Lyric Hearing is only a few years old, but the “invisible hearing aid” pioneer is first out of the gate in a market that is sure to attract plenty of competition. Lyric Hearing Aids are tiny devices placed so deep within the ear canal that it is truly impossible to see them. Because they are so small and located so close to the ear drum, they claim to deliver auditory benefits that normal hearing aids can’t provide. And, once they are inserted, they remain in place 24 hours a day for up to four months, so the user doesn’t have to worry about replacing batteries or keeping track of them when not being worn. Lyric Hearing also has an unusual business model, selling the hearing aids on an annual subscription basis, with old hearing aids removed and replaced with new ones every few months by your audiologist. Just as the transition to soft, extended-wear contact lenses expanded the share of contacts versus regular glasses and changed the dynamics of the vision correction market in substantial ways, Lyric Hearing’s innovation has the potential to dramatically alter the hearing-aid market. How big an impact will Lyric Hearing and other “invisible” hearing aids like it have on the market? It depends largely on the tradeoffs between the many benefits and several significant drawbacks.
First, the benefits. For starters, there is less “occlusion,” the stopped up feeling and echoing you get with many in-the-ear hearing aids. Because the distance between the ear drum and receiver (the hearing aid’s speaker) is so small, there is less room for echoing between the two. There is also less feedback for two reasons: first, less amplification is needed due to the proximity of the eardrum; and second, there is less leakage of sound between the microphone and speaker because the placement of the device within the deep, bony portion of the ear canal, versus the soft-cartilage portion where most in-the-ear hearing aids sits, makes for a more secure fit. Another benefit is the fact that you put it in once and don’t have to worry about it at all for three or four months. And finally, there’s the cosmetic benefit of invisibility, designed to get first-time users quickly past the feared stigma of wearing hearing aids. These benefits alone are enough to have made the device’s introduction a major news story and to attract a number of satisfied first-time users profiled on the company’s web site. They were also compelling enough to attract a deep-pocket buyer. In January 2010 Sonova Holding AG of Switzerland, one of the world’s biggest hearing aid companies, acquired Lyric and its parent company, InSound Medical, for $75 million. Sonova is parent of Phonak and other leading global hearing aid brands.
What are the drawbacks? There are enough to prevent Lyric Hearing and Sonova from putting the rest of the major hearing-aid brands out of business any time soon. First, the device needs to be implanted by an audiologist, unlike with normal hearing aids that users can easily insert and remove on their own. That means multiple trips to the audiologist a year. Second, putting any man-made object that deep within your ear canal is generally a concern, born out by the recall of Lyric products manufactured between December 10th and 24th of 2009, due to what the FDA attributed to a “manufacturing error” that could “result in electrolyte leakage from the product’s battery.” Third, a day at the beach may no longer include a swim in the ocean because, while Lyric says the hearing aids are water resistant and that showering with them in is fine, swimming is not recommended. Fourth, the hearing aids are not appropriate for the entire spectrum of hearing loss: while they will correct normal age-related hearing loss at mid-to-high frequencies, they don’t provide enough amplification for the most severe forms of hearing loss. Fifth, they are not entirely hassle free, because the user needs a set of tools to adjust the volume remotely, via a small magnetic wand, and to remove the device when necessary.
Then there’s the price. While the company distributes through audiologists, the price for an annual subscription has been quoted at between $2,900 and $3,600 for two hearing aids. It’s possible to get a decent pair of hearing aids for that price that will last a number of years, whereas you pay thousands of dollars for the Lyric Hearing aids ever year. So the Lyric Hearing Aid pricing is definitely in the premium range. However, if you consider high-end hearing-aid users often pay more than $6,000 per pair, and often replace their hearing aids with the next generation models every two or three years, you can make the case that, given their uniqueness and overall benefits, Lyric Hearing Aids’ pricing is competitive in the high-end hearing-aid market segment.
Given the acquisition by Sonova, which is allowing Lyric Hearing to operate as an independent subsidiary, it is unlikely Lyric will be one of those “pioneers with the arrows in their backs” who pave the way for the rest of the industry but are replaced over time by larger competitors. And time will tell if “invisible hearing aids” become as commonplace as soft, extended-wear contact lenses.