Last August, the FDA announced that it was making a big change to the world of hearing aids: Starting in October, hearing aids would be available without a prescription, over the counter. In a world where getting fitted for a hearing aid could be very expensive, and the hearing aids themselves were shrouded in the American hellish landscape that is health insurance. Over the past two months, the landscape has changed dramatically.
It’s taken me a while to figure out why some of the most well-known brands have gotten into the hearing aid game, but when you think about it, a hearing aid is a personalized set of noise-canceling headphones inside out: Instead from blocking all sound, they block certain sounds and amplify the sounds you want. Combine that with a hearing test to determine which frequencies should be boosted and profiles (speech, music, etc.) for what you want to hear and what you want to suppress, and a number of manufacturers were already very well positioned to serve this market.
The new generation of hearing aids comes in all sorts of forms; ranging from those offered by Linnerlife, which look a lot like Airpods, to the nearly invisible Eargo in-ear hearing aids, and Lexie versions (which appear to be a continuation of Bose’s recently discontinued SoundControl hearing aids) which have an in-ear and behind-the-ear component.
To be clear, hearing aids are still a regulated product category; the main thing that changed was the removal of the prescription requirement. For startups, this could be a really exciting opportunity to build direct-to-consumer brands and solutions. It’s a nascent market, and the FDA’s policy change took everyone by surprise. We are in a strange and murky in-between world, it seems; anecdotally, it seems the market is flooded with professional medical-grade hearing aids seeking affordability and low-end options, and consumer-grade headphones entering new markets under new brand names, a la looking for groups of customers who may have been less eager to
…and given that most of this software is only so clever, and Apple is already one of the most popular in-ear headphone makers in the world, it’s possible that this is yet another market than the Cupertino-based computer giant is reportedly looking to shake up in its push for health-focused products. The company already has a “live listening” feature, and it’s not impossible that it could roll out a hearing test app and custom amplification profiles, enabling the millions of people using AirPods to use them. as hearing aids.
In any case, it’s a market that has become very interesting for startups and much more tolerable for the hearing impaired, even in a few months. It will be interesting to see what 2023 and beyond will bring. In the meantime, I expect a lot of hearing aids to show up in stocking stuffers this year.