Review for best hearing aids

January 10, 2018

The best hearing aid delivers pristine sound quality in a subtle design while being comfortable enough for all-day use. We spoke with audiologists and tested nine products for appearance, sound quality, and the ability to filter different frequencies. In the end, we found two over-the-counter amplifiers that clearly stood out from the crowd.

Best Overall: Tweak Focus

The Tweak’s simple design includes a small, almost weightless earpiece that hides behind your upper ear, and a thin, translucent wire that slips into your inner ear. It offers clear sound quality in a small, slender package, and was easily the best-sounding device we tested.

Runner-Up:Sound World Solutions CS50

The Sound World Solutions CS50 is a sleek black device that fits into your ear and looks like any other Bluetooth earpiece. We liked its modern design and its app-enabled customization, but we struggled to figure out what settings we needed.

A hearing aid requires a doctor’s prescription, a custom fitting, and a few thousand dollars. If you’re not quite ready for that kind of investment and you want something you can buy over the counter, there are alternatives like hearing amplifiers. These devices — sometimes called personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) — are cheaper, and more easily accessible, but their lack of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation means you don’t always know what kind of quality you’re getting. That’s where we come in. We tested nine different hearing amplifiers and found two discreet devices that will help you hear for less than US$500.

We loved the Tweak Focus for its behind-the-ear styling and its ability to amplify sound clearly at a fraction of the cost of a traditional hearing aid. The device was so lightweight and small, we nearly forgot we were wearing an amplifier, and our co-workers didn’t even notice we had them in. Best of all, the unpleasant, staticky white noise so common in other products was nowhere to be found in this amplifier, bringing the Tweak Focus’ sound quality head-and-shoulders above the competition.

Looking for an amplifier that doesn’t look like a hearing aid? Our runner-up, the Sound World Solutions CS50, looks and feels like wearing a small Bluetooth headset — a noticeable, but sleek black earpiece. And it functions just like one, too: The Sound World connects to your phone, meaning you can answer calls and stream music through your hearing device. The phone app also lets you adjust settings to fit your personal hearing needs, although we found customization a bit complicated. And despite the in-depth personalization, the CS50’s sounds weren’t as crisp as the Tweak’s.

How We Found the Best Hearing Amplifier

We started off by looking at all of the non-prescription devices we could find, plus products available at online retailers like Amazon and Walmart. We rounded up a list of 38 products ranging in price from US$2 to US$600.
Then we dove head-first into the research. Our goal? To find out which features and components detracted from an effective hearing amplifier — and which ones we just couldn’t hear without.

We looked for products that could distinguish high and low frequencies.

When hearing loss begins, high frequencies are usually the first to go, resulting in muffled sound and vowels that aren’t clear enough to discern. Hearing aids and amplifiers help adjust for this loss by amplifying high notes and either canceling out or maintaining low frequencies.

But many hearing amplifiers boost all sound, regardless of frequency. At best, this makes them ineffective hearing amplifiers … and in some cases, it makes them potentially harmful. A Consumer Reports study found that devices under US$50 either offered no help at all, or over-amplified high-pitched noises like emergency sirens — which could cause further hearing loss. A roundup of research on the topic comes to a similar conclusion, stating that low-cost devices are generally “of no value to individuals with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.”

We dug into this, and sure enough, all of the sub-US$50 options we looked at — plus a handful of high-end models — failed to differentiate among frequencies. According to our research, even some of the models that offered high and low tonal modes didn’t do much to distinguish the two. A hearing amplifier must be able to make the distinction — or better yet, have adjustable levels for personalized sound — to be effective. We cut products that couldn’t meaningfully differentiate high and low frequencies.

And we favored portability.

If you need an amplifier to help your hearing, you’ll probably want it to be as comfortable and unobtrusive as possible. One of our experts agreed: Audiologist Michael Mallahan told us that one of the main reasons his patients hesitate to get hearing aids is out of a fear that “it will make them look old.” We didn’t want appearance to be the only thing coming between you and better hearing, so we cut a couple of products that claimed decent sound tech, but utilized clunky Walkman-style or around-the-neck designs that we felt reluctant to carry around. Instead, we focused on discreet designs.

Then we rocked out, jumped, biked, and did some yoga.

Some of our remaining manufacturers offered multiple models (looking at you, HD). In these cases, we selected the brand’s top-performing options, making sure our picks offered speech-focused noise filtering, decent battery life, and moisture-resistant tech.

Our 9 finalists for best hearing amplifier:

•    Etymotic QSA Personal Sound Amplifier
•    HD 390 Digital Hearing Aid
•    HD 420 Digital Hearing Aid
•    Here One Wireless Smart Earbuds: 3-in-1 Noise Cancelling & In Ear Bluetooth Headphones
•    iHEAR MAX hearing device
•    LifeEar Boost/Active Hearing Amplifier
•    Otofonix Elite Hearing Amplifier
•    Sound World Solutions CS50 Wireless Bluetooth Sound Amplifier
•    Tweak Focus

We tried out our amplifiers one by one, wearing each for a few hours as we went about our lives. We brought them to concerts, wore them to work and yoga practice, took them on bike rides, and used them during conversations with our Starbucks barista.

Our primary concern was sound quality.

All of our finalists claimed they could amplify specific frequencies, but audiologist Nicholas Reed warned us that “good amplifiers make up about 1 to 5 % of the market.” So, we got our frequency counter out, played some high-pitched music on YouTube, and flushed a couple toilets to simulate everyday sound, checking to see what each one picked up. We also tested whether our devices could pick out voices in a noisy room — and if we could still hear our own voice louder than the sounds we were listening for. The iHear MAX was the clear loser here: It over-amplified sound to the point that chewing gum was unpleasant, and it picked up such high frequencies that it nauseated our tester.

