If you are reluctant (or can’t afford) to use a hearing aid, there are dozens of personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), over-the-counter devices that can help you hear a little better but don’t cost as much as hearing aids, which run up to $3,000 each.
NOT QUITE A HEARING AID
Hearing aids are recommended for those who have been diagnosed with hearing loss by an audiologist. PSAPs, which come in many shapes and sizes, often resembling a Bluetooth headset, are meant to amplify sounds in situations where hearing is difficult, such as large gatherings or noisy restaurants.
In reality, it’s not an either-or choice. Only 20% to 25% of people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually use one. PSAPs, with their lower price and availability on the Internet, in pharmacies and in stores such as RadioShack, can serve as “training wheels” for people who want to hear better but hesitate to shell out big bucks for a hearing aid.
Important: The hearing aids sold by audiologists are approved by the FDA as medical devices and must meet certain standards related, for example, to frequency ranges and distortion. PSAPs, on the other hand, are classified as electronic products. They aren’t subject to FDA review, so you can’t assume that they’ll work for you. However, some PSAPs already rival the quality of “official” hearing aids and will keep getting better as technology improves.
KNOW WHAT YOU NEED
Before you look into PSAPs, get tested by an audiologist. About 14% of adults in their 50s, one-quarter in their 60s and more than one-third of those age 65 and older have some degree of age-related hearing loss. But do not assume that your hearing is normal—or that hearing loss is inevitable.
You may think that your hearing is becoming impaired because of your age when, in fact, it may be due to a medical issue, such as infection, abnormal bone growth, an inner-ear tumor or even earwax—all of which can be treated and sometimes reversed.
If your hearing loss is not related to a medical issue, a PSAP may be appropriate in the following situations…
You have trouble hearing the TV. It is a common complaint but fairly easy to overcome. Inexpensive earbuds or a headset that merely amplifies the sound may be all that you need. Some products are wireless or have long cords that plug directly into the TV.
You have trouble hearing in quiet environments. Speech can sound muffled or be entirely unintelligible if you have age-related hearing loss. Even if you can easily hear background sounds (such as music), you might struggle with the high-frequency sounds that are characteristic of speech.
If you plan to use a PSAP mainly at home or in other quiet settings (such as a museum or a hushed restaurant), look for a device that amplifies high frequencies more than low ones. You’ll hear voices more clearly without being overwhelmed by the volume of sounds.
Warning: Some inexpensive products boost both high and low frequencies indiscriminately—avoid them. Your best choice will be a product that allows you to make adjustments and fine-tune it in different settings.
You have trouble hearing in noisy environments. Even mild hearing loss can make it hard to hear voices over the din of clattering plates, a chattering crowd and background music. A simple amplifier won’t work because it will make all of the sounds louder.
Better: A device that amplifies the sounds you want to hear while filtering out the rest. Look for a PSAP that has a directional microphone that will pick up speech while muting noise…noise cancellation to filter out low-frequency background sounds…volume control…and multiple channels that are suitable for different sound environments.
You’re on the fence. It’s common for people to put off getting a hearing aid because of embarrassment or cost. (Hearing aids aren’t covered by Medicare or most insurance plans.) You might be telling yourself, “Maybe I’ll get one when I’m a lot older.”
Important: Don’t wait too long. The parts of the brain associated with hearing become less active when they aren’t used. You need to hear sounds to keep this brain circuitry working and actively processing speech.
You might want to use a PSAP while you’re making up your mind about hearing aids. Even if you get a PSAP that just boosts volume, it will keep the brain signals firing. In my opinion, it’s reasonable to use one of these devices for a few months or even a few years. You can always buy a hearing aid later.
Great PSAP Models
Personal sound-amplification products you may want to consider…
For TV listening. Sennheiser Wireless RS Headphones look like old-fashioned stereo headsets, but they let you turn up the sound. $100 to $600, Sennheiser.com.
For more volume in loud environments. Able Planet Personal Sound 2500 AMP is packed with high-end electronics to reduce background noise while amplifying sounds you want to hear (such as voices). $900 a pair, $500 for one, HearingHealth.AblePlanet.com.
For more volume in both loud and quiet places. The Bean Quiet Sound Amplifier by Etymotic provides amplification of soft speech without distorting sounds. $700 a pair, $375 for one, QSABean.com.
For more volume at a low cost. Dozens of affordable products mainly increase volume without other features. Example: Sonic SE4000X SuperEar Personal Sound Amplifier, a handheld amplifier you can attach to a pocket, belt, hat or purse strap. About $40, SonicTechnology.com.
All of the PSAP manufacturers listed here offer a money-back guarantee if the product is returned within 30 days.