The combination of loosened medical regulations for hearing aids and growing demand from an aging population has generated a boom in hearing and audio innovation. Although slowed down a bit by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the major players in the market have finally launched their new products for 2020.
We’ve been using two of them over the last few weeks. First up was the consumer-focused, but still medical-device-approved, Audicus Wave ($899 per ear, before discount, or part of a full-service membership plan at $39/month). Audicus is able to offer lower prices than traditional audiologist-prescribed hearing aids by having its own in-house staff and dedicated stores. Next, coming from the other end of the spectrum we’ve been evaluating Nuheara’s IQbuds2 MAX ($349/pair). Nuheara’s products are built around the traditional concept of high-end consumer earbuds, but with the addition of a broad set of customization and hearing assistance technologies.
Due to the pandemic, all of the hearing tests I took for this purpose, and all of the audiologist consultations I did, were online. Hearing aids are yet another area where greatly expanded telehealth has been brought to bear. For the record, my online hearing test results were very consistent with previous in-person tests I’d received from an audiologist at Stanford Health. Fittings were also necessarily online. That can be a little tricky, and if you need to do it, it might require a bit of back and forth with a consultant to get the right earpiece style and size, along with the right lengths for any wires. For example, I realized after getting the Audicus Waves that I should have gotten the longer ear wire option. An in-person fitting would have sorted that out right away.
Audicus Wave: Premium Hearing Aid Without the “Middleman”
By marketing directly to consumers, Audicus aims to provide similar high-end hearing aids to those provided by companies like Widex and Phonak at a much lower cost. They are still medical devices, but the audiologist consultation and hearing test are done online with the company’s in-house staff, instead of which a local hearing center or medical facility. They also have a limited number of retail stores, for those who prefer an in-person experience. Recently they have introduced a new model, the Wave, that incorporates the increasingly popular Bluetooth integration. I’ve had a chance to evaluate a pair for several weeks, and overall am impressed.
Using the Audicus Waves
Audicus provides excellent support for their products both before and after sale. Unlike a traditional hearing aid company, though, it is either through company-operated hearing centers or entirely online, depending on the customer’s preference. Once you receive the hearing aids they come with a brief set of instructions, and a set of replaceable ear tips (which it calls domes) in both “audio transparent” and “audio blocking” styles. Since my hearing loss is fairly minor, the company pre-installed the set that let me hear sounds around me in addition to the augmented audio from the Waves. The Waves come with a set of four pre-configured profiles customized for your hearing by their technical team. They include a general profile, one that is optimized for conversation, one for listening to music, and one for auditoriums. The company offers re-programming if needed.
Putting in the Waves was easy, although easier if I first took off my glasses. They fit nicely, and I frequently forgot I had them in. I first tried them with the general setting in typical indoor and outdoor environments. Indeed, many of the high-frequency sounds, or components of other sounds, sprang to life. That can be a bit disconcerting at first, but I definitely felt that I was hearing better than without them. When in conversation, the second profile did its job by improving the speech clarity of the person in front of me.
Thanks to their excellent audio, custom profiles, and receiver-in-ear design, listening to music with the Waves is a pleasure. I don’t have any really-high-end earbuds to compare with, but the Waves certainly put in a better performance than any other earbuds or even headphones I own. Using a blocking dome really adds to the presence of music, but of course, switching domes back and forth every time you want to listen to music isn’t very practical. The Waves also performed well when I used them for phone calls. If you fiddle with your glasses or sound sources get too close to your ears, you can hear some slight, spurious, “rustling” noise, but I didn’t find it bothersome.
For usability, there are two surprising shortcomings with the Waves. First, while you can change volume and profile with buttons on the earpiece, you can’t pause the music you’re listening to. So, if someone walks up to you and starts to speak (likely, since the Waves are essentially invisible), you have to pull your phone out of your pocket and pause your music in your application. Second, there isn’t any app for the Waves. So you only have the option of cycling through profiles or changing volume levels by pressing the ear buttons. Other than that shortcoming they were a joy to use. They’re easy to recharge in their charging case (the company also sells a more-traditional replaceable battery version of Wave).
Everyone Hears Differently: Don’t Get Hearing Aids You Can’t Return
Not only is everyone’s hearing different, but we all have different responses to what we hear. Some might delight in the restoration of high-frequency notes in music and bird songs, while others who have gotten used to hearing only a low level of background noise in an urban environment could find a sudden increase in auditory input disquieting — at least for a while. So you’re going to want to get hearing aids that you can get used to over time, but still have the ability to return them if they turn out not to work for you. Audicus, for example, has a 45-day return policy.
