To most of us who wear hearing aids, the devices are indispensable. But they’re expensive – the pair I wear cost $6,000. They’re medical devices, though it’s rare to have them covered by insurance.

At least modern hearing aids are tiny. Most people don’t notice that I wear them unless I mention it. The receiver on each ear rests behind my ear and a tiny wire snakes into my ear canal. Some other folks opt for in-the-ear-canal hearing aids that are invisible to the outside world. (Examples of in-canal aids include from Phonak and Starkey. Phonak touts its invisible aid as “The contact lens for your ear,” an apt marketing slogan.)

But despite major technological advances in recent years, hearing solutions are ripe for significant disruptions:

  1. Hearing aids probably will become more fashionable, like the ones that the model is wearing in the photo atop this article. Those are Olive “next generation” hearing aids, described below. Imagine a day (not far off) when hearing devices are accessories, as fashionable and varied as eyeglasses. Imagine the stigma still associated with wearing hearing aids going away, as hearing-aid wearers blend in with hordes of other people wearing “hearables” for listening to music and taking phone calls wirelessly.
  2. They’ll become much less expensive, a result of a wave of companies developing hearing aids that are not traditional medical devices. You’ll be able to order them without going through an audiologist, and they’ll sync with your smartphone; the hearing profile for the aids will be created via an online hearing test accomplished on a computer or your phone.

So far, traditional hearing-aid companies have not entered the market for low-cost hearables in a significant way; after all, such devices could undercut the market for their expensive hearing aids. But startups aren’t waiting, and they were recently given a boost when the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 was signed into U.S. law, which will make it easier for consumers with mild to moderate hearing loss to purchase over-the-counter hearing aids and devices without visiting an audiologist or physician.

Here are some of the new and upcoming hearing aids and related hearable devices that represent the early wave of low-cost technology that will transform the hearing marketplace. They don’t work as well for addressing hearing impairment (for now) as multi-thousand-dollar medical hearing aids fine tuned by an audiologist, but as the low-cost devices advance, who knows!

Olive

These hearing aids are being developed by a South Korean company with the aim of costing $100 apiece. Olive Union is in the middle of an already successful crowdfunding campaign to finish the product and get it to that price point at launch in December 2017. The company’s founder says the aim is to “change the hearing paradigm”: to end the days of hearing aids too expensive for most of the people who need them, and to make them fashionable.

The Olive, like other low-cost devices of similar ilk, is not designed to serve those with profound hearing loss. It’s designed for those with mild to moderate hearing loss, a not uncommon condition as people age or for people whose occupations (construction worker, cabinet maker, soldier) have left them with some hearing impairment.

This is not just a hearing aid. Like other hearable devices, it connects to a smartphone using Bluetooth for features such as listening to music or news, playing the audio for a phone call, etc.

IQ Buds - Nuheara

IQ Buds, $299 for a pair, look a bit like Olives, though they’re a bit more like having an electronic device stuck in your ear vs. the fashion sense of the Olive design. They’re also less about being a “hearing aid” than something completely different and new. In fact, the company calls them “intelligent earbuds.”

For people with some mild hearing impairment, though, IQ Buds could be useful. They can amplify external sound, as well as offer various treatments of external sound while also listening to music through the earbuds. For example, they have settings that “selectively tune in or out the world around you.” That’s useful if you’re talking in a restaurant and need to tune out all the background noise to hear your companion. Or perhaps you’re listening to music with the earbuds but want to be able to hear if a coworker says something to you – or prefer to tune out all office noise.

Hear One

Hear One is another intelligent wireless earbud priced at $300 per pair. Similar to IQ Buds, the Hear One touts its ability to boost the sound of what you want to hear while reducing sound you don’t – such as amplifying a friend’s voice while reducing background noise in a restaurant or bar.

This is the type of product that eventually should end the days of wired earbuds or headphones, though at this point Hear One and its competitors are priced too high to take over the market. Also, Hear One earbuds have a battery life of only two hours before recharging is necessary; at least they come with a portable charging pack.

What’s intriguing about hearables like Hear One is how they represent a change in consumer behavior: The wearing of technology in or on the ear is more normal, which of course helps remove the stigma that hearing-aid users have experienced in the past.

We can expect to see more “consumer” hearing aids and hearable devices enter the market in coming years. This will not be without controversy, it should be noted. The traditional hearing-aid industry is wary, not just about losing market share for its pricey products but also about concern for hearing-impaired people not being treated optimally. A recent statement by Starkey CEO Brandon Sawalich summarized that point of view: “Hearing loss correction with hearing aids is successful when the qualified professional human touch is brought into the process, not the cash register… Hearing loss is a medical issue, not a consumer electronics opportunity.”

On the other hand, technology is advancing ever faster to automate processes that long have been exclusive to humans. The audiologist or “ear doctor” prescribing multi-thousand dollar hearing aids just might lose a big chunk of their clientele to technology-only solutions that provide effective diagnosis and provision of low-cost hearing devices that actually work. More likely, many people with hearing impairments who have never gotten hearing aids will buy into the new low-cost devices.

Top photo credit: Olive Union