can be used with hearing aid-compatible phones and loop systems. Prices range from $299 (single device) to $425 single or $799 T-coil pair.

In-ear, noise-cancelling headphones: The top name in this market is Bose® earbuds “Quiet Comfort®20”– These allow the user to reduce distracting noise. Or, the user can activate “Aware” mode to hear surrounding sound. An in-line microphone makes it possible to switch to a phone call. The product accepts a lithium-ion battery, which has 16 hours of battery life. Bose CQ®20 headphones are made for iPhone®, iPad® and iPod® models. Plus, there is a model for Samsung Android devices. Price range: $249.95 – $299.95.

Sound-isolating earphones (iPhone-linked earpiece), which fit inside the ear canals and can isolate sounds up to 44db and more: The top name is Shure SE215 and SE846 (by Sound World Solutions of Park Ridge, Ill). It is priced from $99 to over $999. Composer Richard Einhorn uses this type of device to supplement his hearing aids. It can amplify phone calls and stream music.

A “flexi-fiber” hearing device: Using patented flexi fibers that accommodate different ear canal shapes, Eargo created a hearing device that is almost invisible. According to the company’s website, the design of this device, which was inspired by the lure in fly-fishing, could possibly “upend the traditional hearing aid industry.” The price point for this “hearable” is higher than other devices in this list, with prices starting at $1,890, but this is still half the average cost of many hearing aids on the market.

Directional microphone that pairs with an app to isolate desired speakers in restaurants and theaters, or microphones (to clip onto your friends/companions) to help improve hearing: A popular microphone is made by Etymotic Research in Elk Grove Village, Ill. These are great for hearing-impaired people who are in challenging environments where there is a harsh mixture of sounds.

Good to Know: Facts about PSAPs

  • PSAPs offer a wealth of features at a fraction of the cost of hearing aids.
  • Since PSAPs are not regulated, their distributors are not held to strict accountability. As a result, many of them sell online. PSAPs are considered “devices for discretionary consumer use.” The only caveat is that PSAP manufacturers must not advertise PSAPs as “hearing aids.”
  • A variety of features. Many PSAPs can do more than shape and amplify speech sounds. Some play music, monitor physical activity, and more.

“The one commonality among all these applications is the smartphone, which serves as the hub for personalized control of various acoustic parameters, such as noise reduction and treble/bass control,” says Brian Taylor, AuD, Editor, Hearing News Watch.

New research findings add fuel to the hearables market-on-fire. Amyn Amlani, PhD, director of the Hearing Aid Technologies Laboratory at the University of North Texas, and chair for UAMS-UALR Audiology & Speech Pathology, is studying whether real-world experience with a smartphone hearing-aid application could help change attitudes of “non-users” and others about hearing loss. Initial findings show that such apps reduce negative attitudes toward hearing aids and hearing loss, opening the door for preventing delays in hearing health intervention. Amlani theorizes that “smartphone-based technology allows those with hearing difficulties to experience benefits of amplified sound—with little financial risk and no delays in service delivery.”

What PSAPs Cannot Provide

PSAPS cannot yet overcome negative associations with old age. Even though PSAPs are not hearing aids, per se, they may carry the same stigma that is often associated with hearing aids–the view that hearing aids and hearing devices are only worn by the elderly. A current theory is that PSAPs look too similar to “traditional” hearing aids, even though many would argue that the newest hearables look like high-tech, in-ear ear monitors.

Further, the fact that PSAPs are not FDA-regulated, is both a plus and a minus. The Hearing Industries Association (HIA) argues that PSAPs can’t provide the “sophistication of hearing aid technology.”

Yet, PSAPs could make inroads among younger people with hearing loss who haven’t yet decided to get hearing aids. Nonetheless, PSAPs and other devices have had only limited success so far. There also have not been many traditional hearing aid manufacturers who have publicly supported companies like Bragi. Starkey is the notable exception so far, but more major players are beginning to make inroads into the lucrative hearables market. Some market analysts expect this market to reach an estimated $5 billion value by 2018.

The Future of PSAPs and the Hearables Market

Audiologist Dennis Van Vliet applauds the development of innovative consumer products that “help improve our ability to accommodate for hearing loss or signal-to-noise difficulties.” In an article on The Hearing Review website, he states: “To be there and ready to provide help, we will need to prepare ourselves by adapting our offerings to meet the needs of the new consumers and the new marketplace as they change.” And there is no doubt that many of the patients we counsel will turn to us to learn more about what is hot and happening in hearables.

For the latest news on emerging hearables, read recent articles and posts on the Hearables column at Wareable.com, and the guide to “hearable technology” on the blog at EverydayHearing.com.

This content was provided to the 4MyHearingBiz community courtesy of CareCredit and The Hearing Review. For more information on ALDs, please visit the Hearing Review website.

For more information about the use of PSAPS to help with hearing, read the article “PSAPs vs Hearing Aids: An Electroacoustic Analysis of Performance and Fitting Capabilities,” which ran in the July 2016 print edition of The Hearing Review. See also the Letter to the Editor, which challenged some of the findings outlined in the article.

Image credits: Bragi; Samsung; Apple; CareCredit; Hearing Review