Unlike lots of other products, even reading reviews can only provide a limited idea of what you’ll experience. For example, I have generally pretty-good hearing, with some high-frequency loss. And since once upon a time I could hear those frequencies, I at least have some idea of whether they are being reproduced accurately or naturally. But I can’t tell you how the hearing aids I test would benefit someone with a large amount of hearing loss. Conversely, a reviewer with substantial hearing loss would have a hard time guessing how a set would work for someone with mild hearing loss. I can, of course, review the user experience, ergonomics, and give a general idea of the sound reproduction, custom modes, and special features.
Nuheara IQbuds2 Max: Earbuds With Custom Hearing Tech
Unlike the Audicus Waves, IQbuds aren’t medical devices or even true hearing aids. But they add a lot of impressive hearing-assistance tech to a pair of Bluetooth earbuds. So they may be a good choice for those who want a little help hearing what they want, and not what they don’t want, out of their regular earbuds. I’ve spent some time with their newest model, the IQbuds2 Max, and they’ve definitely improved quite a bit from the original IQbuds Boost I reviewed several years ago.
Getting Started with IQbuds2 Max
It’s entirely possible to use IQbuds exactly like a traditional pair of Bluetooth earbuds. They pair normally with your device (only one phone or other device at a time, unfortunately), and have a traditional charging case. They are ear-blocking and come with two pairs each of three sizes of ear tips. I found that for noise-canceling to work well, I needed to use the Large ear tips, even though the Medium tips were comfortable for general use. As you’d expect there is an app for managing the IQbuds, but thanks to their advanced functionality it does a lot more than a typical earbud app.
Using Nuheara’s Mobile App
Using the app you can control the ratio of device and ambient (called World) audio, turn active noise cancellation (ANC) on and off, adjust the overall volume, and tweak the tonal balance. You can also have the internal microphones focus on what is in front of you or have a 360-degree sound field. To save you the trouble of making all these adjustments every time, Nuheara provides a customizable collection of presets that you can flip between in the app or by touching your right earbud. For a start, they include defaults for generic Home, Driving, Restaurant, Workout, Street, Office, and Plane.
Speaking of the touch panels on the earbuds, you can assign commands to short press, double press, and long press for each of the left and right units. This is pretty handy, although I found my review unit somewhat finicky in identifying short, double, and long. My bigger problem with this system is left-over from the first generation IQbuds I reviewed years ago. You can’t bind any command to any touch combo. Instead, each possible touch command only supports a few of the possible options. I never got a great response on why from the company, but for example it means you can not have tap combinations for both changing the preset (called Location) and turning Focus on and off. You have to pick between them, while you can happily assign Google Assistant to work with both a left ear and a right ear tap.
Customizing IQbuds Using EarID
In addition to having a variety of sound modes that let you independently control your device audio and ambient sounds, what sets the IQbuds apart is the ability to customize their performance to your personal hearing profile. This is accomplished by having you take a 10-minute hearing test in the app. It’s not super-sophisticated, but it measures your ability to hear six different frequencies with each ear. My results were pretty typical for me, with some high-frequency falloff.
After you take the test you can turn on EarID in the app, and it will equalize what you hear to try and compensate. In my case, I could definitely hear a slight difference in the additional precision and attack it provided in musical high notes, and increased emphasis on high-frequency sounds around me (when “World” is turned on). In fact, if I had the ambient volume too loud, sounds like silverware clattering on plates could actually become jarring.
Is Either of These Devices Right for You?
If you’ve been saying “Eh?” a lot when people try to tell you something, you may need a real hearing aid. If you’ve balked at the high price of audiologist-distributed units from companies like Widex and Phonak, Audicus Waves are definitely worth considering. Note that another option is also slightly-de-featured versions of top brands sold for a lot less than “full retail” through Costco’s Hearing Centers.
However, if you just wish you had earbuds that gave you more control over what you hear and don’t, then IQbuds2 Max is well worth a listen. I don’t think I would want to wear them all day, but they are great for airplanes (simply tap the “World On & Pause” when you need to speak to someone), and similarly for outdoor activities. They are also helpful in restaurants and at conferences, but they aren’t invisible like the Waves, so whomever you’re with may look at you a bit strangely.