Hearable Wave Hits CES 2020
Earbuds Slim Down, Shape Up Into High-Tech Hearing Assistants
10 January 2020
Are hearables ready for prime-time? When I posted that question two years ago, my answer was “not yet, but watch this space.” Well, after walking the floor at CES 2020 in Las Vegas this week, I can confidently say that it’s finally prime time for hearables.
Nuheara’s new IQbuds² Max are setting the pace for the next generation of hearables.
In the wearables aisles at the Sands Expo hall, high-tech earbuds seemed to be everywhere. Multiple manufacturers have entered the “hearing enhancement” arena with products that provide individualized amplification (much like hearing aids do). And some make no secret of the fact that they intend to provide over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids when the FDA finalizes rules establishing that new market later this year.
Intelligent earbuds deliver on their promise
Why now? Manufacturers big and small have spent the past couple of years addressing problems that confronted the first wave of hearables. Earbuds have gotten smaller, sleeker, more attractive, and more intelligent.
Bluetooth streaming and smartphone connectivity in general have gotten much more reliable. You can talk to Siri, Google, and Alexa and get answers right in your ear. Battery life has improved. And following the success of Apple’s AirPods Pro, active noise cancellation has gone from an exotic feature to a near-standard for high-end earbuds.
And a few hearables makers are positioning themselves to deliver true hearing aid functionality for the OTC hearing aid market later this year. How? By delivering more amplification and sound processing options, self-fit programming capability with programmable settings for different listening environments, and smartphone control apps.
Hearables start to deliver hearing aid functionality
Anyone with hearing loss, or any professional who helps those with hearing loss, will want to get up to speed on what’s available now. Other publications have reported on the “droves” of high-performance earbuds at CES 2020. But in this post we will focus more on hearables that are starting to deliver hearing enhancement with some other features that in the past you only found in hearing aids. Following are a few that caught our notice.
NuHeara IQbuds² MAX earbuds
Nuheara’s rechargeable IQbuds have been the pace-setter for the hearables market. Their CES booth was mobbed following the announcement of their new rechargeable IQbuds² MAX earbuds. The Australian company re-engineered its IQbuds MAX product from the ground up with a new chipset, additional microphones, more advanced active noise cancellation, and features for personalizing sound settings based on a changing listening environment.
Nuheara’s EarID technology and Speech in Noise Control (SINC) are sound processing features similar to those found in premium hearing aids, providing personal customization and control of sound settings. For instance, with the tap of a finger, users can activate “dual noise isolation” to block external noises. The IQbuds² MAX hearing buds are available for pre-order at nuheara.com and will commence shipping in March 2020 for USD $399 per pair.
Don’t be surprised if Nuheara is among the first to jump into the OTC hearing aid market. In an interview at their booth, CEO Justin Miller and Co-Founder David Cannington both said the company expects it will be able to meet any requirements for amplification and self-fitting software required once the FDA issues its final OTC hearing aid rules.
IQbuds² MAX product review coming soon
Andy Bellavia, a frequent contributor to Hearing Tracker, will be trying out the IQbuds² MAX next week at the annual meeting of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). We’ll publish his review soon, so check back for details.
At #CES2020 @cannostake was kind enough to demo the new @nuheara IQbuds2 MAX #hearables. Even better, I’ll be taking it to #NAMMShow next week to reprise the acid test I did last year. (You can watch that on @HearingTracker here https://t.co/mG4gdkFXoS) @Oaktree_Dave #HearingLoss pic.twitter.com/L2ormNjoAY— Andy Bellavia #ProjectVoice #NAMMShow (@AndyB_Knowles) January 9, 2020
Jabra Elite Active 75t earbuds
A funny thing happened on my way to the Jabra booth. The first thing I saw was a modest display showing off ReSound and Beltone hearing aids. And the first people I met were three senior execs from those companies. Jabra, ReSound and Beltone all are subsidiaries of GN Group, one of the world’s five biggest hearing aid manufacturers. So it makes sense that the three brands draw from the same technological well. But this is the first time I’ve seen the hearing aids promoted next to the Jabra headsets.
Jabra’s new Elite Active 75t earbuds, priced at $199 for a pair, are 22 per cent smaller than their predecessors. At CES 2020 they had the distinction of being the only earbuds shown in the huge Amazon exhibit, other than Amazon’s own Echo earbuds. While they do not provide amplification and are not promoted for people with hearing loss, they do come with some sophisticated features found in hearing aids, such as:
- MySound - individualized audio based on a user’s personal hearing profile
- MyControls - enables personalization with programmable buttons
- HearThrough - allows environmental sound to pass through when needed
- Rechargeable batteries - provide 7.5 hours’ use, extending up to 28 hours with the charging case
- Passive noise reduction - making it easier to hear music and phone calls
- Durability - the strong durable devices fit snugly and stay in place while you work out
Last year when I visited the Jabra booth at CES 2019, I couldn’t find anyone there from GN or its hearing aid companies. This year, they made a collective show of force. Jabra isn’t yet positioned for people with hearing loss. But its shared technology expertise with two top global hearing aid brands is a good recipe for a possible future high-quality hearable or entry-level hearing aid.
