Hearing loss is a global issue with serious consequences. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that, by 2050, 2.5 billion people worldwide will have hearing issues. Hearing loss is the third-most common chronic health condition in the US. It not only leads to social isolation and reduced quality of life, but has also been recognized as the number-one modifiable risk factor for dementia in middle age. This is a major public health problem that will need innovative solutions.
The most common, and traditional, solution is a hearing aid. These are widely available, can be technologically sophisticated, and are small and discreet. Problem solved? For many people, the answer to that question is “no.”
Earbuds may have the advantage in the battle for consumers who are just starting to shop for cheaper convenient hearing solutions that cater to their unique lifestyles and listening needs, says the author.
There are several barriers to accessing hearing aids. To begin with, in many countries hearing aids are only available to buy, and they can be very expensive. In the United States, there is limited insurance coverage for them, so the financial burden usually falls on the purchaser. Because hearing aids are medical devices, obtaining them means traveling down an often-complex patient pathway, visiting doctors and audiologists, and being tested—sometimes more than once. The entire process can be lengthy and time-consuming, which can be difficult to fit around work or other commitments.
Audio and hearing devices are becoming more dynamic
But times are changing in the world of hearing. In the United States, hearing aids can now be bought over-the-counter (OTC) in many pharmacies, big box stores, and large supermarkets, so consumers can access a range of solutions without needing to visit a specialist or obtain a prescription. This makes amplification more affordable and more easily accessed.
It also creates new opportunities for both hearing aid companies and consumer technology brands. Hearing aid companies can expand their reach beyond the medical community into the consumer market, while consumer technology brands such as Bose, Jabra, Sony, and HP can take advantage of their expertise in audio and retail to develop accessible products.
Lexie Powered by Bose, Jabra Enhance Plus, and Sony CRE-C10 OTC hearing aids.
Taking these changes into account, it becomes clear that the line between consumer devices which offer help with hearing, and hearing aids themselves, has become blurred. True wireless stereo (TWS) earbuds—the latest consumer accessory phenomenon—are a striking example of this. Their acceptance with users is increasing rapidly; the market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34.9% over the next 5 years.
It’s easy to understand why: they are small and convenient, and the quality of the audio they stream to one’s ears is improving all the time. But with increasingly sophisticated technology being incorporated into the buds, they’re moving from a nice-to-have accessory to becoming an essential part of everyday life.
For example, TWS earbuds are already being used to help with hearing in noise for an average of 1.4 hours a day, according to Qualcomm’s State of Sound report. This usage is expected to increase in the coming years, as more people become aware of the benefits of hearing enhancement technology. The report also notes a 14% increase in demand for hearing enhancement features between 2021 and 2022.
Along with noise canceling technology and built-in amplification to help with hearing in noisy environments, some earbud models have special modes to enhance speech clarity, which helps those with hearing loss communicate better. The AirPods Pro 2, for example, include a feature called “conversation boost” which uses directional audio filters to amplify the voices of people directly in front of the wearer while reducing background noise.
Apple AirPods Pro 2 can essentially work as part-time hearing aids by using its transparency mode and conversation boost features.
The convergence of earbuds and hearing aids
Hearing enhancement on earbuds is part of a general movement of earbuds into the health and wellness sphere. Many now contain sensors that can track physical activity and monitor heart rate and sleep patterns. These insights can help users monitor their own health so they can make better lifestyle choices.
Even more advanced health and wellness features in earbuds will be coming soon. For example, some manufacturers are exploring the use of biometric sensors that can monitor a user's blood pressure, oxygen levels, and other key health indicators. Others are developing artificial intelligence (AI)-powered algorithms that can analyze a user's hearing and provide personalized sound profiles tailored to their specific needs.
