People with mild-to-moderate hearing loss might be helped by a relatively affordable over-the-counter device, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The new findings echo the results of similar tests performed by Consumer Reports.

The devices, technologically similar to prescription hearing aids but sold at a much lower price, are called personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs. Aside from Consumer Reports' own tests, there has been little previous research on how effective they might be for some of the 48 million Americans who suffer from hearing loss.

More on Hearing Aids

“Right now, we know that people wait an average of eight years before adopting a hearing aid, and the majority of people never adopt one at all,” says Nicholas S. Reed, Au.D., an instructor of audiology in the Department of Otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and lead author of the study. “Instead of waiting those eight years, it would be nice if people started . . . [by] using these over-the-counter devices.”  

Do PSAPs Work?

The new study pitted five different PSAPs (Sound World Solutions CS50+, Soundhawk, Etymotic BEAN, Tweak Focus, and MSA 30X Sound Amplifier) against a conventional hearing aid (Oticon Nera 2). (The Soundhawk is no longer on the market.)

Reed and his team tested the devices on 42 people aged 60 to 85 with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. An audiologist fitted and adjusted the PSAPs and hearing aid for each participant, and then the researchers asked them to repeat words fed to them via a speaker in a simulated noisy environment. They first did this task with no device, and then tried it again with each PSAP and with the hearing aid.

Of all the devices, the prescription hearing aid, which retails at $1,910, helped the most, upping the participants’ ability to repeat words in a noisy environment by an average of 12 percent.

But three of the much less expensive PSAPS didn’t lag far behind. The Sound World Solutions CS50+ ($349.99) improved hearing by 11 percent, the Soundhawk ($349.99) by about 10 percent, and the Etymotic BEAN ($299.99) by about 8 percent.

Not all of the tested PSAPs aided hearing. The researchers were surprised to find that the MSA 30X, one of the cheaper models at $29.99, actually worsened the ability to understand speech in a noisy setting by about 11 percent, something Reed equated to “listening on a really bad cell phone signal.”

The new findings are promising and important, says Todd Ricketts, Ph.D., director of graduate studies in hearing and speech sciences at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who was not involved with the study. But since the study was performed in a controlled environment with an audiologist who made sure the PSAPs (and hearing aid) were fitted correctly for each person, it may not recreate exactly how PSAPs would fare in real world conditions, he says.

“If someone picks it up and buys it themselves, will they get some of those same benefits?” says Ricketts. “That’s an important next question.” 

CR's Advice on PSAPs

Consumer Reports tested four PSAP devices: the Sound World Solutions CS50+, Etymotic BEAN, Bell & Howell Silver Sonic XL, and MSA 30X. 

Although our test involved only three people, we found the Sound World Solutions CS50+ and the Etymotic BEAN outperformed the others, especially while watching TV. These two PSAPs did well in the new JAMA study, too.

We found that the cheaper models, the Bell & Howell Silver Sonic XL and MSA 30X, provided little benefit and even had the potential to cause further hearing damage by over-amplifying sharp noises, such as the wail of a fire engine. (Read more about our test here.)

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa have proposed legislation that would make it easier for consumers with mild-to-moderate hearing loss to obtain a range of hearing aids over the counter, not just PSAPs. 

In the meantime, as with a hearing aid, the effectiveness of a PSAP can vary depending on the product. So it’s best to have a professional hearing test first, says Ricketts, and consider asking an audiologist or hearing-aid specialist for guidance in determining which device is right for you.