A small Australian company is hoping to blow multi-thousand-dollar prescription hearing aids out of the water. This US$449 pair of over-the-counter, Bluetooth hearing augmentation earbuds can test and adjust to your hearing, connect to your phone, and separate voices from background noise.
A couple of months ago, we first reviewed Nuheara's IQBuds, a set of remarkable Bluetooth earbuds designed to enhance your audio interactions with the outside world, as well as streaming media from smart devices. With multiple microphones on each ear and some very clever processing, IQbuds let you turn the outside world up or down, and even have the capability to recognize speech and separate it from background noise, letting wearers enjoy conversations more easily in noisy and crowded areas.
The layman's temptation was to look at these things as a kind of hearing aid, but that's to ignore the high degree of personalization that goes into a bona fide hearing aid. As we learned when we first encountered the extraordinary Nura self-personalizing headphones, everyone's hearing is vastly different, and these differences become even greater as hearing begins to degrade with age.
While Nura's headphones test and personalize themselves to your hearing using an objective otoacoustic emission test, audiologists use a subjective "tell me when you begin to hear this frequency" test to build a hearing aid prescription that perfectly fits each patient. And it's that exact subjective test, the NAL-NL2 test and prescription formula, that Nuheara has built into the next edition of its earbuds, the IQbuds Boost.
"It's a variation of IQbuds," Nuheara's Justin Miller tells us, "but we had noticed in the way that people were using the app, that people were using IQbuds to offset hearing loss. We hadn't really designed the product for that, but people were using it because a lot of very expensive hearing aids don't actually process sound and boost voices as well as we do in noisy environments.
"So what we then set about doing, is we became the first company in the world to develop a product that effectively fits the audiologist in a box. It conducts a complete hearing test on you, and from the results of the test we then use a hearing aid prescription formula, the same prescription formula used by all the major hearing aid companies around the world. We've automated that, into a procedure we called EarID. So the IQBuds Boost crafts the buds perfectly to your own hearing ability and profile. They can be used now by people with hearing loss."
In many ways, IQbuds Boost will act the same way as the original IQbuds – just with a hearing test built in that produces a sophisticated formula for each of your ears that is specifically designed to aid speech comprehension. Yes, there's an EQ curve for each ear, but also a specific compression ratio for each frequency band, designed to bring voices out in their most audible and understandable format. But could EarID be a function that gets rolled back to the original IQbuds?
"It's a slightly different hardware profile," says Miller, "what we've done to be able to provide more gain, a lot more sophisticated software, and we've got to license the prescription formula and those sorts of things, so there's a lot more cost that goes into it."
There's also the notion that people tend to avoid getting a hearing aid, even if they know they're starting to struggle. Whether it be for the gigantic cost of thousands of dollars per ear, or because of the stigma of wearing a hearing aid, it's a tough move for people to make. But a slightly more expensive set of Bluetooth headphones you can enjoy smartphone content with that also tune to your hearing, make the world more understandable, and help separate conversations from background noise when you take them into a noisy bar? That's the kind of thing people might stump up for.
"Another significant thing that's happened in this market is the OTC – the Over the Counter Hearing Aid act that was signed by President Trump in October last year," says Miller. "It's a piece of legislation to provide more accessibility and affordability for those that are hearing impaired at a moderate level in the US. Basically what they're saying is they want over-the-counter hearing aids available in the US, and essentially what we've got with IQbuds Boost is exactly what that legislation was brought in for. We see an amazing opportunity; we're first to market, and now supported by legislation in the US. That's massive for us, and our product's shipping in a matter of weeks."
They won't be an instant cure for poor hearing – hearing aids themselves can be fiddly to get your head around before they become helpful – and our experience with the original IQbuds showed that you need to learn your way around the app before you'll get the best out of them. But the EarID test and prescription should sort out a solid foundation to begin from, and we'd see these as a very exciting, approachable and affordable alternative for folks who aren't ready or able to lay down a heap of money for hearing aids.
IQBuds Boost are available now at a pre-order discount directly from Nuheara's website. In the United States, you're looking at US$449 a pair, and in Australia they'll set you back AU$584.
More information: Nuheara
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