Able Planet has been around a long time developing assistive listening products for the hearing-assistance industry based on its Linx Audio sound processing technology. But recently it has taken on a new look with a high-profile branding campaign and a new, broad line of high-end noise-canceling headphones, earphones and accessories attacking the heart of the consumer electronics market. At the AudiologyNOW! conference they stood out with a booth promoting “I Am Able” professional athletes who endorse their products, and they were showing new headphones and headsets that are successfully competing head-to-head with Bose and other popular high-end brands.
I caught up with Able Planet’s CEO Kevin Semcken and Chief Audiology Officer Dr. Christoper Schweitzer. Both have vast experience in the health care, medical device and hearing-aid industries. But what stood out for me is their commitment and savvy about what high-end audio consumers are looking for, and how previously arcane hearing-aid technologies such as digital signal processing will play an essential role in consumer electronics. By integrating Linx Audio into all its headphones and headsets, and promoting the technology as its critical advantage, Able Planet is distinguishing itself as one of the very few companies driving high-end hearing technology into mainstream products.
Able Planet’s noise-canceling headphones are head-to-head competitive with Bose, the gold-standard in noise-canceling headphones. Don’t ask me, ask CNET, which did a review of one of Able Planet’s earliest noise-canceling headphones as long ago as 2007 and said that it provided better noise suppression than Bose and an equally rich if not superior listening experience. The only negative in the review is that Able Planet wasn’t a known consumer brand and therefore would have a difficult time overtaking Bose, even with a better product.
Able Planet will continue to differentiate its products by providing value-added features that enable users to customize their listening experience — with what Dr. Schweitzer calls “chameleon-like” digital platforms that are easily modified based on the user’s unique hearing profile. Things as simple as plug-replaceable cords that can provide volume control, left-right balance and equalization adjustments can make all the difference for a boomer suffering unequal levels of hearing loss in one or both ears. Able Planet is also looking at ear-cup sizes that can accommodate behind-the-ear hearing aids on certain models. And it is working on wireless technologies that will enhance the chameleon capabilities of its products even more in the future.
I’ve used headphones from Sony, Sennheiser, Bose and others. Each has its advantages and all provide pretty good sound. But none of the brands has ever made me feel they are focused enough on people with mild or severe hearing impairments to give me any comfort that they are developing products that will continue to meet my needs better and better as new hearing-enhancement technologies become available.
The traditional hearing-industry leaders are no better, by and large choosing to focus on a narrow market of hearing-impaired patients served by audiologists rather than aggressively pushing new products into consumer channels. There is no doubt that within the hearing-aid industry there is enough mind-blowing new technology which, if packaged and promoted properly, could change the landscape of consumer electronics. It continues to amaze me that, as the baby boomer generation continues to lose its hearing at predictable rates, so few manufacturers are positioning themselves to meet the needs of high-end consumers of electronic products who need better and more intelligible sound. By showing up at AudiologyNOW! positioning itself to serve that broad space between high-tech hearing aids and high-end consumer electronics, Able Planet is showing that it “gets it.” Let’s see how many others in the industry follow their lead.