Hearing aids are perceived as costly, and some people may seek out less expensive alternatives called Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs). These alternatives can cost anywhere from $20.00 to hundreds of dollars, but are they really a “good” choice? Audiologist Dennis Van Vliet examines the benefits and shortcomings of PSAPs below and discusses why hearing aids, though more expensive, may actually have greater value.
David Gauvey Herbert recently outlined the extent to which composer Richard Einhorn has gone to help himself cope with a sudden sensorineural hearing loss in a recent article for Bloomberg Business "Bluetooth Earpieces Do Battle With the $3,000 Hearing Aid: Advances in circuitry and Bluetooth have made hearing aid alternatives cheaper and more powerful." The composer has a "backpack full" of devices specific to a variety of situations including a $350 iPhone-linked earpiece to amplify phone calls, stream music and environmental sounds, a $500 earpiece engineered to help him detect various musical tones while composing, a $45 directional microphone paired with a $5 app to help isolate voices in restaurants and theaters, and finally, $700 worth of spare microphones that can be attached to companions.
These are good solutions for people who don't mind having to carry around $1600 worth of devices and needing to manually switch from one to another as they change venues, encounter different sounds or interact with different people.
These devices are known as Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs) or Assistive Listening Devices, and while they may be less costly than most hearing aids, they can't necessarily compete in regards to long-term health benefits, convenience or features.
Typical consumers with hearing loss are looking for convenience and comfort along with exceptional performance. Using a variety of devices to achieve desired performance, some that may even require holding a microphone up to another person’s face, are not convenient but intrusive and often socially inappropriate for many situations. Consumers with hearing loss often don’t usually want to intrude on other people as they compensate for their hearing loss. Hearing aids that work wirelessly with today’s smart technology products—tablets, phones and watches—provide convenience, offer desired sound quality and the ability to maintain more natural interpersonal communication.
PSAPs are less costly because they are unregulated, and not customized to an individual’s needs. While PSAPs may meet the needs of some individuals who need amplification for soft sounds, audiologists and medical professionals typically don’t sell them, although they may recommend some products for specific needs. As Herbert noted when trying to insert a PSAP himself, jamming a device into an ear with excessive wax can cause injury and possibly the need to see a medical professional to remove the wax. President of the American Academy of Audiology Erin Miller said the need for seeing a medical professional hasn’t been eliminated by the Internet, and claims the biggest overall problem with PSAPs is their lack of connection to a medical professional. “We want to make sure someone has looked in the patient’s ear,” Miller said.
And Miller is right, for there are a multitude of inner ear issues that only a medical professional can properly identify and treat. Some of these conditions may even cause temporary or permanent hearing damage, so if a consumer bypasses the professional and purchases the PSAP, he or she may be risking further hearing damage down the line. Inserting any object or device into the ear without proper guidance or instruction can also result in immediate harm and possible damage.
PSAP manufacturers argue that Miller’s point above is all the more reason the devices should be put in medical offices such as where hearing aids are sold. But unlike hearing aids, which are designed to help consumers conveniently and comfortably hear a wide range of sounds in a multitude of environments through one device, many PSAPs that are available on the electronics market are designed for a single or small range of uses. Consumers are advised to beware when purchasing PSAPs and accessories, and to cautiously observe the warnings provided by responsible manufacturers of these products.
Modern hearing aids may require testing, selection and fitting assistance by professionals, but they also provide more benefit with convenience and comfort. For example, take the Halo™ Made for iPhone® hearing aid, which pairs wirelessly with consumers’ Apple® devices such as iPhone®, Apple Watch™ and more. Users can seamlessly stream phone calls, music, video and other media, adjust volume and sound from their phone, create geo-tagged memories that automatically adjust when a consumer enters the saved location and find the devices when they are misplaced or lost. Additionally, because the hearing aids are controlled through the user’s smartphone or watch, any adjustments are discreet and do not interfere with interpersonal communication.
PSAPs are not medical devices for medical uses. They are recreational products intended to provide advantages to those who can already hear comfortably, and as we can see with Einhorn, multiple PSAPs are needed to do even a fraction of the job of a single, tiny hearing aid. Hearing aids may seem expensive when compared to PSAPs, but they can provide greater advantages, convenience, health and wellness features and require little-to-no adjustments.