A person trying a hearing aid.
Photo: iStock

The distinctions among types of hearing aids can be hard to tease out, but the devices are regulated differently.

Traditional and direct-to-consumer aids must be sold with basic information required by the Food and Drug Administration. Traditional hearing aids are sold only by an in-person provider.

Some personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) look like hearing aids but can’t be marketed as such. Self-fitting hearing aids are in a new category of their own.

Here’s how to make sense of it all. And for much more on the types of hearing aids, how they’re regulated, and how to shop for them, read our report, “It’s Confusing and Difficult to Shop for Hearing Aids. Here’s How to Figure It Out.”

Traditional Hearing Aids
Price: $1,400 to $6,000 per pair
Brands Include
Kirkland Signature, Oticon, Phonak, ReSound, Starkey
Where to Buy
Audiologist, ENT, hearing-aid dispensers such as Costco or licensed hearing professional

What they are: Regulated by the Food and Drug Administration since 1977, these are wearable devices meant to compensate for hearing loss. They come in many styles, such as behind-the-ear and in-the-ear-canal. You buy them through an audiologist or another licensed hearing aid dispenser, who will evaluate you and adjust the hearing aids to fit your needs. Most devices are made by just a handful of companies that dominate the market, which can limit a consumer’s choices. See our hearing aid brand and retailer survey ratings and buying guide.

Who they are for: People with mild, moderate, or severe hearing loss.

Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs)
Price: $30 to $700 per pair
Brands Include
Bell+Howell, Britzgo, Etymotic, Soundtastic, Sound World
Where to Buy
Online, store shelves

What they are: These seem similar to hearing aids. But officially, they’re intended to amplify sound only for people without hearing loss in situations where amplification might be helpful, such as listening to lectures from far away or watching TV on low volume. Some PSAPs operate similarly to hearing aids, and research published in the journal JAMA that certain models can be helpful to some people with mild to moderate hearing loss. See our 2017 evaluation of PSAP models.

Who they are for: May be an option for some people with mild to moderate hearing loss, though the FDA doesn’t permit PSAP sellers to market to this group.

Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) Hearing Aids
Price: $150 to $3,000 pair
Brands Include
Audien Hearing, Eargo, Hearing Help Express, Lexie, Lively, Lloyd, MDHearingAid
Where to Buy
Online, via mail, store shelves in certain states

What they are: This is a term used to describe hearing aids sold directly to consumers, generally online and by mail order. Some companies offer customization and significant online support from hearing healthcare professionals. Other sellers offer just one or two hearing aid products that can’t be customized. The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to avoid DTC hearing aids that aren’t sold by a licensed dispenser. It also cautions against products with only two settings—loud and louder—because they might harm your hearing.

Who they are for: People with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Self-Fitting Hearing Aids
Price: $850 per pair
Where to Buy
Online (via Bose.com)

What they are: There’s only one product in this category: the Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids. “Self-fitting” refers not to how the hearing aids physically fit into your ears but to how the device’s output is adjusted. People with this device download Bose’s app and use it to adjust the settings based on how it sounds. This is in place of the adjustments an audiologist would make with traditional hearing aids. Users can continue to make adjustments in real time.

Who they are for: People with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Coming Soon: FDA-Approved Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

These devices aren’t on the market yet but will be available without requiring a visit to an audiologist or other healthcare provider. Frank Lin, MD, PhD, director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told CR he expects that consumer electronics companies such as Samsung and Apple could enter this market. Their devices could at first look like some of the DTC options already available—but they will be subject to additional rules. Once the OTC rules are finalized, the new competition could drive prices down and open up innovation in hearing aid technology, which will probably be a plus for consumers.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the December 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.