Olive Smart Ear hearing amplifier
Olive Union is a South Korean hearing aid maker on a mission to build high-quality, fashion-forward hearing aids at the lowest possible cost. Priced at $249 per earbud, its Olive Smart Ear hearing amplifier is a rechargeable earbud that amplifies sound for people with mild hearing loss while suppressing background noise and cancelling feedback. It comes with an app that provides a five-minute hearing test and that customizes sound settings to your own hearing profile.
Olive Union CEO Owen Song founded the company in 2016 after studying architectural design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia University, and Samsung Art and Design Institute. He decided to launch the startup after a relative with hearing loss tried and failed to find a hearing aid that provided enough hearing enhancement at an affordable cost.
The first thing you notice about the Lizn Hearpiece is its small size and attractive fit. The rechargeable earbuds fit snugly in the ear and come in a choice of ruby red, caffe latte, or anthracite grey colors. Directional microphones and amplification make it easier to hear the person speaking to you. And wireless Bluetooth connectivity lets you listen to music or podcasts, make phone calls, or use the Siri or Google Assistant.
Lizn Hearpieces are developed and manufactured in Denmark, a center of excellence for hearing aid design and home to three of the world’s top five hearing aid companies.
Phonak Virto Black earbud-style hearing aid
Surprise! Phonak’s new Virto Black is an honest-to-goodness hearing aid. But it looks just like a typical sport earbud. And that’s by design. Ditlev Friis, Business Unit Director at Phonak, says the company intends to “help eliminate the stigma of wearing hearing aids” by leaning into consumers’ new excitement about hearables. Sure, they’re priced like Phonak’s other premium hearing aids at several thousand dollars a pair. But they give a good idea of what the future may hold for hearables as the costs of higher performing technology and miniaturization of components come down.
While the Virto Black hearing aids look like an attractive set of small earbuds, they actually do things that today’s hearable makers can only dream of. Most wireless earbud manufacturers measure battery life in hours, while Phonak’s Virto Black will deliver multiple days of use on a single disposable battery. And, they deliver the same performance as Phonak’s wildly popular RIC-form-factor Marvel hearing aids.
They run five wireless protocols at the same time, including Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth LE, as well as Phonak’s Binaural VoiceStream Technology, Airstream Technology, and the 2.4 GHz Roger streaming protocol. That means users can get wireless audio from virtually any Bluetooth-enabled source—including both iPhones and Android smartphones—in addition to Phonak’s popular Roger remote microphones and TV streamer. And the earbuds deliver top-of-the-line sound processing as well.
Alango BeHear Access headset
Okay, it’s not an earbud. But it's a pretty slick and highly functional hearable from a company that we’ve covered before. And it’s a great example of some of the higher-performance sound processing capabilities that eventually will be available in smaller form factors in the future. The new BeHear Access headset from Alango Wear & Hear features the same technology as the original BeHear NOW ($249 USD), which we compared to the Bose Hearphones back in 2018. But large, tactile control buttons and an easy-to-use charging cradle are designed for an older audience. And built-in telecoils make it work better with the phone and in locales equipped with a hearing loop.
The amplification and sound processing offered by Alango, an established DSP-developer, aims to help users with mild hearing loss. And a new accessory, HearLink Plus, features a low-latency Bluetooth transmitter that streams audio directly from your television set or other audio source directly to the BeHear Access or BeHear NOW headset. A smartphone app is available to control the headset and accessory.
Nura, the Australian startup who introduced over-the-ear headphones that test your hearing in 2016, has migrated much of its sophisticated sound processing technology into NuraLoop, a small set of rechargeable earbuds attached with a wired loop behind the neck. Nura says the NuraLoop is engineered with the same technology patented for the Nuraphone, which “learns how you hear in less time than it takes to turn on your computer or lace up your sneakers.”
Nura’s automated self-assessment feature produces a snapshot of your hearing profile, which is used to automatically provide personalized audio. The patented technology measures the very small sounds that our ears emit in response to audio stimulation. For more on Nura’s unique technology, and our exclusive interview with Nura CTO Luke Campbell, check out our 2016 post.
The NuraLoop also comes with an app that lets you further adjust the earbuds’ output to your liking. NuraLoop is currently positioned as earbuds that provide awesome audio for music and are not promoted as solutions for hearing loss. But it’s clear that at some point their technology could easily be applied to address hearing loss. Nura says the NuraLoop, priced at $199 USD, will be ready to ship this spring.
Soon to be an $80 billion market
The new hearables at CES 2020 coincided with this week’s disclosure of the new Bluetooth 5.2 low-energy protocol, which will deliver an even more robust set of benefits—including longer battery life, connectivity with multiple accessories, and lower latency (delay)—than what’s found in the current version of Bluetooth.
They also come on the same week that analyst Nick Hunn predicted that Bluetooth hearables will grow to an $80-billion market by 2025. So will hearables be ready for prime time in 2020? I think it’s safe to say they already are.