The New York Times has weighed in on the confusion between hearing aids and personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) with a well-researched article that explains the issues well. Unfortunately, it still falls short of clearing up the confusion about what should be classified as a hearing aid, what not, and why you should buy one or the other.
Instead, “Just Don’t Call Them Hearing Aids” goes off on a surprising tangent — reporting that PSAP makers are designing their products to look more like Bluetooth earpieces than hearing aids, “betting that the high-tech look of a new generation of sound amplifiers will tempt people to try them.”
Ever since I read a story in Network World three years ago entitled “It’s official: Wearing a Bluetooth headset makes you ugly,” I’ve shied away from making the argument that wearing any kind of earpiece is “cool.” It’s a pretty funny story, based on a survey that was done about what kinds of gadgets each sex finds attractive or unattractive in the other. The survey found that people by and large did not find most gadgets very attractive.
In my personal experience, people really don’t think I’m a cool guy when I use a Bluetooth earpiece. And they definitely don’t think I’m more cool when I walk around with hearing aids packing microprocessors, microphones, amplifiers and all kinds of other miniature technology into my ears. But in the case of my hearing aids, they do often find me more interesting.
That’s why I’d rather walk around with my big ugly behind-the-ear hearing aids than a Bluetooth headset. People I meet are pretty quick to see past the hearing aids once I’ve talked with them for about 30 seconds. And when they do look at the hearing aids, it’s because they’re genuinely interested in what they do, how they work, and how much they help me. The hearing aids are a conversation starter more than a turnoff.
If I walked around with a Bluetooth headset, on the other hand, I fear people would take a quick look and immediately conclude I was sending an off-putting message — that my need to be on the phone constantly far outweighs my desire to engage in a personal face-to-face conversation with them.
I think PSAPs are a different animal entirely and should be marketed not as Bluetooth earpiece lookalikes, but as new consumer tech products in a class of their own. It’s a real challenge for the PSAP makers though, compounded by the fact that many are struggling with FDA restrictions on marketing PSAPs as “hearing aids.”
Hearing aids are medical devices subject to FDA approval, whereas personal sound amplifiers are not. Therefore the FDA says PSAPs cannot be called “hearing aids” and must only be marketed as a way to enhance normal hearing in situations where anyone would want a boost, not to correct defective hearing.
Some PSAP makers have gone ahead and made claims that their products, while not officially called “hearing aids,” will compensate for the user’s hearing loss. But that’s drawn the ire of hearing aid makers and the scrutiny of the FDA, which is tightening up its guidelines.
So the marketers of sound amplification products who want to comply with FDA guidelines have been searching for ways to differentiate their products from hearing aids.
Making them look like Bluetooth earpieces makes sense, because they can actually double as high-performance wireless Bluetooth audio-streaming devices in addition to enhancing environmental sounds. Sound World Solutions has done a good job positioning integration of hearing assistance with smart phone apps and technologies.
But to the extent Bluetooth earpieces have come to set off geek alerts, positioning PSAPs exclusively as Bluetooth devices may not be the best marketing strategy.
That’s what SoundHawkCEO Michael Kisch was getting at when he told the Times that the company won’t be using the word “earpiece” to describe its product at all, because it “sounds like hairpiece.” Instead they will focus on the utility you gain from controlling it with the smartphone, especially by easily adjusting the audio to your personal hearing profile.
I’m betting that the growing number of PSAP makers will move beyond positioning their products as Bluetooth earpieces and carving out a new product segment entirely. Because many of the new PSAPs not only provide Bluetooth wireless but also enhance sound, shape it, dampen unwanted loud noises, cancel feedback, and provide easy and accurate control from you cell phone, they do more than either traditional hearing aids or Bluetooth earpieces.
It’s too bad there’s contention between the hearing aid makers and PSAP makers, but it’s definitely a conversation that has to happen. Venture capital and other private investment is pouring into the incipient PSAP market, driving innovations that are enabling very low-cost sound processors to deliver high-end features that previously only were found in hearing aids.
Protecting hearing-impaired consumers from damaging their hearing further by trying to fit themselves with over-the-counter sound amplifiers instead of investing in FDA-approved hearing aids is vitally important. But that won’t stop the forward march of technology in the age of “faster-cheaper-better” microprocessor-based technology.