Hearable Technology Guide
Hearing loss has been described as a growing epidemic—and for good reason. An estimated 1 in 7 American adults report some degree of difficulty hearing. Worse yet, 80% of those who could benefit from hearing aids don’t seek help. The good news? A new class of devices—hearables—are well positioned to help a big chunk of those who haven’t yet taken action.
Popular hearable devices from leading innovators in the sector.
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What are hearables?
Hearables are essentially “smart” earbuds. Wikipedia defines hearables and smart earbuds as “technically advanced, electronic in-ear-devices designed for multiple purposes ranging from wireless transmission to communication objectives, medical monitoring, and fitness tracking.” There are currently five main categories of hearables:
- Sports true wireless earbuds
- Voice-focused true wireless earbuds
- Commodity true wireless earbuds
- Hearing enhancement earbuds
- Hearing aid hearables
On this page, we’ll be focusing specifically on hearing enhancement earbuds that are not registered with the FDA as over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. You can check out this article for our top-10 best picks for OTC hearing aids. For more information on the general true wireless earbud category, check out this article from audio xpress. And for more information about “hearing aid hearables” (hearing aids that have been branded as hearables), check out Phonak Virto, Starkey Evolv AI, Signia Insio AX, and Custom Made by ReSound.
PSAPs and hearing-enhancement earbuds
Hearing-enhancement earbuds are a cross between smart wireless earbuds and traditional hearing aids. In fact, several products that were previously listed in this hearables category—including NuHeara IQbuds2 MAX, Jabra Enhance Plus, and the Lexie B1 and B2 Hearing Aids Powered by Bose—are now officially registered by the FDA as OTC hearing aids. Companies like Apple have begun adding amplification features to their wireless earbuds to provide hearing assistance in difficult listening situations (like restaurants). Active noise cancellation, feedback cancellation, directional microphones, etc, are other traditional hearing aid technologies that are now being made available in direct-to-consumer hearing-enhancement earbuds, usually in the "transparency mode" of these devices.
Hearing-enhancement earbuds are sometimes referred to as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs). According to the FDA, PSAPs cannot be marketed as a solution for even mild hearing loss, and are intended only as a solution for situational hearing issues; not as an alternative to a hearing aid. However, the reality is that many people are using PSAPs / hearables to assist with mild hearing loss, especially in difficult listening situations.
Hearables offer a meaningful alternative for those who are not quite ready for the cost and stigma attached to traditional hearing aids or even OTC hearing aids. The cost is significantly less than traditional hearing aids and even most OTC hearing aids, with most hearables coming in at less than $200 a pair and many offered for under $100. Hearables also help to alleviate any potential stigma attached to hearing aids—most look and function like ordinary wireless earbuds.
How do hearables enhance hearing?
To enhance hearing, hearables collect sound using a microphone, amplify and process it using advanced digital signal processing technologies, and then provide amplified/processed sound to the ear through a tiny speaker. The sound processing components of hearables are made up of four primary parts:
- The microphone - The microphone picks up acoustic sounds from the environment and converts those sounds into an electronic signal. The electronic signal from the microphone is sent to the sound processor.
- The sound processor - The sound processor takes the analog electronic signal from the microphone and converts it to a digital format. Digitally-represented sound is enhanced and amplified by the processor and converted back to an analog signal before being sent to the speaker.
- The speaker - Sometimes referred to as the “receiver,” the speaker is the part that creates the sound waves that enter your ear and vibrate your eardrum.
- The battery - A power source of some kind is required to enable the functionality of the microphone, sound processor, and speaker.
Additionally, hearables often feature additional components for Bluetooth connectivity, tap-touch controls, noise cancellation technologies, movement and health sensors, and more.
How much do hearables cost?
Hearables typically cost the same as premium wireless earbuds. Industry-leading hearing-enhancement devices from companies such as Olive Union, Sennheiser, and Alango, typically cost anywhere from $200 to $850. This represents a substantial savings when compared to the average price of hearing aids. A recent HearingTracker survey of over 2,000 consumers found that the average price of a single hearing aid is $2,372.
Hearables are “self-fitting”
Hearables provide a convenient at-home do-it-yourself solution. A self-guided online hearing screening app is typically used to assess hearing issues and personalize the sound amplification provided by hearables. In the wake of COVID-19 and a growing need for in-home and affordable hearing solutions, the self-fitting aspect of hearables has become increasingly appealing.
Many hearable devices offer built-in or online hearing assessments. While not as thorough as a professionally-administered audiogram, such tests are certainly better than nothing. Having more individuals develop awareness of their hearing health challenges at an earlier stage is a clear benefit of the emerging hearables sector, a sentiment echoed by Dr Nicholas Reed, a Johns Hopkins researcher.
Brands that make hearing-enhancement hearables
The hearables sector is one of rapid growth and change. Companies offering hearing-enhancement hearables run the gamut from nascent startups to established giants expanding to a new niche. Below are some of the top brands offering legitimate hearables for hearing enhancement at this time.
