2023 is going to be a big year for hearables. While the concept isn’t new, this is the first CES since the FDA established a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. OTC hearing aids began hitting shelves in mid-October, and they’re on the show floor in Vegas right now. But the best hearables are from brands you’ve likely never heard of.
Take the Eargo 7.
If you’re familiar with hearables, you’re probably not surprised to see Eargo with an FDA-cleared OTC self-fitting hearing aid at CES. The company has been a CES regular since 2015, and technologically speaking, its seventh-gen device isn’t so much a novel never-before-seen gadget as it is a refinement. (The Eargo 7 is technically the company’s third FDA-cleared OTC self-fitting hearing aid, as the agency granted the Eargo 5 and 6 510(k) clearance in 2022.)
This year’s updates include features like the new Sound Adjust Plus with Clarity Mode, which can automatically choose between amplifying speech or reducing noise in loud environments. Like its predecessors, the Eargo 7 also has IPX7 water resistance, a long 16-hour battery life, and is nigh undetectable when worn. Customers can also virtually consult with licensed audiologists. But for all of these technological achievements, I’m willing to bet most of you have never heard of the company unless you’ve needed to shop for a hearing aid.
That’s the thing about OTC hearing aids. They could genuinely help millions of people, but many people who could benefit from them either don’t know they have hearing loss or that legit over-the-counter hearing aids are an option. The companies that make them aren’t household names, and the tech companies that are household names and would like to sell OTC hearing aids have little to no experience navigating the labyrinthine world of FDA regulations. If only there were some way to combine their powers!
While the Eargo 7 is a truly neat gadget, the tech actually isn’t the most interesting thing Eargo’s doing at CES. Far more interesting is how the company is highlighting its partnership with Victra, one of the largest Verizon-authorized retailers, on the show floor.
Eargo CEO and president Christian Gormsen explained in an interview that this year’s booth has a station where Victra employees simulate the retail experience. (I’m covering the show remotely, so I haven’t seen it in person.) The idea is to give regular folks an idea of what to expect when buying an OTC hearing aid. The booth also has a tunnel experience that simulates what hearing loss is like for people with normal hearing as well as a second station run by Eargo audiologists who can speak more in-depth about what hearing loss actually is.
“We want to meet the customer where they are and bring all these things alive at CES,” says Gormsen. “The number one issue with hearing loss is people aren’t really aware.”
That’s why a partnership like the one between Eargo and Victra (and by proxy, Verizon) is notable. Consumers are going to see a hell of a lot more like it.
Other hearable companies are partnering with big-name device makers to get their tech in stores.
Nuheara — another hearable maker you’re probably not familiar with unless you’re perusing the best of CES lists every year — has partnered with HP to launch the FDA-cleared HP Hearing PRO. HP’s name might be on the product, but under the hood, it’s Nuheara’s tech.
“Everybody knows HP, right?” says Nuheara CEO John R. Luna, who also served as chair of the Consumer Technology Association’s working group to review the final FDA ruling. “We all have something or have had something that’s HP and for many consumers, HP stands for quality, consistency, and leading technology... if you’re scanning the shelf at a Best Buy, the blue and white stands out.”
It’s a beneficial arrangement for HP as well. The company spun off its medical division in 2000 and hasn’t been a player in this space since.
“Everybody knows HP, right?”
Similarly, Sony’s recently launched OTC self-fitting hearing aids are the result of a partnership with WS Audiology — a Denmark-based hearing aid maker. And like Eargo’s partnership with Victra, Sony will get to leverage WSA’s HearUSA retail network to sell its devices starting in 2023.
This strategy makes a lot of sense, but it’s hard to say how it’ll pan out over time. The FDA ruling is only a few months old, and transition periods are always a bit chaotic. We won’t start seeing how the dust settles until later this year. But regardless of what strategies companies use, it’s clear that we’re at a major turning point in hearable technology.
“It’s not going to be a revolution overnight, but it’s truly changing. It’s going to be very dynamic and I think we’ll see a lot of new entrants, new ideas, and new concepts,” says Gormsen. “Ultimately the winner here is more people doing something about hearing loss.”