What Are Personal Sound Amplification Products?
If you want to enhance your listening experience in quiet environments but don’t have a hearing impairment or fit the criteria for hearing aids, you might be in the market for a personal sound amplification product (PSAP).
PSAPs provide many benefits for non-hearing impaired consumers who want a slight boost to their hearing capabilities in certain situations. PSAPs have a range of use, from hunting and bird watching to hearing a keynote speaker from the back of a crowded venue.
The market is flooded with PSAPs promising big results for consumers, but few have been independently evaluated for their efficacy. This article will cover some of the industry’s best and most reputable offerings and the pros, cons, and features. Readers will also learn about the benefits and risks of PSAPs and how to select the right product for their needs.
- Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) are self-fitted audio enhancement devices similar to hearing aids but not exclusively intended for people with hearing loss.
- PSAPs and hearing aids share several features and functions, like directional microphones, noise cancellation, and Bluetooth compatibility, but PSAPs are hundreds of dollars cheaper than hearing aids.
- Several brands claim to offer high-quality audio enhancement devices, but the best ones back up their claims with independent research and proven results.
- PSAPs are a good sound-boosting solution for people with mild hearing difficulties who have already ruled out a hearing impairment through an evaluation by a healthcare professional. Beyond that, PSAPs can also be used for certain recreational activities, like hunting and bird watching.
What Are Personal Sound Amplification Products, or PSAPs?
Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s definition, personal sound amplification products serve as a mechanism to increase environmental sounds for non-hearing-impaired consumers. Like hearing aids but serving a different audience, PSAPs are not regulated as medical devices and don’t claim to treat or compensate for hearing loss.
This market is largely unregulated and much more nascent than the hearing aid industry, mostly dominated by a handful of large companies offering advanced technology but at a steep price ranging from $500 to over $4,000. Averaging $200-$400 per earpiece, PSAPs are far less expensive than conventional hearing aids. They’re sold online or through retail outlets, while hearing aids are only available through audiologists or licensed dispensers.
Anyone shopping for PSAPs to compensate for hearing problems should first visit a professional audiologist to determine whether your difficulty hearing is due to a legitimate hearing impairment or wax blockage. If a medical professional has already ruled out a hearing impairment and didn’t recommend hearing aids as a potential treatment option, PSAPs can be useful as a tech-based modification to boost your existing hearing capabilities.
Personal Sound Amplifier Products Reviews
One of the most popular PSAPs today is Sound World CS50+, a Bluetooth-supported, over-the-ear style PSAP with lithium-ion rechargeable batteries lasting 12 hours per charge. The device is sold by Illinois-based Sound World Solutions, which launched its first CS10 PSAP in 2013.
Sound World CS50+ has all the characteristics of a good PSAP device, including compatibility with Bluetooth connections, feedback cancellation and directional microphones, 16 channel compressor and 16 channel noise reduction, amplification presets, and manual volume control. While some PSAP brands dedicate a lot of space on their websites to promote companion mobile apps, Sound World CS50+ mostly emphasizes what’s under the hood: Its built-in amplification presets and manual volume control options don’t require smartphone adjustments, but there’s still an app offering additional customization options if the wearer desires. With Sound World’s Customizer App, users can adjust the equalizer and set environmental settings to everyday mode, restaurant mode, and entertainment mode.
The box comes with two rechargeable batteries, a charger kit, ear tips in three sizes, an ear tip cleaning tool, and a carrying case.
Feedback cancellation and noise reduction
45-day money-back guarantee
Voice prompts in multiple languages (English, Spanish, French, and Hindi)
Warranty is only 90 days
May fail when exposed to high humidity and sweating, which are not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty
Pricier than competitors
Here is another popular PSAP offering a discreet design and features to improve speech-hearing in conversations and environments with soft sounds while allowing loud sounds to project naturally without a boost.
The Etymotic BEAN claims to improve speech intelligibility in both quiet and noisy environments and offers a switch for enhancing sound levels. The device’s zinc-air batteries deliver power for 10-12 days if used for 16 hours, superior to the other products on this list. The product includes a leather case, seven ear tips of different sizes and materials, a filter replacement tool, and eight batteries.
This PSAP is a product of Etymotic Research, an Illinois-based company founded in 1983 and now operates under the parent company Lucid Audio. In addition to the BEAN, Etymotic Research markets a lineup of in-ear audio solutions used by professional musicians and researchers.
