MILLIONS of Americans have some degree of hearing difficulty, but only a small percentage regularly wear hearing aids. People in the hearing sciences have long argued that technology is partly to blame.
Hearing aids are expensive — they often sell for more than a thousand dollars per ear, and they are not usually covered by health insurance. Also, unlike eyeglasses, hearing aids have never been fashionable. Although some manufacturers are trying to change how hearing aids are perceived, they still carry a stigma of aging and infirmity, and many who have difficulty hearing would rather suffer than be seen with them.
The founders of a technology start-up named Soundhawk are on a mission to change that. This month, the company began shipping its first product, the Smart Listening System, a clever device and app meant to help improve sounds in certain noisy environments.
The Soundhawk Smart Listening System, which sells for $300, looks a bit like a Bluetooth headset, but instead of letting you just make phone calls, it is packed with microphones and advanced audio decoding chips to amplify the sound around you.
It connects to a smartphone app that lets users customize how the device works in different sound environments. For instance, when you hit the Dining button in the app, the Soundhawk headset will cut down background noise and amplify sound from the person in front if you. In outdoor mode, it will reduce wind noise.
The Smart Listening System also comes with a wireless microphone that can be positioned a few feet from the user. Clip it on the person across from you in a noisy restaurant, or position it next to the TV, and you will hear everything the mike picks up.
The company takes pains to note that the Smart Listening System is not a hearing aid and is not meant for people with impaired hearing. Instead, the device is classified by the Food and Drug Administration as a “personal sound amplification product.” There are already many of these on the market, but most of the devices are not very good; they’re the sort of devices advertised in late-night infomercials for under $50.
The Soundhawk Smart Listening System, by contrast, was designed by audio scientists who have worked at some of the world’s best hearing-aid companies. The company has also hired alumni from Apple, Amazon and other tech hardware companies to make its device both stylish and easy to use.
The result is a new kind of hearing device, a boost for your ears even if, most of the time, you can hear well enough. “The market that we’re going after is people who usually have fine-performing hearing, but they find themselves with situational needs, like noisy restaurants, or they having trouble hearing something over a distance,” said Michael Kisch, Soundhawk’s chief executive.
You can think of the Soundhawk Smart Listening System as something like reading glasses for the ears. Unlike hearing aids, the Soundhawk does not need to be bought from and tuned by an audiologist, which explains why it is much cheaper than hearing aids despite its high-end electronics.
“We’ve replaced the professional component piece with an app, where people can select settings appropriate for themselves by subjectively evaluating the performance,” said Andrew Dundas, an audiologist who is Soundhawk’s chief scientific officer.
Though I have pretty good hearing and don’t need the Soundhawk in most of my daily life, I found the company’s claims to be mostly on point. Setting up the device was easy; it involved downloading the app and making a connection to the earpiece, then tapping on various points on the customization screen to figure out the best sound for me. Then I was ready to go. I could pop in the Soundhawk earpiece in noisy environments for an instant improvement in hearing.
For me, the best use was for television, which I usually watch at night when my kids are asleep. This means I can’t always set the volume as high as I’d like. With the Soundhawk in my ear and the remote microphone near the TV, the problem was solved. It was awkward at first to hear the amplification in only one ear, but after a few minutes, the Soundhawk felt pretty close to my natural hearing.
My only problem with the Soundhawk is how it looks. Because it is so similar to a Bluetooth headset — and it can even work as one, letting you make calls — it carries a different kind of stigma from that of hearing aids. People are not used to chatting with you while you have a headset in your ear; if you go to meet someone with the Soundhawk, you usually have to explain what it is, just to be sure that keeping the headset in is not taken as some kind of slight. This can be a bit awkward, and I wonder if people who need an assist for their hearing are prepared to be so direct about it.
I’d have preferred that the Soundhawk were smaller and more discreet. Still, if you are looking for some help for your ears and don’t mind some questions, you might give the Smart Listening System a try.