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Audio Files: Headphones That Help You Hear Better

A new category of headphones uses science and advanced digital processing to compensate for hearing loss

Bose’s Hearphones

For jazz fans, hearing loss can be as devastating as a chronic injury is to an athlete, because it makes it more difficult to enjoy what you love. It’s not unusual for middle-aged and elderly people to experience hearing loss comparable to the effect of draping a heavy blanket over your head—a situation in which even Coltrane won’t sound good. But a new product category called personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs, is making it easier and more affordable than ever to combat the effects of hearing loss—and even to do things the human ear can’t on its own.

According to the National Institutes of Health, hearing loss affects 8.5 percent of people aged 55 to 64, 25 percent of people aged 65 to 74, and more than 50 percent of people aged 75 or older. Yet fewer than one in three hearing-loss sufferers aged 70 or older have used hearing aids. The reasons why are obvious: Hearing loss usually comes on slowly, so we often don’t realize we have it. When we do realize it, we find that hearing aids typically cost around $2,500 per ear. And of course, many people don’t want to be seen wearing conventional hearing aids.

Many PSAPs are essentially just over-the-counter hearing aids, but some of the latest models combine hearing enhancement with the same entertainment features found in Bluetooth in-ear headphones. Thanks to the advanced digital signal processing in these headphones, the hearing enhancement function is far more customizable than with traditional hearing aids. These PSAPs look no different from ordinary headphones, and cost less than $500 per pair.

Nuheara’s IQbuds2 Max
Nuheara’s IQbuds2 Max

Passing the Audition

The notion of PSAPs has been around for at least five years, and a few startups have already failed, but in the last year, the industry has started to get it right. One of the most impressive new PSAPs is the $399 Nuheara IQbuds2 Max. At first it seems no different from a set of ordinary true wireless earphones, with a selection of ear tips in different sizes as well as a recharging case. But when you open the accompanying smartphone app, it’s obvious the IQbuds2 Max is much more advanced.

The setup starts with an automatic hearing test, which sends tones of different sound frequencies to each ear in much the same way an audiologist would. It then compensates for any hearing loss you have. I had my hearing tested a couple of months ago by an audiologist, and the results I got from the IQbuds2 Max hearing test seem comparable.

Digging further into the app reveals the IQbuds2 Max’s “super powers.” It can let in noise from the surrounding environment, or block some or most of that noise so you can focus on speech. It can admit sound from every direction, or focus only on sound coming from in front of you.

Best of all, though, is that unlike many of the “hearing compensation” smartphone apps I’ve tried, the IQbuds2 Max makes recorded music playing from your smartphone sound clearer, but not unnaturally bright or edgy. Unfortunately, the near-disappearance of live music performances because of COVID-19 made it impractical for me to test the IQbuds2 Max with live music. But I was able to use them while practicing double bass and guitar, and the extreme adjustability let me hone in on specific frequency ranges of the two instruments to whatever degree I wanted, so I have to think the IQbuds2 Max can make live music listening more enjoyable for jazz fans with hearing damage.

Wear & Hear’s BeHear Access
Wear & Hear’s BeHear Access

Play It Slower

Some listeners might find true wireless PSAPs like the IQbuds2 Max annoying, because they hang in the ear with nothing to catch them if they fall out. Fortunately, there are also PSAPs with earphones attached to “collar-style” bands that go around the neck. These tend to have about double the battery life of true wireless PSAPs, and also introduce additional features.

The most intriguing of these is Wear & Hear’s $349 BeHear Access. Like the IQbuds2 Max, it offers an automatic hearing test and an app that lets you fine-tune the mix of speech and ambient sound. However, it can also buffer speech and play it back at the same pitch but more slowly, so it’s easier to understand. This feature worked amazingly well when I tried it at the Las Vegas CES show, but sadly, I didn’t have a chance to try using it to transcribe some Bird solos.

While only a few of today’s PSAPs can work as Bluetooth in-ear headphones, expect more of the big names in headphones to jump in. Bose already offers the $499 Hearphones collar-style PSAP, and Apple recently added a hearing-aid function to its $249 AirPods Pro earphones. Jazz fans with serious hearing damage will likely still need to consult an audiologist, but if music and speech just don’t sound as clear as they used to, you now have a growing number of options to bring the treble back to trumpets and the sizzle back to cymbals.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.