It took me the better part of 20 years to do anything about my hearing loss. When an audiologist suggested amplification after I failed a school hearing test in sixth grade, I basically laughed her out of the room. My parents didn't force the issue. I got by just fine.
In college, incessant ringing developed and worsened — I now understand this to be my brain's futile attempt to fabricate what my ears can't provide. It wasn’t until 2020, struggling to hear people through masks and plexiglass, that I went crawling back to the doctor’s office for professional help — and I ultimately paid an alarmingly large sum of money for a pair of traditional hearing aids that quite literally changed my life.
In some ways my story is extreme. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, people with hearing loss wait an average of seven years before seeking help, not 20. But of the 48 million Americans who suffer from some degree of hearing loss, millions never seek help at all. Ultimately, nearly four in five who could benefit from a hearing aid never get one.
These are the people Bose wants to reach with SoundControl Hearing Aids. Billed as the first self-fitting hearing aids cleared by the FDA for direct-to-consumer sale, they are a fusion of tried-and-true, behind-the-ear hearing aids paired with a stunningly simple app for configuring them to your preferences. It’s an approach that Bose hopes will bring better hearing to the millions who haven’t yet taken, or would otherwise never take, the leap.
A whole host of barriers keep people from seeking out hearing amplification, and one of the chief ones is, well, uncoolness. “There's a stigma that has surrounded hearing aids for many, many years,” explains Brian Maguire, global head of Bose Hear and Health. “Because they're viewed more as a medical device and less of a consumer electronics object, or something that's desirable.”
It’s a sentiment that rings especially true for me. Now, in my 30s, I'm dad-ishly willing to brag about having “bionic ears.” But in my teens and 20s, I much preferred to embrace “what?!” as a primary feature of my vocabulary. Bose hopes that its brand, with clout from pioneering the noise-canceling headphone, will serve as a battering ram for breaking down that barrier to a crowd that’s under retirement age.
But Bose isn’t the only company banging on the door. Other tech companies, including Apple, have taken to building hearing amplification directly into their consumer buds. The AirPods Pro, in conjunction with iOS 14, have the ability to process an audiogram — a frequency-specific map of a person’s hearing capabilities — and translate it into a unique amplification regime through the very same hip hardware it uses to play music.
The more traditional hearing-aid form factor of SoundControl may seem stuffier at first glance, but there’s a reason it’s the standard: it boasts a series of features that earbud-like options just can’t beat. Disposable zinc-air “button” batteries give SoundControl truly all-day battery life, like other hearing aids, with the option to instantly refill with no delay for recharging. “There might be a lot of cases where episodic hearing assistance is valuable,” says Maguire. “But there's also going to be a very different person who needs all-day hearing assistance for the purpose of getting through their life."
SoundControl’s behind-the-ear design may not be especially chic, but it is, much more crucially, incredibly discrete. Visible earbuds are, after all, generally a good indication that you aren’t listening. The virtually invisible SoundControl design spares you the trouble of having to explain to each new person that actually, you are listening as hard as you possibly can.
Even once you get past the stigma, more barriers traditionally await those seeking out hearing amplification. For my hearing aids, I made three trips to the audiologist, and they were not in quick succession. The whole process took about 3 months.
And then there’s the price. After my insurance chipped in a healthy chunk, I ended up spending about $1,150 — per ear. In hindsight, I think I got upsold on a needlessly premium option (yes, there are feature tiers), but who's going to skimp on buying back one of the five senses? Despite the cost, it’s still the best purchase of my life.
Bose’s direct-to-consumer approach circumvents that arduous process with something simpler, but not worse — and much, much cheaper at $850 a pair. SoundControl’s unique FDA clearance stems from a clinical study showing that Bose’s “self-fitting” solution, a process of tuning SoundControl’s amplification settings using two dials on an app, provides satisfaction on par with an audiologist’s tuning (for people over the age of 18 with mild to moderate hearing loss).
The self-fitting process is certainly simple. When I tried a pair, I found the app to be incredibly straightforward: one dial for total volume and one to skew towards “bass” or “treble." App control itself isn’t novel; it’s a common feature for recent FDA-regulated hearing aids, including the ones I got from my audiologist. But those apps, while sometimes more sophisticated, are also more complicated and less user-friendly — a potentially terrible combination, especially for anyone not technologically inclined.
"The [Bose] app takes hundreds of possible parameters that you might set at an audiologist and distills them to two simple wheels,” Maguire says. “Everybody is going to be different.”
Simplicity does come with some minor downsides. My genetic hearing loss, which unusually affects midrange frequencies most aggressively, means I had to crank SoundControl a bit louder overall than my audiologist-tuned aids to get comparable speech amplification, resulting in a little extra white noise. Was it enough that, given the option of a do-over, I’d still choose to pay over two grand for the aids I already have instead of $850 for SoundControl? Suffice it to say, I’m making a significant effort to try not think about it.
And while many other hearing aids also include Bluetooth streaming features and effectively double as true wireless earbuds with the ability to beam TV sound directly into your ears, SoundControl pointedly does not. It is focused “squarely on face-to-face interaction and conversation in noisy environments” according to Maguire. However, I do suspect that it’s also because when hearing-aid speakers play music, it tends to sound, charitably, like shit. That’s an easy value-add if you’re just Some Hearing Aid company, but less so if you’re Bose.
Ultimately, speech amplification is the only feature that really matters, and SoundControl will hopefully make it available to people who would otherwise never experience the joy of becoming absorbed in conversation simply because you can effortlessly hear it. "We're in this because there's a huge unserved population that has persisted for many, many years," Maguire says. "This is not a test or experiment from Bose. We're committed to this marketplace, we're committed to hearing aids."
I’d like to think I speak for lots of folks when I say, I'm glad to hear it.