Hearable Technology Guide
Products, Features, Prices, and More
17 December 2020
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 the world's 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. 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 the Phonak Virto Black and Starkey Livio Custom.
Hearing-enhancement earbuds are a cross between smart wireless earbuds and traditional hearing aids. Companies like Bose and 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.
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. 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 cost and stigma attached to traditional hearing aids. The cost is significantly less than the average hearing aid, with most hearables coming in at just a few hundred dollars a pair. Hearables also help to alleviate any potential stigma attached to hearing aids—most look 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 Nuheara, Olive Union, BOSE, Alango, typically cost anywhere from $200 to $500. This represents a substantial savings when compared to the average price of hearing aids. A recent Hearing Tracker 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 smartphone 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 recently echoed by Dr Nicholas Reed, a Johns Hopkins researcher.
The hearables sector is one of rapid growth and change. Companies offering these products 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.
Australia-based Nuheara positions themselves as a global leader in smart personal hearing device. Nuheara’s proprietary and multi-functional intelligent hearable technology augments a person’s natural hearing and enables cable-free connections to smart devices. Their first product offering, IQbuds, debuted in 2016. Their most recent offering is the 3rd-generation IQbuds2 MAX earbuds, updated with active noise cancellation and several additional upgrades.
Cupertino, CA, USA
In July 2020, Apple became the world’s most valuable company. With the release of their "Headphone Accommodations" accessibility feature in iOS 14, the company is also now in the hearing amplification space. Transparency Mode on AirPods Pro now makes quiet voices more audible and attempts to tune the sounds of your environment to your hearing needs. With the massive brand recognition and reach of Apple, this development could have significant impact on the mass adoption of hearables technology.
Tirat 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 latest hearable for hearing enhancement is the BeHear Access assistive hearing headset, released in January 2020. The headset is intended to control and augment ambient noise, enhance speech, and/or utilize noise cancellation technology depending on the wearer’s environment. It also comes with large buttons for those struggling with dexterity issues, and hearing loop access.
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. Following a 2016 crowdfunding effort, the company launched their first hearable product, the Olive Smart Ear, at CES in 2020. The Olive Smart Ear is a single-ear personal sound amplifying product (PSAP) designed to enhance audio during everyday life based on an individual’s personal hearing profile.
Framingham, MA, USA
Bose is a well-known consumer-electronics manufacturer based in the USA. The company is famous for kicking off a revolution in noise cancellation technology with the release of its QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones in 2000. They entered the hearing health world when they launched Bose Hearphones in 2017. The product was a niche hit, but Bose no longer sells the Hearphones, and many believe a Bose hearing aid is on the way. This is because the FDA granted de novo status to the "Bose Hearing Aid" back in 2018.
What’s coming next?
So, what’s next for the hearables category? Apple recently introduced AirPods Max, an over-ear version of the AirPods Pro. Will Max offer the same hearing-aid-like functionality as the AirPods Pro? According to Apple Support, “Headphone Accommodations supports Transparency mode on AirPods Pro and AirPods Max”. This makes sense given that both Pro and Max run on the new onboard H1 chip.
Will people feel comfortable wearing the new Apple over-ear headphones in social settings, like they do with in-ear options? They are attractive, and stylish. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, Olive Union is running an crowdfunding campaign for the new yet-to-be-released Olive Pro earbuds, which are being marketed as “2-in-1 hearing aids and Bluetooth earbuds”. The earbuds look a lot like the AirPods Pro but feature longer battery life (18+ hours) and a more integrated “hearing test” (when compared to Apple’s reliance on third party apps like Mimi).
Olive Pro (left) and AirPods Max (right)
According to the Indiegogo page, the Olive Pros will offer a 10 band EQ for “hearing aid and music”, directional microphones, feedback cancellation, voice enhancement with noise reduction, a 20-20 kHz frequency range, and a 48 kHz sampling rate. The maximum output is 120 dB, so use caution with these buds.