Advances in circuitry and Bluetooth have made hearing-aid alternatives cheaper and more powerful
One night in June 2010, New York composer Richard Einhorn went to bed in a motel feeling stuffy and woke up almost completely deaf. At the time, Einhorn, who wrote the oratorio Voices of Light, had limited ways to deal with his nightmare condition, known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss. He visited an audiologist and bought a hearing aid for $3,000. (His insurance plan, like most, didn’t cover it). Unhappy with the expense and the limits of the earpiece’s technology, which struggled to adapt to different noise levels, Einhorn began searching for alternative gadgets that could restore more of his hearing for less money.
Today, he has a backpack full of them. To supplement his old-school hearing aid, he favours a $350 iPhone-linked earpiece made by Sound World Solutions, a hearing-h ardware maker in Illinois, for whom he’s begun to consult. With the Sound World device on, he can amplify phone calls and streaming music as well as his surroundings. A third, $500 earpiece was custom-made by Ultimate Ears in California, to help him detect a wider range of musical tones while composing. For restaurants and theatres, he has a $45 directional microphone that pairs with a $5 app to isolate desired voices. And for especially cacophonous places, he has spare $700 microphones, made by Etymotic Research in Illinois, that he can strap to companions.
Einhorn credits the audio patchwork with saving his career and his life. “It’s incredible”, he says over lunch in a busy restaurant, as he toggles the proper setting on his phone.
The Bluetooth-connected earpieces aren’t classified as hearing aids by the US Food and Drug Administration. They’re called personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs. Basic versions of such devices have existed for more than a decade in lonely RadioShack aisles and a handful of other places. But in the past 18 months, advances in circuitry and low-energy Bluetooth transmission have helped developers radically improve the designs to make high-quality, long-lasting alternatives to hearing aids while keeping prices at a fraction of the industry standard.
Whatever regulators or insurers call them, PSAP manufacturers are angling to expand the $6 billion global market for hearing technology. Largely due to the cost, 75 per cent of the 34 million Americans with hearing loss don’t use aids, says David Kirkwood, the editor of industry blog Hearing Health Technology Matters. “A lot of people will continue to pay for traditional hearing aids,” he says. “But there are now inexpensive, easy-to-get alternatives.”
Part of the reason PSAPs are cheap is that they’re unregulated. Hearing aid fittings and audiological calibrations account for much of the cost of aids from the big six makers—Siemens, Sonova, Starkey Hearing Technologies, William Demant, GN ReSound, and Widex. A midlevel pair that retails for $4,400 costs about $440 to manufacture, according to AARP. Research and development spending is also a factor: Unlike the free Bluetooth standard used by upstarts such as Sound World, oldschool hearing aids run on proprietary signal processing and transmission technology. Siemens, Sonova, and Widex declined to comment; GN ReSound, Starkey, and William Demant didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Still, being kept out of doctors’ offices has been a huge problem for PSAP makers, says Venkat Rajan, who tracks medical devices for researcher Frost Sullivan. While the size of the market can be difficult to gauge given the lack of regulation, anecdotal evidence suggests sales have been soft, he says. It doesn’t help that, according to industry journal the Hearing Review, the average American buying a hearing aid is 71 years old. “Trying to find that customer base has been difficult,” Rajan says.
The origin of this article can be found here, why are hearing aids so expensive, it is a old technology! In 2011 10 million people had hearing loss and it’s expected that 14 and a half people will be suffering. This is a market that is being exploited.