Are high-frequency headaches common?Studies have linked high-frequency exposure to headaches and slight nausea, particularly in rooms with fluorescent lighting.

We also wanted a comfortable fit.

If you’re wearing a hearing amplifier for eight or more hours each day, it needs to be comfortable. As we tested each device, we focused on its weight, whether wearing it interfered with eyeglasses, and the amount of pressure it created inside our ears. We also did jumping jacks and yoga with each device, testing their stability — nobody wants an amplifier that constantly falls off.

Were they cumbersome in any way?

Finally, we checked out how easy each amplifier was to operate. Most were straightforward: You insert the battery, snap the door shut and it’s ready to put on. Rechargeable Bluetooth devices like Here One Wireless Smart Earbuds took a little more effort to set up, but not by much. We also looked at how much dexterity it took to change each device’s tiny batteries.

Our Picks for the Best Hearing Amplifier

Best over-all: Tweak Focus

The Tweak Focus impressed us immediately with its smooth sound quality. Beyond simple high-frequency amplification, the Tweak Focus produced a crisp, larger-than-life presentation not found in our runner-up. The experience was especially refreshing after spending hours testing other, less-than-stellar devices.

During our concert outing, most of the devices we tested whistled sharply in our ears or were filled with heavy white noise. The Tweak Focus, on the other hand, was able to clearly separate the music from the background sounds. We were also able to distinguish the vocals far better than with any other finalist. Even in Starbucks, with all the echoing noise and hubbub of a downtown Seattle coffee shop, we were able to comfortably carry on a conversation with the barista without being distracted by the background noise.

Although a bit smaller than most hearing amplifiers, the Tweak’s body looks like a traditional hearing aid with a behind-the-ear design.

All of the products we tested came with some sort of a carrying case, but the Tweak Focus’ seemed best-suited for keeping the device safe. The outside casing withstood being run over by a bike, enthusiastically stomped on and, of course, being sat on. The rounded edges allowed for easier handling and a better fit when placed in a purse or bag, but what really sold us on the case was the foam padding inside — none of our other cases had this. Given that you’ll be spending a few hundred dollars on these devices, you probably want it to be protected from getting banged up and bumped around.

The Sound World Solutions CS50 is a great all-day sound amplifier that disguises itself as a Bluetooth headset. We liked its stealthy appearance, 15-hour battery life, and its ability to customize sound levels through the Sound World mobile app. We just wish the customizations were a little simpler.

The biggest selling point of the Sound World Solutions CS50 is its appearance: It looks just like a normal Bluetooth headset that you would use to answer your phone. In fact, the CS50 connects to your handset, so you can use it to answer calls — just like a traditional Bluetooth headset — while still amplifying sound to better accommodate your hearing. We liked this design because it’s a different route to discretion — where the Tweak Focus is nearly invisible, the CS50 blends right in with every other bluetooth earbud.

We also liked the two rechargeable, magnetic batteries. We found the magnetic tech convenient for storage and portability, as it makes disassembly quick and simple. No hunting for runaway batteries — just stick the nifty battery to your earpiece or charger and you’re set. The app walked us through every step of the process, stripping any potentially uneasy feeling from handling a new hearing device.

The Sound World Solutions gets full points for having adjustable sound options, but falls short on user-friendliness. After an initial calibration, you can adjust overall volume, treble, bass and “mid” noise, but there was no explanation in the manual to help us decipher which setting we needed to change based on what we were hearing. In the end, we spent six hours tinkering with adjustments before things finally sounded the way we wanted them to.

Granted, the device was good at amplifying sounds. Perhaps too good — we started to feel like we were wearing spyware, able to hear music coming from headphones and whispers from across the room. During the Starbucks noise test, we had to stop and adjust the sound settings before being able to really understand the barista clearly. If you want this hearing amplifier to sound right, you’ll need to be willing to put substantial time into adjusting the options.

Did You Know?

Your brain needs time to adjust.

Even though we hear through our ears, our brains actually process the sounds, so give your brain time to get used to all the unfamiliar noise. Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at Johns Hopkins University told us there is really no specific timeline for this adjustment: “A lot has to do with how much the person wears their hearing aid and their attitude going into it.” So, give yourself and your brain a break! It won’t happen overnight, but a positive mental attitude and consistent use will definitely accelerate the process.

Medicare doesn’t pay for hearing aids.

If you’ve looked into hearing aids at all, you may already know that most insurance providers, including Medicare, don’t cover them or the necessary appointments. About 30 million Americans over the age of 70 “have a clinically significant hearing loss” but less than 20 % of them use hearing aids. This major lack of coverage is, in part, due to the steep prices of hearing aids and the doctor’s appointments they require. With comparable tech growing better each day, hearing amplifiers have the potential to provide a cheaper option for those not willing or able to spend upward of US$6,000 on their hearing.
Hearing amplifiers are catching up to hearing aids.

In August 2017, Congress passed a law allowing some hearing aids to be sold over the counter. Patients with severe hearing loss will still have to see a professional for consultation, but those with mild to moderate loss (the majority of the demographic) will be able to go into any pharmacy and conveniently purchase a hearing aid for possibly much cheaper than they’re currently priced. Our experts sounded very excited about this turn of events, saying it will likely lower the cost of hearing aids while also creating a set standard for the devices we currently know as hearing amplifiers — essentially merging hearing aids and hearing amplifiers into a more consolidated price range.



Category: Technology & Devices, Top Story

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