Sennheiser Conversation Clear PlusWedemark, Germany
Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus straddles the line between a higher-end OTC hearing aid and an earbud for listening to music and streaming audio. The product is a melding of technologies from Sennheiser and its Swiss parent company Sonova which is the largest hearing healthcare manufacturer in the world (maker of Phonak and Unitron hearing aids and Advanced Bionics cochlear implants). The product features impressive performance and was honored by the HearAdvisor Lab as one of its 2023 Expert Choice Winners—the only PSAP to gain this recognition.
Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus earbuds and charging case.
Conversation Clear Plus is available for purchase online and in stores today—without a prescription—and offers speech amplification, beamforming directional microphones, active noise cancellation (ANC), and a slick app for optimizing speech clarity. However, they do not provide you with an opportunity to upload or import audiogram data.
HearingTracker Audiologist Matthew Allsop provides an overview of the Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus earbuds. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.
The earbuds are also comfortable in the ear and easily customizable with the iOS- and Android-compatible Conversation Clear app. They can be purchased through various online retailers for $849.95 which puts them within the typical price point of OTC hearing aids or other lower-end prescription devices.
Apple AirPodsCupertino, CA, USA
Since Apple entered the hearing amplification space with "Headphone Accommodations” in iOS 14, the company has added many more accessibility features to help people with hearing loss, including “Conversation Boost,” “Sound Recognition,” “Live Listen,” and “Mono Audio”. With the massive brand recognition and reach of Apple, these features promise to bring hearing help to millions.
Apple Park in Cupertino, CA
Headphone Accommodations is the key amplification feature included with AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and Powerbeats Pro. After adding your hearing test results to Apple Health on your iPhone or iPad, supported earbuds and headphones will act just like hearing aids by applying personalized amplification to help you hear the sounds you’re missing. Conversation Boost arrived later, delivering beamforming directional microphones for AirPods Pro. At Amazon, a pair of Apple AirPods Pro 2 will set you back about $235 while the AirPods Pro (first generation) cost around $195.
HearingTracker Audiologist Matthew Allsop provides some pointers on how to set up your Apple AirPods as devices that enhance your hearing. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.
AlangoTirat Carmel, Israel
Israel-based Alango Technologies manufactures the Wear&Hear series of products. The group of products is described by the company as a “line of concept, future-forward wearable audio devices.” Their mainstay hearable for hearing enhancement is the BeHear Access assistive hearing headset.
BeHear Access and companion app
BeHear is intended to control and augment ambient noise, enhance speech, and/or utilize noise cancellation technology depending on the wearer’s environment. It features an excellent hearing customization feature in its app (which isn't necessary for operation) and comes with large buttons for those struggling with dexterity issues, and hearing loop access. The 2nd version of Access was launched in March 2022. It provides more amplification than the original model, and adds Bluetooth 5.0 and a new tinnitus relief feature. It’s available for $249 on Amazon.
The company also has released a newer product called BeHear SMARTO, a hand-held or body worn hearing amplifier with Bluetooth connectivity for people with mild to severe hearing problems. SMARTO features technology that enhances hearing and reduces background noise to clarify speech in live conversations, cell phone and video calls, and TV programs. SMARTO is currently available for $189.
HearingTracker Audiologist and Audio Engineer Dr. Steve Taddei reviews the features and provides sound samples for the Alango Behear SMARTO.
Olive UnionTokyo, Japan
Japan-based Olive Union was founded on the premise of transforming the traditional hearing aid into hearing a more functional, elegant, sleek wearable that anyone would be happy to wear. The company has since launched three products using crowdfunding campaigns.
Olive Max, Olive Pro, and Olive Smart Ear (from left to right).
The company’s first product, Olive Smart Ear, looked like a typical in-ear true-wireless earbud, and is now discontinued. Olive Pro, which launched in November 2020, resembles Apple’s AirPods and features an enhanced app for customizing the earbuds’ hearing profile and tracking noise exposure. Olive Union’s latest product, Olive Max, sports a futuristic earhook design and is “suitable for up to severe hearing loss” with 1.5x more volume than Olive Pro. We have yet to review Olive Max, and Olive’s website indicates a current shipping date for Olive Max of November 2022.
HearingTracker audiologist Matthew Allsop provides his perspectives on Olive Pro. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.
SoundWorld solutionsPark Ridge, IL, USA
SoundWorld Solutions was the brainchild of two social entrepreneurs who set up the company to create a globally affordable hearing aid that would provide decent inexpensive amplification. The result is a range of FDA-approved SoundWorld hearing aids, along with the company's Personal Sound Amplifier CS50+.
The SoundWorld solutions CS50+
The CS50+ has been used in Johns Hopkins research that has demonstrated successful self-fitting amplification approaches, and it features an optional Customizer App for a personalized hearing profile (it also has presets if you can't or don't want to use the app) and a recharging case. The device also has integrated Bluetooth for taking phone calls and streaming music. The CS50+ is intended for situational use, has been problematic in high humidity or moisture environments, and the earpiece resembles a Bluetooth phone headset (they are sold individually).