Long battery life
No directional microphone
No Bluetooth streaming capabilities
Tweak Hearing, a brand owned by Tennessee-based Ear Technology Corporation, offers two products in its “Tweak” lineup of PSAP devices.
The higher-priced option, Tweak Focus+T, offers three listening modes: omnidirectional for soft environments, directional for loud environments, and a telecoil for telephone use. It also provides automatic feedback control, compression to boost soft sounds and soften louder noises, and volume control for fine-tuning. Wearers can choose from four fitting profiles offering custom amplification settings. The model is available in two colors (gray and beige) and is powered by a size 312 battery that averages five to seven days of battery life.
Cost: Tweak Focus+T: $275-$549
Listening modes tailored for both quiet and noisy environments
Offers both affordable and advanced options
30-day money-back guarantee (30-day trial)
Six-month manufacturer’s warranty
Basic compared to other models
Doesn’t stream audio
This is the third-generation product in Nuheara’s IQbuds series. The Nuheara IQbuds² MAX offers all the features of a quality PSAP, including background noise cancellation and directional focus capabilities, central volume control, 12 processing channels, and Bluetooth support for making phone calls and streaming music. With three microphones and advanced noise isolation, this product emphasizes situational sound control, in which wearers can toggle the earbuds to adapt to the noise settings for their specific location.
The company claims customer feedback has demonstrated that the Nuheara IQbuds² MAX enables people with low to moderate hearing difficulties to hear speech better in noisy environments.
The charging case’s battery life can deliver up to five hours of Bluetooth streaming and eight hours of usage for processing sounds. Another unique feature is the companion Ear ID mobile application, allowing wearers to set a personalized hearing profile and customize the devices accordingly. Customers also get virtual access to Nuheara’s product specialists.
Nuheara IQbuds² MAX includes three tip sizes in silicon and three sizes in memory foam. Unlike some other PSAPs, this product is sweat- and rain-resistant.
Bluetooth streaming for phone calls and audio
30-day money-back guarantee
Free shipping (orders over $300)
Sweat- and water-resistant
TV streaming only available with IQstream TV accessory
How Do PSAPs Work?
Personal sound amplification products generally work by amplifying soft sounds, such as distant voices and hushed tones, while also minimizing the distortion of loud sounds. Style-wise, PSAPs can be likened to a glorified version of earbuds but come in in-the-ear (ITE), behind-the-ear (BTE), on-neck, and on-ear styles.
Many popular PSAPs offer features also available in hearing aids, such as directional microphones and Bluetooth compatibility. These compete with some of the more basic PSAPs on the market, which simply work to boost soft sounds while lowering background noise.
Are PSAPs Safe? What Are the Risks Associated with Wearing a PSAP?
The Federal Trade Commission says people who are interested in getting a personal sound amplifier, but suspect they may have hearing loss, should only purchase after visiting a health care professional to rule out hearing impairment.
Little has been studied about the safe upper limit of hearing gain on PSAPs and the risk of noise-induced injury, as noted in a 2022 meta-analysis comparing PSAPs to conventional hearing aids. Similarly, little research has been performed comparing PSAPs’ efficacy in different degrees of hearing loss. Although many have focused on mild to moderate hearing loss, other impairments are missing from the mix.
Many misconceptions around PSAPs come down to false advertising. Companies have been subjected to lawsuits for claiming their sound amplifiers can improve sound quality or speech recognition, similar to hearing aids, but offer no substantial proof to back up those claims.
All of the brands featured in this article were studied in a 2018 paper published in Otology & Neurotology that evaluated a handful of direct-to-consumer devices against electroacoustic criteria with tolerance limits. The electroacoustic output for five of the devices—Etymotic BEAN, Sound World CS50+, Tweak Basic and Tweak Focus, and the SoundHawk (no longer available)—were found to be within the defined tolerance limits for frequency range, total harmonic distortion, and equivalent internal noise, among other metrics.
Difference Between PSAPs and Hearing Aids
The broad, overarching differences between PSAPs and hearing aids come down to the intended use of the products and the way they’re regulated. Unlike hearing aids, PSAPs are not intended to treat or compensate for hearing impairment. Any PSAP that claims to do so could potentially face legal consequences for misleading advertising.
Another major difference lies in how the FDA classifies these products. Hearing aids abide by rigorous standards regarding labeling, manufacturing, safety, and quality, but such regulations don’t apply to PSAPs. However, the FDA does have a set of recommendations for how personal sound amplifier developers should responsibly label their products to properly inform customers by clearly distinguishing the PSAPs from traditional hearing aids.
