Better Hearing Through Bluetooth is a recently published New York Times article that, unsurprisingly, I found interesting. The main idea is that people who have some slight hearing loss can use personal sound amplifier products (PSAPs) as an alternative to hearing aids. PSAPs are wearable electronic devices designed to amplify sound for people with “normal” hearing. Interestingly enough, they are not meant to substitute hearing aids for people with substantial hearing loss. The When Hearing Aids Won’t Do article makes that statement clear and uses an example of a hunter who might wear PSAPs to hear better in the forest. Personally, I doubt the benefit of that since amplification doesn’t necessarily correspond to increased clarity and may introduce unwanted side effects such as distracting static, but maybe some hunters can correct me.

Unlike hearing aids, PSAPs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means customers don’t need to consult with a physician, audiologist, or a hearing aid manufacturer, a major benefit if you want to avoid those intermediaries for time, personal, or other reasons. (A quick look at the comments in the New York Times indicates that audiologists aren’t quite popular.) Consequently, PSAPs are substantially cheaper than hearing aids. A decent PSAP seems like it can be bought at $300, while a hearing aid might cost around $3,000.

Another aspect of PSAPs is that they are user-programmable. Customers can download an app to their phone or computer and fiddle around with the device to their heart’s content. In contrast, a hearing-aid wearer typically needs an audiologist to do the programming. The user-programmable feature can be a good thing or a bad thing, and the benefit largely rests on two factors: (1) how much the user knows about the PSAP and is comfortable with technology, and (2) the quality of the actual program. It should be no surprise that, due to the lack of regulation, PSAPs vary considerably. Patients should be aware of the pitfalls and be circumspect in purchasing them.

A second possible risk with PSAPs is that people who have serious hearing loss may make the unwise decision of buying them over of hearing aids. Given how hearing aids have a bad reputation for their price, PSAP manufacturers have probably marketed PSAPs as low-cost hearing aid alternatives.

Perhaps PSAPs will soon become the norm for older people who are losing their hearing. I will keep up-to-date on news relating to PSAPs, though I will never wear them.