Personalized listening in headphones and earbuds
There are also some headphones and earbuds with integrated hearing tests, but in general most do not offer external amplification of sounds:
Nura and DENON
Australia-based Nura markets innovative headsets and earbuds. The Nuraphone has two external and internal microphones located on each side of the headset, and reportedly evaluates otoacoustic emissions—sounds that your inner ear (cochlea) naturally emit themselves—for personalization. It offers effective noise cancellation and has a “social mode” so you can use the external microphones, with the music reduced slightly and external noises transmitted to the ear. The company also has released DENON PerL, its latest-generation wireless earbuds, which offer personalized sound, adaptive noise cancellation, and the ability to play lossless audio without a hardwired connection.
Skullcandy Grind and Rail
In 2021, Utah-based Skullcandy made waves with two new partnerships: Bragi, an AI-powered software platform for wireless headphones, and Mimi Hearing Technologies, a provider of digital hearing tests and sound personalization. Mimi’s technology is available with the Grind Fuel Earbuds, Rail ANC, and Rail True Wireless Earbuds, allowing users to create personal sound profiles based on their hearing. The earbuds don’t, however, amplify external sound.
Jaybird Vista 2
Logitech-owned Jaybird has integrated a basic hearing test into its earbud companion app. After pairing the Jaybird Vista or Jaybird Vista 2 earbuds with the app, you can create a Personal EQ profile, which involves adjusting sliders until you can hear each of the six test tones. The preset sound profile is automatically applied to all streaming audio.
TOZO Golden X1
The TOZO Golden X1 focuses on hi-res audio with a dynamic driver for powerful bass, Bluetooth 5.3, wind reduction, and active noise cancellation, with a choice of three listening modes (Normal, Noise Cancellation, and Transparency). It also uses its EarPrint Technology app to customize the sound to "compensate for hearing deficiencies" for improved sound experiences.
Sonarworks is a maker of professional audio software used by over 50 Grammy-Award winning sound engineers. While the company doesn’t produce hearables, Sonarworks has developed SoundID, an app used by various headphone manufacturers. After pairing with a compatible set of headphones, the app guides users through a hearing test and sound preference selection, both of which feed into a custom sound profile. Users can further optimize their headphones’ sound using SoundID’s Parametric EQ.
Anker Liberty 4
Anker is a Chinese electronics company best-known for its line of battery and charging products. In recent years, they also entered the premium audio market. Anker uses the Soundcore app for a range of its headphones and earbuds, including the Soundcore Liberty 4NC. The app integrates HearID, a hearing test that generates a sound profile tailored to your hearing abilities.
OnePlus and Oppo
Like most smartphone brands, Chinese manufacturers OnePlus and Oppo offer earphones to go with their flagships. Earbuds from both companies use the HeyMelody app to support remote customization. While the app doesn’t include an equalizer, it does offer Audio ID, a hearing test that creates an optimized sound profile. The HeyMelody app works with the OnePlus Buds Pro and several Oppo earbuds.
The Samsung Medical Center conducted a study to show that the Galaxy Bud Pro are “effective for people with hearing loss.” The core functionality evaluated in this study is “Ambient Sound,” a feature that’s increasingly common in active noise canceling (ANC) headphones. Essentially, “Ambient Sound,” also known as “Transparency Mode,” uses microphones to record external sound and pass it on to the headphone speakers. Since “Ambient Sound” doesn’t offer any sound customization beyond adjusting the volume, it’s not a true accessibility feature. When you’re using a Samsung phone, however, be sure to look into its “Adapt Sound” option.
What’s coming next?
The FDA’s new regulations for over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids were finalized and published on August 19, 2022, and the law took effect in mid-October. But, as demonstrated with the above products, there are numerous hearable options available that, for whatever reason, are not in the OTC category but make for good situational listening devices. We can guarantee you there will be many more hearables to come.
A couple notable recent examples: Sennheiser breathed new life into wireless TV headphones with its TV Clear true wireless earbuds in 2022. While we think their Conversation Clear Plus earbuds are the better example of an "all-purpose hearable,” TV Clear earbuds can simultaneously pair with your TV and smartphone via Bluetooth; a separate TV transmitter is included. The TV Clear provides up to 20 dB of high-frequency amplification, superior speech clarity, and Ambient Awareness Mode to hear surrounding sound while wearing the earbuds. Users can control the earbuds through the TV Clear app.
Likewise, Apple has filed for numerous new "wireless listening device" patents while on the path to launching its third-generation Apple AirPods Pro. Will Apple make an OTC hearing aid? We recently published an article asking this same question; the fact is that the Apple AirPods Pro (see above) already double as an exceptionally good situational hearing device. But they have yet to indicate they wish to go down that road.
So there are many more hearable products to come. Bookmark this article; we'll update it as the new hearables become available.