While the FDA is working on creating a regulatory category for over-the-counter hearing aids, the agency has stated that the proposed requirements wouldn’t apply for PSAPs “when they are not intended to aid a person with, or compensate for, impaired hearing and do not otherwise meet the device definition.” The FDA doesn’t consider PSAPs to be medical devices, unlike hearing aids.
Beyond these broader differences, several visual and functional distinctions set PSAPs apart from conventional hearing aids. PSAPs typically only have a microphone, an amplifier, and a speaker, while hearing aids offer more advanced hardware paired with software to detect feedback and adjust sound levels in real-time. Some modern hearing aids contain artificial intelligence systems to identify and isolate certain noises.
Another distinction is how the products are sold. Hearing aids are typically programmed and fitted by a licensed audiologist or certified dispenser to suit the wearer’s hearing impairment. Conversely, PSAPs are sold directly to the consumer through the providers’ websites or on e-commerce platforms like Amazon.
Affordability is also a big factor: Hearing aids range from $500 to more than $4,000. PSAPs can cost as low as $30 and as high as $700, but the typical price is between $200 and $400.
Benefits of PSAPs
Though personal sound amplification products are relatively new to the audio device market, a few notable studies have evaluated their effectiveness. One 2017 JAMA paper found that three different PSAPs—Sound World Solutions CS50+, Soundhawk (now-defunct), and Etymotic Bean—showed the ability to improve speech understanding close to the results of a hearing aid. However, one PSAP product, the MSA 30X, made speech understanding worse than the unaided condition. Another hearing aid model in the study demonstrated little improvement compared to the others.
One 2022 meta-analysis in EClinicalMedicine found no significant differences between PSAPs and conventional hearing aids in measuring sound quality, speech intelligence, and listening effort. This means “PSAPs are potentially beneficial as conventional hearing aids are in patients with hearing loss,” the researchers wrote in their interpretation of the findings. “The different features among PSAPs should be considered for patients indicated for hearing devices.”
A different study published in the Journal of Audiology & Otology in 2020 found that PSAPs can help compensate for mild to moderate sensorineural hearing loss, specifically improving speech intelligibility in quiet environments.
Alternatives to Personal Sound Amplification Products
If you have a hearing impairment diagnosed by a health care professional, hearing aids are likely the best option. There are plenty of options on the market, but the best ones are listed below.
How to Choose a PSAP That’s Right for You
In a post for the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, audiologist and Johns Hopkins professor Nicholas Reed says that inexpensive, low-quality devices make it harder to hear than having no device due to distortion and static that persists even when adjusting the volume. Reed also wrote that consumers should be wary of companies making lofty claims with little substance to back them up. Instead, be on the lookout for companies offering detailed specifications and other informational materials to demonstrate how the products work. (Note: All of the brands listed above have detailed specs published on their websites.)
Some of the specs to look out for, according to Reed, include frequency response (ideally amplifying above 2000 Hz), the number of frequency/pitch channels for customization, and the decibel output levels. Microphone directionality, noise reduction, feedback cancelation/suppression, Bluetooth support, a telecoil, and remote microphones are other PSAP features that overlap with many hearing aid models.
Anyone with hearing problems should first seek a consultation with a licensed audiologist or other health care provider. Private insurance plans often cover these evaluations, but Medicare only provides coverage when a physician or practitioner orders them, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Personal sound amplification products are a good solution for people who have trouble hearing in certain environments, such as concert halls or large classrooms. They’re also useful for recreational activities like hunting and observing wildlife, where sound amplification is an added benefit. PSAPs usually cost less than $400 a piece, making them far more affordable than conventional hearing aids. Ultimately, if you think you have a hearing impairment but haven’t been evaluated yet, you should visit an audiologist to rule that out.
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Frequently Asked Questions
PSAPs hearing devices are over-the-counter electronic products that boost soft noises or hushed tones in certain environments. They’re meant for consumers who might struggle to hear in some situations but don’t qualify for hearing aids.
Pricing is accurate as of May 15, 2022.
Shannon Cuthrell is a North Carolina-based freelance journalist with a background covering business, technology and economic development. She has bylines in a variety of print and online news outlets, including Business North Carolina magazine, WRAL TechWire, NewsBreak and EE Power, among other publications. She graduated from Appalachian State University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in communication journalism and two minors in English and psychology.