The health monitoring trend has not been lost on the hearing industry either: Starkey, Phonak, and Signia have incorporated into some hearing aid models "healthable" features like step-counters, social engagement trackers, heart rate sensors, fall alerts, and more. In this way, hearing devices are part of the broader trend currently developing in many areas of healthcare, where the focus is on the individual taking more control of their own health and wellness—and hearing health is no exception.
Putting hearing enhancement technology on earbuds and entry-level OTC hearing aids allows those just starting their hearing loss journey to access a solution that is both helpful and appropriate for their unique healthcare needs and concerns. By leveraging the power of innovations in audio technology, these products should help people to manage their hearing loss and improve their overall quality of life.
Why Bluetooth Low Energy is important
One of the major drivers of the increasing demand for hearing enhancement on earbuds is the advent of the new Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) low latency standard—which offers not only a more reliable wireless connection but also low latency, giving users a much better listening experience than ever before.
TWS earbuds, along with hearing aids, will also be able to take advantage of the radical transformation in the Bluetooth audio ecosystem which is coming over the next 5-10 years: Auracast. With Auracast, Bluetooth broadcast capabilities are made possible. Audio transmitters can seamlessly broadcast one or multiple audio streams to an unlimited number of Auracast receivers, including popular TWS earbuds. Earbud users will have the freedom to choose and enjoy public audio broadcasts of their choice with ease.
With the combination of BLE and Auracast technologies, hearing aids and other audio devices will be able to connect directly to a range of products, including smartphones and earbuds, providing a seamless and more intuitive user experience. With this technology enabled, earbuds will become true multitasking products, combining audio streaming, improved video and audio calling, and hearing enhancement on just one device.
But if TWS earbuds are beginning to include help with hearing, where does this leave traditional hearing aids? And can hearing enhancement features on TWS earbuds be as effective as conventional hearing aids?
TWS earbuds which give access to hearing enhancement features can be categorized as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs). Studies have shown that PSAPs can provide comparable benefits to hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss and, in some cases, may be as beneficial as traditional hearing aids.
It’s important to recognize that hearing loss can worsen over time and, if left untreated by a doctor or hearing care professional, it may contribute to chronic health issues. But not everyone will want or need a professional assessment. The ability to access help with mild to moderate hearing issues cheaply and conveniently makes TWS earbuds and other PSAPs an excellent choice for millions of people.
A growing market with many niches
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the relentless rise of TWS earbuds, combined with the advent of OTC hearing aids, is creating ever more opportunities for innovation and collaboration in the hearing health industry. A growing number of companies—both consumer and hearing—will be entering this potentially enormous market.
This is resulting in almost constant releases of new products and ideas designed to improve hearing in noise or allow individuals to buy and tune their hearing aids themselves. Earbuds, hearing aids, phone apps; the hearing market is big business now for major players. Companies manufacturing smartphones, traditional audio devices, and hearing aids are all developing new solutions to meet the enormous demand: JLab, Samsung, Bose, HP, Sony, Apple, Jabra, and Sennheiser, to name just a few, are all in the mix.
These consumer electronics leaders, in turn, are being challenged by smaller nimble arrivals such as Tuned, Audientes, and Nuheara. The new contenders are invading the gaps in the market that hearing aids have traditionally been unable to colonize: cheap, easily accessed solutions for self-diagnosed mild-to-moderate hearing loss and situational devices to help anyone who wants to hear clearly in noise.
And one of the simplest and easiest ways to help with hearing in noise is surely to use earbuds enabled with the appropriate technology—which brings us back to TWS earbuds. These earbuds, which can offer such a wide range of features in such convenient and inexpensive packages, will quickly become the go-to entry devices for consumers at the start of their hearing loss journey.
In the battle for the hearing health industry, consumer devices are fighting traditional hearing aids for market share—and they’re set to win.
Sue Handley Jones is chief of staff at audio software specialists AudioTelligence. She is an experienced executive with a successful track record of scaling venture-backed tech start-ups by sourcing, hiring, managing, and developing teams across technical, commercial, and operational.