Why isn’t there a Warby Parker for hearing aids? Sean Captain, writing for Fast Company, looks at the current market for hearing aids, a market that is dominated by six companies charging anywhere from $4,500 and upward a pair–out of reach for most people who need them–and the new players who are shaking up this industry. First, Captain introduces us to “Audra Renyi, a 34-year-old former investment banker who’s been a hearing care advocate since 2007, [who] is launching a company called Hearing Access World that aims to cut the price of hearing aids by 75%.” He writes:
Renyi knows her market well as executive director of World Wide Hearing. The Montreal-based nonprofit provides testing and low-cost hearing aids in poor countries like Guatemala and Vietnam. She hopes to bring prices down globally by playing directly in the market with her new social venture.
Interestingly, there are other players interested in this market who aren’t from the nonprofit world, namely tech startups. These startups are avoiding the cost, in both time and legal fees, they would have to bear navigating the Food and Drug Administration for approval of a new hearing device by selling their products as consumer electronic components. Captain reports that:
While hearing aid sales are minuscule, consumer electronics companies are selling hundreds of millions of audio devices, such as Bluetooth headsets, that do many of the same things. Mass-market CE components are going into devices called personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs, which have become unofficial budget hearing aids.
Captain looks at one startup offering a PSAP, Doppler Labs. Doppler Labs started out with a Kickstarter campaign for their product Here Active Listening, a $249 set of AI-driven wireless earbuds. The earbuds “recognize and filter ambient sounds, such as bringing down background noise in a subway or boosting voices during a conversation, [and a] smartphone app lets users pick filters and effects (like simulating the ambience of a concert hall), adjust volume, and tweak a five-band equalizer.” Doppler Labs is coming out with a new product, HERE One, which is shipping in time for the 2016 holiday season.
Captain reviewed the then current model of HERE One and had some reservations, but he didn’t have the opportunity to review the latest iteration and the Doppler spokeswoman offered that he may have needed different sized tips to better fit his ear canals. Long and short, PSAPs are in their infancy, but the future looks promising for them and us. As Captain states:
As consumer electronics companies nudge into the hearing-aid space with PSAPs, and as hearing-aid companies nudge into the CE space, a new wearable tech category may be emerging. Called “hearables” by their boosters, the gadgets could encompass a range of over-the-counter, in-ear devices that allow people to hear better—either by making up for diagnosed hearing deficiency or tweaking how live music and voices sound.
In the end, people with hearing loss who have been denied access to hearing aids due to their prohibitive cost should very soon be able to purchase reasonably priced PSAPs that will give them some relief. While it would be better, of course, for everyone with hearing loss to be properly fitted with hearing aids that are adjusted by audiologists, this cheaper alternative addresses a critical need now. For those who feel isolated by hearing loss, PSAPs will be a godsend.
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