Personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs, which are available over the counter, cost a fraction of the price of the average hearing aid. The more expensive ones are about $500 each.

Prescription aids generally start at about $1,650 each, including fees for the services of an audiologist or hearing-aid specialist. (Some less expensive prescription aids are available online and through retailers such as Costco.)

The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow PSAPs to be marketed as devices to improve impaired hearing. But the National Academy of Sciences and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have recently said that PSAPs can help some people with mild to moderate hearing impairment. Both groups are calling for the FDA to allow PSAPs to be marketed as a way to address hearing loss.

To find out whether these hearing-aid look-alikes can help people, we asked three CR employees who were diagnosed with mild to moderate hearing impairment to try four devices priced from $20 to $350. They wore them for three to seven days at the office, at home, in restaurants, and in our audio labs, where we tested how well the devices could help them pick out words in a noisy environment.

For an expert’s opinion, we had a hearing-aid researcher assess each PSAP in such areas as amplification, battery and microphone function, and sound distortion. We found that some PSAPs, if properly fit and adjusted, can help some people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

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, and consider asking an audiologist or hearing-aid specialist for guidance in determining which device is right for you.

When Pinching Pennies Can Hurt You

Our PSAP evaluations included two very inexpensive models—the Bell & Howell Silver Sonic XL and the MSA 30X—priced at $20 and $30, respectively. They showed very little benefit in any of our tests and sometimes actually blocked incoming sounds the way earplugs do.

Even more of a concern is that our hearing expert says these devices have the potential to cause additional hearing damage by overamplifying sharp noises, such as the wail of a fire engine.

Our expert recommends avoiding very inexpensive models, which generally cost less than $50. They don’t seem to help much—if at all—and could actually further diminish your ability to hear.

If you're considering a PSAP or a hearing aid, be sure to read our updated Hearing Aid Buying Guide and see our ratings on hearing-aid brands and retailers.  

Comparison: SoundWorld Solutions CS50+ and Etymōtic Bean

DeviceWhat It IsWhat We LikedWhat We Didn't LikeOur Advice
SoundWorld Solutions CS50+, $350This rechargeable device offers some background noise reduction; settings for entertainment, everyday, and restaurant environments; and Bluetooth capability. It can be customized with a smartphone app to amplify the frequencies a user needs amplified most.

Panelists found it to be comfortable and easy to use; two out of three felt it improved their ability to hear a TV and conversations. Our expert noted that it’s the only PSAP we tested that allows users to tweak settings to amplify sounds in the frequencies where they have the most trouble hearing, a feature similar to what you’d find in a basic hearing aid. The directional microphone can pick up sounds in front of the user, making it easier to hear conversations in noisy places, such as a crowded restaurant. Panelists also found it useful to be able to pair this PSAP with smart devices via Bluetooth, which allowed them to take phone calls and stream music while wearing it.

The CS50+ didn’t significantly help wearers decipher conversations in the noisy environment we created in our lab. One panelist thought it minimally improved hearing but found it useful for streaming music. Our expert noted that none of the three panelists were able to adjust the customizable settings to optimally compensate for their hearing loss.The CS50+ could be of use to people with early or mild to moderate hearing loss. The customizable settings and smartphone connectivity mean the device can potentially work as well as a simple hearing aid for some people, though only if fit and settings are adjusted correctly. The device protects your ears by limiting overamplification of sharp, hearing-damaging sounds, such as a wailing fire engine, though not as much as the Bean (below).
Etymōtic Bean, $214 ($399 if purchased as a pair)An in-ear device that runs on disposable batteries that can last about one to two weeks, the Etymōtic Bean has an omnidirectional microphone that picks up sounds around the wearer. A toggle switch controls volume levels.

Panelists found the Etymōtic Bean to be easy to use and inconspicuous; most reported that it improved their ability to hear a TV. Our expert liked the fact that it requires no initial adjustments, is ready to use right out of the box, and—unlike less expensive devices—protects against overamplification of loud sounds, which could damage hearing.

It didn’t significantly help wearers decipher conversations in the noisy environment we created in our lab. Panelists reported that the device squealed unpleasantly until it was placed firmly in the ear and that it can turn on when stored in the case, draining the battery. Our expert said the shallow tip could lead to a blocked or stuffy feeling in the ear. He also noted that the small parts may be challenging to manipulate and that the device doesn’t amplify sounds in the lower pitches, such as vowel sounds like the letter “o” in the word “pot.”

The Etymōtic Bean can be helpful for those with early or mild to moderate hearing loss in the higher frequencies. But it probably won’t amplify sound enough if your hearing loss is in the low frequencies (think bass drum) or extremely high frequencies (the whine of a mosquito). Although it doesn’t reduce background noise, placing the device in an ear properly may block out some unwanted sounds.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.