More and more people are talking about the coming wave of hearing technology, and the inevitable change from wearables to hearables. But the truth is, it's already here.
We're going to get into details about literally everything to do with hearable technology, so you can use the links below as a table of contents to each of the major sections we'll cover.
2 Features and Benefits
3 Smart Hearing Aids
4 Smart Personal Sound Amplifiers (PSAPs)
5 Smart Headphones and Earbuds
6 Additional Tech and Companies to Watch
History of Hearable Technology
The term hearables is still being shaped because while some do exist in the market place, we are far from saturation. Thus, to some people hearables may just be wireless earbuds with advanced features, but to others it may be more akin to a hearing aid.
A hearable is a wireless in-ear computational earpiece. Essentially you have a micro computer that fits in your ear canal and utilizes wireless technology to supplement and enhance your listening experience. Many hearables will also feature additional features such as heart rate monitoring (see below for a full list).
Fast forward to today and there are two important movements currently happening that are both converging on one another.
First, hearing aid companies are beginning to recognize that users want a device that does more than correct and amplify sound. They want to be able to sync seamlessly with wireless devices such as their smartphone, for telephone calls, music, games, and more.
Second, commercial electronics companies (more specifically headphone manufacturers) are realizing the potential of “bionics,” or creating in-ear buds that measure biometrics, output great quality sounding music, and (this is the newest part) have the potential to amplify sound.
I believe both groups will eventually converge, but it's really a matter of who will get there first. In my opinion, The Big 6 have the biggest advantage because they have been dealing with this technology for decades, and already have the required approval from the FDA to label their devices as actual hearing aids (something most consumer electronics companies can't do by law).
Features and Benefits of Hearable Technology
Many companies are still trying to figure out the niche role their hearable product will play in the marketplace.
Some more traditional headphone companies are caught up in the same race most wearables are: biometrics. While hearing aid companies seem to be ensuring their already functioning technology syncs perfectly with your smartphone for even more user control.
Either way, there are a ton of benefits, but we'll do our best to list and explain most of them below.
- More accurate vital signs. Imagine being able to instantly measure things like: heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, pulse oximetry, ECG, electro-encephalogram signals, and more.
- Activity tracking. This could range from a pedometer to improved caloric output based on movements, and more.
- Biometric personal identification. NEC recently announced a technology that utilizes sound waves to acoustically recognize and identify a person (i.e. the owner of the hearing device) based on the size and shape of their ear.
- Invisibility. While the stigma of wearing hearing aids is decreasing (which is a really good thing) manufacturers are still striving to create technology that is as unobtrusive as possible.
- Improved sound quality. A large part of sound quality has very little to do with the sound output from your device, and more to do with sound filtering. Combined headphone and hearing aid technologies may allow for this.
- Augmented hearing. Companies like Doppler Labs are working on technology that will not only aid hearing, but also improve it above normal levels, though admittedly this kind of tech could still be years away.
- Smart everything capabilities. Seamlessly sync your hearables to your iPhone, or your smart home devices.
- Face-to-face communication. Lots of times people with hearing loss are discouraged from interaction. But as hearables start to erase the stigma of wearing an in-ear device this will hopefully go away completely.
- Translation. Can a hearable perform live translation of a foreign language to your native language? The Pilot is going to try.
- Layered listening. Think of this as augmented reality for the ears. This technology would allow users to filter out or enhance specific sounds. We heard rumors at CES 2017 that Bragi would be adding features like this to The Dash.
As we've mentioned a couple times above, one of our favorite benefits is actually related to perception of ear enhancing devices currently on the market. The advent of hearables is likely to help reduce the stigma of hearing aids and thus help people prevent and improve hearing loss much earlier in life.
Hearables Currently on the Market
Below you will find 3 separate lists of pre-existing devices that are adding new technology to transform them into true hearables:
- Hearing Aids
- Personal Sound Amplifers (PSAPs)
- Headphones or Earbuds
We update each list on a bi-monthly basis. Some on the list aren't currently available, or may still be in a funding or design stage which you'll see noted in the availability column.
(Note: If for any reason we have left off a pair be sure to contact us or let us know in the comments!)
Best Hearing Aids with Built-in Hearable Tech
The devices below are classified as hearing aids by the FDA, with the primary purpose of improving hearing loss. In addition, these hearing aids are also wireless and maintain the ability to sync with smartphones to allow the user more precise control.
|Starkey Halo||Yes||Made for iPhone/Android Hearing Aid|
|Resound LiNX3D||Yes||Made for iPhone/Android Hearing Aid|
|Beltone First||Yes||Made for iPhone/Android Hearing Aid|
|Oticon Opn||Yes||Made for iPhone/First Internet Connected Hearing Aid|
|Widex BEYOND||Yes||Made for iPhone|
|Phonak Audéo™ B||Yes||Made for All Bluetooth Devices|
You can read more about made for smartphone hearing aids here.
