Starkey Laboratories’ new AMP Personal Audio Amplifier is a tiny new invisible hearing aid designed “for people who aren’t ready for a hearing aid.” The new hearing aid is an affordable, cosmetically appealing solution that does a good job correcting mild or moderate hearing loss. At a suggested retail price of $750 a piece, the Starkey AMP hearing aid is designed to make it simple for audiologists to send patients home with their first hearing aids after their first visit–without busting their budgets.
Like Starkey’s popular SoundLens invisible hearing aid, the tiny Starkey AMP hearing aid fits deep enough within the average ear canal to be virtually invisible. But unlike the SoundLens, which requires a custom fitting and is more expensive because it has more features for people with more complicated hearing loss, the Starkey AMP is an entry-level solution for people just starting to have trouble with their hearing. Its programming software comes with four preset starting points to make it easy for audiologists to tune the four-channel device to meet the individual requirements of patients with the most common form of mild, mainly high-frequency hearing loss. And a one-size-fits-most design–with an innovative “elastomeric sleeve” that can be adjusted to different sizes of ear canals and that also promotes airflow to prevent occlusion–enables audiologists to do without ear mold impressions and fit an off-the-shelf product that the patient can start wearing the same day.
As best I can tell from the specs available from Starkey, the AMP hearing aid addresses four major obstacles that often prevent patients who need hearing assistance from buying their first hearing aid:
Stigma: Consumers still fear that wearing a hearing aid is a sign of infirmity and old age that will hurt them at work and in social situations; the AMP’s invisible deep-in-the-ear-canal design eliminates that cosmetic problem.
- Sticker Shock: While not inexpensive, the AMP hearing aids are priced far more attractively than more expensive premium digital hearing aids, providing first-time users a more affordable way to start wearing hearing aids.
- Sound Quality: Four channels provides enough digital programming flexibility to fit many users’ hearing profiles, and other features–especially feedback cancellation–promise to deliver a better listening experience than the cheaper personal sound amplifier products (PSAPs) that are increasingly available.
- Comfort and Convenience: Starkey makes it clear that the new AMP hearing aids might not fit in everyone’s ear canals, but for those it does fit, the company has gone out of its way to make the small device comfortable to wear; additionally, being able to go home with a pair of programmed hearing aids after your very first visit to the audiologist reduces the hassle and time usually associated with fitting a pair of hearing aids.
One other feature increases the cool factor a bit. The programming software for the audiologists can run on both their personal computers and on their hip Apple Computer iPads.
After many years of “skimming the cream” in the market by providing high-profit premium-priced products costing up to $4,000 apiece to wealthy consumers, hearing aid companies now are starting to find ways to address first-time consumers with more modest budgets. The problem in delivering entry-level hearing aids until recently has been product quality: it was an expensive proposition to integrate good sound processing software processing with a powerful enough chip in a small enough size to design a cosmetically appealing hearing aid. Now, with more standardized technology platforms integrating lower-cost digital signal processors that deliver more power in smaller packages, it’s possible for the major hearing aid companies to start offering more and better entry-level solutions.
There may still be plenty of room in the market for even lower cost digital hearing aids offering high-quality sound in attractive packages, but the Starkey AMP’s combination of super-small size, good sound processing, attractive price and ease of fitting is a real step in the right direction.