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Marketplace Morning Report

Headphones that enhance the world around you could be a hearing aid alternative

Jack Stewart Sep 9, 2019
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Wireless headphones, as worn by this model, can also help with hearing.
Nuheara

It feels like restaurants are getting louder, doesn’t it? And it’s harder to speak to your dinner companions? I find myself leaning halfway across the table to hear.

Apparently I’m not alone — difficulty separating conversation from background noise is one of the early signs of hearing loss. I’m not ready for hearing aids yet, but I can get some of the benefits from a new generation of wireless headphones that do more than stream music.

I tried out a pair of $500 Nuheara IQbuds Boost, which pair with an app on your phone and allow you to filter out background noise and focus on conversations happening directly in front of you. (Hear the results by clicking play above.) Other companies are racing to get into this space, too. Bose sells a set of “conversation enhancing headphones,” which it calls hearphones.

“The baby boomer generation is having hearing problems, and there’s this huge market force that is making companies think about making hearing devices,” said David Owen, author of “Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World.”

At the same time headphones are getting hearing aid-type abilities, a law change in 2017 in the United States, which is about to go into effect, will mean consumers will be able to buy cheaper hearing aids over the counter, like you can pick up reading glasses at the pharmacy now. 

Experts say there’s going to be more crossover, and eventual convergence, between headphones and hearing aids. The former will get smaller and better at boosting speech, the latter will get Bluetooth music streaming and fitness tracking.

An estimated 48 million Americans live with some degree of hearing loss, and only 20% use a hearing aid. But older adults who do get one have a lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia, depression, anxiety or of falling.

If headphones become indistinguishable from hearing aids in the future, that may help remove any remaining stigma about hearing enhancement.

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