How Bose and AirPods Can Help Modernize Hearing Aids

Hearing aids are still too expensive and dorky

Key Takeaways

  • Bose’s SoundControl hearing aids are cheap, and can be bought and used without consulting an audiologist.
  • Wearable tech is changing the way we think about medical devices like hearing aids.
  • Hearing aid makers are stuck in the past.
Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids

Bose

Bose and Apple can teach the hearing-aid industry a thing or two about wearable tech.

Headphone and speaker company Bose will start selling SoundControl hearing aids directly to customers. They’ll cost $850 a pair and come with a phone app. This might sound like an expensive product, but, in fact, the concept is quite radical. First, $850 is dirt cheap in terms of hearing aids. Second, hearing aids must usually be bought via a doctor.

The result is that many users stick with the basics and work around their shortcomings.

"Most hearing aid wearers will prefer over-the-ear headphones rather than pods, so they can keep using their aids at the same time, but often even then the combination of the two can cause really irritating feedback issues," Henrietta Thompson, design journalist and curator of the HearWear exhibition at the V&A, told Lifewire in an email.

The Trouble With Hearing Aids

Hearing Aids are not only expensive, coming in at many thousands of dollars for a pair, but they must usually be approved as medical devices, and only provided by doctors.

That’s fine, in theory, but in practice, just look at AirPods. They don’t pretend to solve hearing impairment, but they pack an incredible amount of tech into tiny packages. Combined with an iPhone, AirPods can amplify the surrounding audio with Live Listen, fine-tune the profile of the iPhone’s music and audio to suit your hearing, and even alert you to sounds you may not hear, like doorbells or car horns.

"In the ear headphones are not usually compatible with hearing aids."

Regular hearing aids are also dorky as all get-out, whereas AirPods are a must-have accessory.

"Medical gadget companies are still of the opinion that most people want medical aids to be inconspicuous and invisible, but they never are," says Thompson. "Equally, no need to make a talking point of them in bright colors. Jewelry is such a personal thing, so that’s difficult to get right, too. Much better to mimic wearable tech that people actually covet. White, black, and silver are always more stylish than sticking-plaster nude."

And it’s not just looks. Basic functionality is missing. Hearing aid wearer and app developer Graham Bower gave Lifewire a list of his problems with most hearing aids:

  • You have to open the battery compartment to turn them off, causing the batteries to sometimes fall out.
  • No convenient carrying case when you want to take them out.
  • Absolutely terrible app designs, as if they were done by a 3-year-old with crayons.
  • Loads of settings to choose from when you really want them to just work.

We’re not suggesting people with impaired hearing should be able to go out and purchase hearing aids from the electronics store, but we are kind of suggesting it. Drugstore reading glasses won’t correct eyesight as well as proper prescription glasses, but they do provide cheap and easy help to millions of people who would otherwise struggle. Why can’t hearing aids work the same way?

The Future

Bose’s SoundControl hearing aids point to a future where hearing aids are just another specialized line of consumer tech. They initially will be sold directly to users in five states—Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas—and won’t require an audiologist. Users can fit and adjust them themselves, although they use standard hearing aid batteries instead of rechargeable ones.

The hearing aids are designed for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. This is a welcome development, but what might be more important is the effect of ubiquitous wearable tech on our attitudes.

"These days, people are much more respectful of wearables that enhance your health," says Thompson. "Wellness and, crucially, taking control over it, [are] seen as a positive move. The language around it all is changing—it’s less about disability and more [about] empowering."

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