“Hearphones have truly changed my life” claims one review of Bose’s new generation of fashionable, customisable, ‘conversation-enhancing’ hearing aids. Thanks to a recent FDA approval for marketing the over-the-counter hearing aids, consumers both young and old are now able to purchase, program and control Bose’s ‘Hearphones’ on their own without the assistance from a healthcare provider. This represents a major shift in hearing health regulation and one which could see a drastic change in both awareness and solutions to an age-old problem.
The WHO (World Healthcare Organisation) estimates that by 2050 over 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss, and this is no longer an issue just for the elderly. It’s claimed 1.1 billion young people under 35 are currently classified ‘at risk’, mostly due to preventable causes such as listening to loud music and being exposed to noisy environments. For many, the thought of having to wear a hearing aid is unpopular, as the cost, complexity and social stigma surrounding hearing aids present significant barriers. However, as the FDA, Bose and other consumer electronics manufacturers are now starting to discover, the potential for headphones to prevent, restore and enhance our hearing health in ways that were previously inaccessible is becoming ever-more prevalent, especially with the convergence of these two once divided industries.
Rechargeable batteries, phone-calls, music streaming, smartphone app connectivity via Bluetooth and digital noise reduction via directional microphone systems are all features which could easily be mistaken for describing a wireless headphone. However, these features are that of one of the largest hearing aid producers Oticon’s new offering -
the Opn 3.
The analogy works both ways, with headphones themselves beginning to adopt similar form-factors as of hearing aids, such as with the growing popularity of truly wireless products and its subtlety of placement within the ear canal. Through true wireless, vendors are attempting to create products which can remain in the ears throughout day-to-day activities, particularly as headphones are being increasingly used for communication, smart home control via voice assistants and other 24/7 use cases. Furthermore, some noise cancellation features in headphones are loosely based on the same multiple-microphone principles as with digital noise-reduction in hearing aids, as well as incorporation of ‘Hear Through’ or ‘Ambient Aware’ technologies. For headphone manufacturers then, following Bose’s steps of transitioning into the market for hearing health, this presents a significant opportunity to capitalise on these synergies and branch into this now attainable space.
The market potential for over-the-counter ‘hearphones’ is huge. Recent conservative estimates by the WHO put the worldwide hearing aid market at around 15 million units a year. We figure that many people currently in the market for a hearing aid would seriously explore the option of buying ‘hearphones’ in the knowledge that they are cheaper (e.g. Bose Hearphones cost $499) than prescribed hearing aids, which can range from $1,000 to $3,000 in most instances. Furthermore, the lower price of hearphones could prompt many additional people to acquire their first device to improve their hearing. For example, people with mid to low hearing loss, or audiological conditions such as tinnitus who would otherwise go untreated. Additionally, the WHO states two-thirds of people affected by hearing loss are in developing countries, often on low incomes. In such markets, it is said that less than 5% of people who need hearing aids actually have one. Over-the-counter ‘hearphones’, would provide a much cheaper and accessible alternative in such cases.
There are a few examples, other than Bose, of both headphone and hearing aid companies that are attempting to operate in this space. GN Hearing and Starkey are two hearing health companies who have produced audio headphones for both consumer and professional use by drawing on their experience. So too have start-up companies Bragi and Nuheara’s, with their latest ‘hearables’ which promise audible enhancement developments within their products, as well as home theatre company ZVOX who have created ‘Voice Buds’, all of which operate in this grey area between headphone and hearing-aid. The FDA ruling may see many more vendors enter this space from a variety of industries in the coming years.
Looking further forward, ‘hearing enhancement’ within so called ‘hearable’ devices opens a world of possibilities for those even without hearing issues. A browse on crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo confirms audiological enhancement within true wireless earphones is a superpower within reach, and its popularity completely inferential. Being able to turn up, turn down and customise what you hear in the world around you, as well as incorporating additional features such as live translation, point to an exciting and more connected future.
Hearing health is both a serious and global public health issue and now it seems regulators such as the FDA have identified that cutting the red tape and allowing different kinds of solutions and vendors from other industries may be able to contribute to tackle this problem. The effectiveness of headphones role in this sure makes logical sense, however, as another review on the Bose’s hearphones states, “Some things work well – others don’t,” there are still many complex and technological barriers for manufacturers to overcome before a well-rounded solution can prevail.
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