Globally, millions of people deal with some degree of hearing loss—be it mild, moderate or severe. Over the past few decades, the technology behind hearing aids has improved on various levels. While hearing devices have evolved to become more automatic with features to enable better communication, its core design has remained relatively constant and limited.
The latest product in the audiology sphere, known as hearables, claims to advance the function and design of the basic hearing aid. Despite its short history, hearables are packed with far more refined technology than hearing aids and have thus become an indispensable audiology tool for individuals worldwide.
Source: World Health Organization
What are hearables?
A hearable, or ‘smart earwear’ is a wireless micro-computer with AI that incorporates both microphones and speakers into a small wearable earpiece. Often called headphones or earbuds, the term hearables is an amalgamation of “wearable” and “headphones”, originally coined by Nick Hunn.
They are designed to comfortably fit in the ears and connect to smartphones or other electronics with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or a cellular network. Tech companies are using them to disrupt the existing hearing aid market, promoting them as “the future of hearing enhancement”. The claim to improve the quality of hearing with smart technology that provides crisp sound and reduces background noise is a familiar promise.
Hearables seem to deliver on this pledge of a higher-quality hearing experience and do so at a more affordable price. One of the main issues with hearing aids—besides their hefty price tag—is the fact they amplify all sounds and lack the ability to reduce background noise. Hearables succeed at filtering out background noise disturbances and trump hearing aids by including a personal digital assistant along with the ability to track health vitals—a useful add-on.
Through the power of AI, hearables can also detect skill level, which can be handy when learning a new language. Aural technologies like hearables can result in greater incorporation of voice into learning, creating a shift from relying primarily on texts for transferring information.
This new iteration of earbuds reaches a far broader segment of the population than is served by today's hearing aid industry. While hearables may not have been intentionally designed for those with hearing difficulties, the AI-powered solution can potentially enhance everyday lives of those who are hard-of-hearing, or partially Deaf. The technology serves people with mild to moderate hearing issues as well as people who are put off by the perceived "stigma" or cost of conventional hearing aids.
Hearables are also inviting for those who choose not to deal with the bother of engaging with the medical system. While hearing aids aren’t typically covered by Medicare or other private insurance plans, budget-friendly hearables are accessible without the bureaucratic hassle. Hearing technology of any kind that helps with communication has the power to enhance human experience and quality of life.
How hearable technology works
Hearables are essentially micro computers that utilize wireless technology designed to fit in your ear canal. Users take a brief hearing test using their smartphone to determine the level of aid needed. The audio augmentation process starts with the microphone, which picks up audio, digitizes it and sends the signal to the sound processor. From there, the audio is amplified by the processor, returned to an analog signal and sent to the speaker (or receiver). The speaker then sends those enhanced sound waves into the ear to process.
Hearables vow to amplify audio and improve the quality of sound. By isolating and then blocking ambient noise, speech sounds clearer. Some hearables can also translate languages—pretty smart!
Who hearables benefit
Lise Hamlin, Director of Public Policy for the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), says, “People like the idea of using something that looks like what everybody else is wearing." While millions of people opt for wearing headphones and earbuds, only 16% of 48 million Americans who need hearing aids actually purchase them. And, those that do end up buying them have a tendency to wait approximately seven years before doing so.
Those who find themselves constantly asking people to repeat what is being said or leaning in close to hear what people are saying are likely to benefit from such devices. And again, for anyone uninsured and not wanting to spend a ton of money on the traditional hearing aid options, hearables seem to be an affordable solution.
Downsides of hearables
Despite the apparent capabilities of hearables, they are still at a primitive stage and fall short in a few areas. For instance, they are not as personalized as hearing aids. While they are much less costly, they cannot be tailored by an audiologist to compensate for the frequencies a user has most trouble with. Hearables are not professionally fitted like traditional hearing aids, which means while noise isolation is possible, it might not be 100% perfect.
Furthermore, hearables rely on battery power, a strong antenna and on-board processor to function best. The cheaper devices are known for offering blanket amplification and tend to over-amplify certain noises. Although that effect isn’t intended, it’s possible for it to create a damaging side effect.
Communication is a vital part of life and should be accessible by all. If audible clarity is the need and ear pieces are not preferred, there are various earbud-free applications offering solutions today. Live caption tools, like Ava are available to help anyone with audio precision. Whether in a group setting or one-on-one, Ava and Ava Scribe’s speech-to-text function is immensely useful for those who have difficulty hearing.
For many, the point of hearables is to plug them in, turn them up and construct a customized soundtrack. For hard-of-hearing, the confluence of technology and wearables is fantastic news. The technology welcomes individuals with hearing issues into a new age of connectivity and is a necessary addition for a large portion of the population—larger than one might realize.
Hearing loss leaves no age group untouched. In fact, out of every 1,000 children in the U.S., about 2 to 3 have some level of hearing loss in one or both ears when born. Statistics also indicate that 1 in every 5 teens experience hearing loss. Nearly 15% of adults, 18 years or older, have trouble hearing. And, to top those figures, almost 25% of those aged 65 to 74 and 50% of those who are 75 or older have disabling hearing loss.
Until recently, consumer concerns about hearing loss have been restricted to the medical standards put forth by the hearing aid industry. However, the industry has done little to minimize the costs of such care or address the social stigma associated with it. Smart-audio product manufacturers have the power to expand their footprint and serve the population that fills a large part of the market gap.
Future advancements in sound and wellness tech combined will fuel the already popular Hearables Revolution even further. Market research projects that by 2026, the hearables market size will reach $93 billion.
Nowadays, people all over the world wear in-ear devices for everything from listening to music to enhancing hearing capacity. Hearables may play an important role in helping hearing aids and other assistive hearing devices become more mainstream. The convenient and affordable solution opens up a more accessible option for those with auditory needs.