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audioXpress Magazine

April 2024


Doesn't Look Like It
The disruption will come from technology.
Editorial By J. Martins


audioXpress April 2024


  While researching for this year's Earbuds and Hearables State of the Industry Market Update — a category that converges pure listening enjoyment and communications with hearing assistance and augmentation — I had to carefully review the results thus far from the much propelled over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid policy, which was supposed to drive down costs, increase access, and open up a market space for innovation in hearing aids. And unfortunately, it seems that companies are basically using that ruling to launch products that are more basic hearing aids that allow self-fitting but still look like hearing aids, and do less than the "medically prescribed" hearing aids.

A few exceptions from innovators such as Eargo made us believe that something could change, gradually. The LINK by Eargo is promoted as "the first earbud-style OTC hearing aid with Bluetooth 5.3" that doesn't look like a hearing aid. Because, says the product slogan: "No One Needs To Know It's A Hearing Aid." This low-profile design with active noise cancellation and other features that we expect to find in consumer earbuds sells for $799. That's considered "affordable" in the OTC hearing aid space, but it feels like a timid experiment.

Likewise, Sony is responsible for one of the most promising products launched in the OTC category — and one of the first models to truly leave behind the traditional hearing aid form-factors and crossover to consumer earbuds. The Sony CRE-E10 earbuds were launched in 2022 in an effort with WS Audiology (the second-largest hearing company in the world), which also launched the similar Signia Active Pro earbuds.



One of the smallest OTC hearing aids on the market, the Sony CRE-E10 is a refined design, combining sound quality and comfort, featuring a rechargeable battery with wireless charging. Unfortunately, it seems that the CRE-E10 was a half-backed product in terms of technology — it was designed to be "Bluetooth compatible" only—and still sells for USD $1,000 or more. Considering the technology Sony built-in into its flagship WF-1000XM5 consumer earbuds, it is hard to understand why the CRE-E10 couldn't have been truly designed as the first convergence hearing assist earbuds in the market.

Truth be told, a similar story happened with the Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus from Sennheiser Hearing, the consumer division of Sonova. Leveraging the know-how of the leading audiology company, the new Conversation Clear Plus is a consumer-friendly design with a groundbreaking speech enhancement implementation that actually promised to deliver on the OTC vision. The Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus earbuds sell for more than USD $1,000 and seem to have faded away into oblivion — likely because they used Bluetooth 4.2 (!). We are hoping to see a second-generation Bluetooth LE Audio update of this product in 2024.

Unfortunately, it seems that the strategy from the large audiology companies is basically to wait and see how consumers are able to deal with the self-fitting products in the hope they will be encouraged to seek assistance from an audiology specialist. And even many new players in the OTC space seem to prefer to play it safe and sell "more affordable" hearing aids.

No effort is being made to encourage people to discover if they suffer from any form of (mild) hearing loss they can do something about, which should be the justification for OTC earbuds (not hearing aids).


audioXpress April 2024


More surprising in 2024, is that Bluetooth LE Audio remains an afterthought, even though the specification was primarily intended to meet the requirements for hearing aids and encourage hearing assistance strategies.

Meanwhile, Apple will continue to discreetly expand on its health and hearing-assist features without even mentioning OTC, and Chinese companies will continue to flood the market with TWS earbuds with hearing profile tuning features, retailing for US $500 — half the price of products from established brands, and still a 300% margin over the landed price in the US.



And once again the disruption will come from technology. As our two latest reports on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Adaptive Audio, and Hearables clearly show, highly advanced signal processing powered by AI is pushing consumer TWS earbuds to new heights. The power of those platforms will soon propel much improved hearing assist and hearing augmentation as a natural extension of consumer features.



J. Martins




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