OTC hearing aids have made big headlines this week.
On Tuesday, the FDA announced that qualified brands will now be allowed to sell hearing aids over-the-counter without a prescription. The White House, Congress, and many advocacy groups are thrilled with the change. You can read our full overview of OTC hearing aids here.
Many people I’ve talked to this week have asked what this will really mean for hearing aid wearers like myself.
To answer that question, I’ll share some real-world notes from my recent vacation wearing Bose’s over-the-counter hearing aids.
Bose Hearing Aid Basics
A few quick details about Bose hearing aids before we get too far.
- Bose hearing aids cost $899 (compared to the national average of $4,500)
- These devices were shipped to me in factory settings (no customization)
- The Bose app allowed me to customize the hearing aids to my own profile using simple bass and treble controls
- Bose hearing aids are relatively simple devices, not rechargeable, with no Bluetooth streaming
- Bose recently formed a partnership with Lexie to distribute their product and provide follow-up care
I’ve tried my Bose hearing aids off-and-on for the last year since they were released to the public, but I haven’t put them through anything quite as intense as a cross-country trip with an 18-month-old.
The Plane Ride - Surprisingly Great
Plane rides are notoriously tricky spaces for hearing aids.
The flight announcements are LOUD, passengers and crew wear masks, and the engine creates a persistent 65 dB background noise.
Premium hearing aids deal with these challenges by automatically suppressing background noise and focusing on voices. While this makes a lot of sense, I have found the experience strangely quiet and a bit unnatural.
Bose hearing aids delivered a fuller landscape of background noise (including engine noise) but also did an excellent job of isolating the voices of my wife and daughter through the flight.
I kept the volume moderately low for comfort but was impressed.
Takeaway: Bose does less sound suppression of persistent background noise, which I didn’t mind because the sound felt more natural.
Drinks on the Patio - Trouble In Paradise
If I thought airplane noise background noise was loud, I had another thing coming as my wife, and I shared a drink on our patio.
The cicadas were in full party mode, and my Bose hearing aids struggled to sort through the sound.
I tried changing the volume and modes using my app but had to ask my wife to repeat herself several times through the night.
Takeaway: Can the team at Lexie and Bose can do some Cicada simulation please? I’m confident that my premium devices would have done a better job sorting through the complexity.
Lunch and A Museum - Forgot I Was Wearing Them
The next day we went into town for lunch and to a museum.
The hearing aids felt great. I heard the waitress cracking jokes with my daughter and was easily picking up conversations with masks.
The comfortable behind-the-ear style is so lightweight and unintrusive that I forgot I was wearing my hearing aids.
Takeaway: Cicada situation redeemed. These hearing aids handle real-world situations naturally and get the job done.
Breakfast - Looking For Signal
Bose hearing aids use an app to control device frequency and programs.
You can change the volume using buttons on the devices themselves, but if you want to do anything more sophisticated, you’ll need an app.
This is where I had my biggest issue with the device.
Throughout the trip, I saw a prolonged loading screen while the app tried to pair with my hearing aids. In some cases, the app only connected to one hearing aid, and I had to open and close the battery door to reconnect the other.
Takeaway: App bugs are a minor annoyance compared to the importance of clear sound and simple OTC access, but I hope Lexie and Bose can figure this piece out over time.
Bose hearing aids are less than 1/4 the cost of a standard prescription pair. They lack some of the extra features in premium devices and do a bit less work to suppress background noise (looking at you, cicadas), but at the end of the day, these hearing aids worked very well for me across a lot of complex listening environments.
In many cases, I preferred the simpler soundscape that Bose provides vs the more edited and remixed sound that I'm accustomed to in a premium devices.
So what does all this mean for over-the-counter hearing aids?
This week there’s lots of talk about what the new FDA ruling will mean for consumers.
As the days and weeks pass, this story account might be a predictor of what OTC hearing aids look like for everyday hearing aid wearers.
Hardworking products at a dramatically lower cost with some DIY mixed in. Not perfect, but it seems like progress to me.