VitaSound Audio Inc., the Canadian hearing aid company known for its sophisticated Neuro-Compensator sound processing software, is taking its high-end technologies into the consumer market with a new personal sound amplifier. The new VitaSound Personal Audio Enhancer (PAE-300) is a multifunction amplifier that conditions and clarifies environmental sound as well as TV, phone and MP3 audio signals.
The product is the first personal sound amplification product (PSAP) I’ve seen that you can use in both a conversation mode — with a microphone that picks up a speaker’s voice and processing software that dampens background noise — and in TV or telephone listening mode, where the software enhances and clarifies the audio to make listening and comprehension easier. And it’s sold at a price, between $200 and $300-plus on the web, that’s competitive with other quality PSAPs and high-end TV audio-streaming products.
The product is interesting enough in its own right (for a more complete description, see our writeup on Hearing Products News). But even more significant is what it says about the new directions more hearing aid technology developers and manufacturers should go as they try to find new growth markets beyond the relatively small niche of hearing-aid users dealing with moderate-to-severe hearing loss.
Currently, the Big Six manufacturers of hearing aids, who collectively control more than 80 percent of the world market for high-end hearing instruments, do not focus on consumer applications that could make the lives of normal-hearing people far easier. But the Big Six have been able to invest profits spun off from their high-margin premium hearing-aid businesses to develop sound processing and communication technologies that could be used for dozens of applications beyond finely tuned amplification to ameliorate patients’ hearing loss.
Now many of the smaller independent hearing aid manufacturers, who are not far behind (and are sometimes ahead) in developing the same kinds of sophisticated technologies, are looking at ways to integrate them into consumer-friendly products that will find new, fast-growth markets of buyers interested in new forms of hearing assistance.
Those buyers may well be averse to hearing aids, given the persistent stigma of admitting to the world you can no longer hear as well as you did when you were younger. But many of them are perfectly happy to buy all kinds of other devices that look and feel more like their iPhones and Android mobile phones.
Enter the VitaSound Personal Audio Enhancer. It’s about the same size as an iPod, and delivers sound through a similar standard headset or earbuds. But it uses VitaSound’s high-tech Neuro-Compensator sound processing software to condition the audio signals that go into the user’s ears. The PAE-300 can sit on the conference table and enhance speakers’ voices while dampening background noise; you can plug your phone or MP3 player into it, and the software engine will enhance and clarify the audio substantially; you can plug the base-station recharger into the TV and it will wirelessly transmit enhanced and clarified audio into the PAE-300 earbuds; and it even plays relaxing sounds, such as a babbling brook and rain on the roof, that can help mask tinnitus. Finally, it also lets you adjust and equalize low, medium and high-frequency tones to match your individual hearing profile.
In an interview, VitaSound Audio CEO Gora Ganguli said the company sees a large emerging market opportunity among Baby Boomers who aren’t yet ready for hearing aids, but who are more sensitive to hearing-related issues than in the past and far more receptive to new technologies than can provide an advantage in challenging listening situations.
Ganguli said the company has been successful in penetrating the slow-moving hearing-aid market with its Neuro-Compensator-based hearing aids, but that for a non-Big-Six independent to be successful in establishing distribution of high-end hearing aids, it must be ready to make a long-term investment. By applying the same technologies to faster-moving consumer markets at the same time, the company can deliver unique products with enough new value to generate revenue and profits that will fund continued R&D investments keeping it at the leading edge of hearing-enhancement technologies and applications.
The hearing aid industry has been at the forefront of spectacular advances in audio processing over the years, dramatically enhancing the communication capabilities — and lives — of innumerable consumers. But with less than a quarter of the world’s hearing-impaired population currently using hearing aids, the industry has a lot of work ahead of it to reach hearing-impaired patients in need.
At the same time, there’s a huge market of non-hearing-impaired consumers out there trying to navigate an ever noisier and ever more communication-intensive world, and they are receptive to using whatever new technologies that consumer tech companies can serve up to them. It would be good to see more manufacturers like VitaSound with roots firmly in the hearing-aid business start to branch out into these new consumer markets.
Sure, the markets for consumer-focused personal sound amplification products are more competitive and price-sensitive than the hearing aid business (good hearing aids generally cost several thousand dollars, whereas good PSAPs generally cost several hundred). But if you truly believe your mission is to enhance the hearing and lives of people concerned about their ability to communicate, using your advanced hearing aid technologies to develop and deliver slick, new, affordable consumer products like VitaSound’s Personal Audio Enhancer is a great way to do it.