Forget hearing aids, let's talk hearables again. I'm wearing some new ones, the IQbuds Boost with Ear ID from Nuheara.
When I first used the word "hearables" back in 2014 it had just been invented by analyst Nick Hunn; now it's everywhere. Many hearing aids are now hearables, connecting through your smartphone to the rest of the world via Apple's proprietary MFi (Made For iPhone) technology or through Bluetooth on Android. But most hearables aren't hearing aids, which are medical devices regulated by the FDA. Most are considered PSAPs, or Personal Sound Amplification Products.
The IQbuds look like this in the case. And I should refinish my desk before I take more photos. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)
The IQbuds Boost cannot be called hearing aids, but there are some excellent reasons to consider them. First you fit them; they provide a wide range of tips to get a good seal. There's a bit of an occlusion effect that some will find bothersome, as your voice sounds different and you can hear yourself chewing, but it will go away. Then you fire up the Ear ID, "a clinically validated audiometric hearing assessment that calibrates the IQbuds to your unique hearing profile." The device runs a hearing test very much like the one at the audiologist's office, where it plays beeps of various pitches and volumes and you press a button when you hear it. Ten minutes later, your profile is done.
Now the fun begins.
Because these really fill your ears, everything you hear comes through them. So as you click through the presets, you find that they have settings for workouts (where there's some sound from the world around you so you're aware of your surroundings), or street (where Nuheara's expertise in noise cancellation comes into play) or restaurant (which cuts out ambient noise and amplifies conversation).
There is even one called office, which ensures that you can hear your co-workers. However you can also just tap your right hearable and it goes "world off" and you are seriously in silence — if you like music while you work, these might put you in another world. These are the kinds of modes that most smart hearing aids have now, but I have to say, the difference between modes are far more obvious on the IQbuds.
Music, telephone calls and Google maps all sound better than they do on my hearing aids, probably because my ear is totally occluded with this device so they have more control. It's crazy, because hearing aid companies put so much energy into designing open devices to minimize the occlusion effect, which evidently causes almost 30 percent of hearing aid users to complain and give them up.
There are other things that I love, like the tap control. My favorite tap is "world on/ world off," going from my personal cone of silence to hearing everything. I tap twice to ask Siri what music to play or to call my sister. I first found it annoying, but after just a few days, I love it — it's much easier and faster than getting out my phone or scrolling through my Apple Watch.
Finally, there's the biggest question about these: how do they work as hearing aids? I've been going back and forth and I have to say, they are damn good. They are not as crisp; not as good at picking out voices, not as good in a crowd as the top-of-the-line hearing aids I usually wear. And where I forget that I'm wearing hearing aids all the time (I have to check my ears before I get into the shower), these sound slightly different here, more artificial. That's probably because the IQbuds are a closed design rather than open as my hearing aids are, so everything is coming through their electronics rather than a mix of through my outer ear and through my hearing aids.
'Reading glasses for the ears'
On the other hand, I have much more control with the volume, the equalizer and the noise cancellation. Given that they cost a tenth as much as true hearing aids, I think there's a real place for them. David Racitot, Nuheara's director of sales, described them as "reading glasses for the ears" — devices that anyone could buy and try at a reasonable price (about U.S. $500). I suspect that anyone who does will find them to be a gateway drug to the real thing.
Could they be used instead of the real thing? Certainly for some people. According to AARP, only 20 to 30 percent of all adults who could benefit from a hearing solution end up getting one. That has to do with two factors: stigma and cost. The IQbuds have the cost problem beat.
Stigma is a challenge. As I've noted earlier, "for many people a hearing aid is an unwelcome reminder of the aging process, one that they simply cannot accept." That's why the hearing aid companies work so hard to miniaturize them and make them flesh-colored.
The IQbuds are obvious big black things visibly stuck in my ears, and my wife looks at me wearing them and laughs, thinking I look totally silly.
But this is rapidly changing; two years ago, when I first tried the IQbuds prototype I suggested that soon they might become a fashion and status statement, and that this wasn't a superficial or shallow consideration. And indeed, people no longer look askance at you if you wear Bragi Dash, Jabra Sports or, of course, Apple AirPods; all the cool kids are doing this now. But nobody can tell if you're wearing a pair of conventional IQbuds or the Boost version. I suspect that pretty soon, nobody will look twice.
Not a replacement; just an alternative
Me and hipsters at scotch club. (Photo: Jeff at Scotch Club)
The IQbuds Boosts aren't a replacement for hearing aids; they don't run as long, the voices aren't as crisp, and they don't nearly have the capability to pick out voices the way my high-end hearing aids do. I took them into a crowded environment (my Scotch Club, so my notes here should be taken with a dram of whisky) and there's no question that the hearing aids do a better job. In this complicated, loud environment, it wasn't even close. The IQbuds are very conspicuous; before I put them on, I felt it necessary to explain that I was trying out new hardware. (Though it's worth noting that everyone said they didn't think it was a big deal, and half the people there wanted to know where they could buy them.) But compared to wearing nothing, they were a serious improvement. I put them into restaurant mode and I could look at a person who was talking and hear every word. When I took them out, all I heard was noise.
Also, I don't like having my ear totally clogged all day, preferring the behind-the-ear open design of my hearing aids. Plus, the app-based ear test is no replacement for a proper test by an audiologist.
No, that's not me and my wife; that's some other boomer, but he's hearing every word. (Photo: Nuheara)
But they are a fantastic introduction for people who aren't quite ready to make the expensive jump, and those who are comfortable having big black things in their ears. Even if you just get them to wear at home, they are worth a test, as Nuheara explains:
There's nothing more precious than your hearing. Enhance conversations with your loved ones, whether in intimate or noisy places, and listen to TV with more clarity at lower volumes.
I got hearing aids after my wife complained that I was becoming detached, distant and cranky, not participating in the family. My daughter mumbled and I couldn't understand her. I found the hearing aids to be life-changing, but I also recognize that they're a big, expensive step. If this is happening to you at home, you might want to give the IQbuds Boosts a try. It's not that huge an investment, it might improve your family life, and hey, you just got terrific noise-cancelling wireless headphones as a bonus.
Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.
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