Personal Sound Amplifiers with Hearable Tech
By definition personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) increase environmental sounds for non-hearing impaired individuals. Some primary uses are hunting (i.e. listening to quiet sounds of prey), or increasing decibel levels of other quiet or distant sounds (i.e. lectures).
While the FDA currently classifies these devices for non-hearing impaired individuals, many people with hearing impairments do experiment with these devices (typically because they are significantly cheaper). Also, as of October 2015 the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has been looking into ways to allow PSAPs to be marketed to those with hearing loss and to create a new category of “basic” hearing aids meant for sale over-the-counter (OTC).
With that said, it is recommended to consult an Audiologist prior to purchasing a PSAP.
|Sound World Solutions CS50 Wireless Bluetooth Sound Amplifier||Yes||Personal Sound Amplifier||$349.99|
Just to reinforce what we've said above, while these devices are pretty neat, they are not meant to be solutions to hearing loss (that's what hearing aids are for).
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Best Headphones with Hearable Tech
(Note: As we have not been able to test everyone of these devices (yet), they are not listed or ranked in any specific order, however we have reviewed and ranked some of the wireless earbuds here.)
Many popular headphone companies are utilizing current wireless technology to enhance your listening experience, while also adding additional benefits like biometrics. Check out the features column below to see exactly what each device does.
Because the list of headphones with “smart” technology is growing, we've had to split the table into two separate lists:
- Sport or Workout Specific Hearables (i.e. heart rate monitoring or other biometrics)
- Other Hearables (i.e. sleep tracking, noise monitoring, hearing clarity, etc.)
Sport Specific Hearables
|Jabra Sport Pulse||In-ear Activity Tracker||Heart rate monitoring||Yes|
|SMS Audio Biosport||In-ear Activity Tracker||Heart rate monitoring||Yes|
|Bragi Dash||Biometric Earbuds||Tracks pace, steps, cadence and distance; measures heart rate, oxygen saturation and energy spent||Yes|
|Kuaiwear Kuai||Multisport Biometric Headphones||Monitors heart rate, VO2 max, speed, distance, cadence, calories burned||Yes|
|Joule||Earring Hearable||Monitors heart rate, calories, and activity level||Pre-order|
|Freewavz||In-ear Activity Tracker||Heart rate and fitness monitoring||Pre-order|
|Cosinuss One||In-ear Activity Tracker||Body temperature and heart rate monitoring||Yes|
|Sony Smart B Trainer||Bluetooth Sports Hearable||Activity tracking via app||Yes|
|iRiver On||Heart Rate Monitoring Earbuds||Monitors heart rate, tracks distance traveled, and other biometrics||Yes|
|Halo Sport||Neuropriming Headphones||Neuropriming for athletes||Yes|
|Samsung Gear Icon X||Truly Wireless Earbuds||Same as existing Samsung Gear||Yes|
|Bose SoundSport Pulse||In-ear Activity Tracker||Heart rate monitoring||Yes|
|Jabra Elite Sport||Fitness Tracking||Waterproof, Personalized audio coaching, race pace calculator and recovery advice||Yes|
|Oakley Radar Pace||Hearable Sports Glasses||Pairs to external sensors - Power output, HR, Speed, Cadence, Distance, Time, etc, using sensor data intergration and Intel technology||Yes|
Augmented Hearing and Other Hearables
While sport or workout related hearables may be more popular initially, augmented hearing (i.e. amplification, translation, etc.) could be a super, super cool industry.
Here's what Doppler Labs had to say:
That sounds both crazy and cool.
|Doppler Here Active Listening||Control What You Want To Hear||Volume control, a five-band EQ, pre-set filters and layered effects like bass boost, reverb and flange settings||Pre-order (est. shipping March 2017)|
|Nuheara||Control What You Want To Hear||Augment voices for clarity, enhance ambient sounds||Pre-order|
|Google Glass||Smart Optical Wear and Built-in Hearable Tech||Optical head mounted display||No (Limited beta runs)|
|Moto Hint||Nearly Invisible Bluetooth Headset||Touch voice commands to smart devices||Yes|
|Skybuds||Smart Wireless Earbuds||Noise cancellation, and smartphone case charging device||Pre-order|
|Xperia Ear||Smartwear||Send and receive messages, check your schedule, search, and navigate||Yes|
|Pilot||Language Translation||Smart earpiece which translates between users speaking different languages||Pre-order|
|Nura Headphones||Adaptive hearing||Headphones measure and adapt to your unique hearing condition||Pre-order|
|Maven Co-Pilot Headset||Driving safety||Smart headset that detects driver fatigue and distraction||Beta/Demo Stage|
|ProSounds H2P||Hearing protection||High-quality hearing enhancement with simultaneous hearing protection||No (crowd funding currently closed)|
We've started to notice some of the above hearables are failing to obtain funding, and ultimately cancelling their products. We're going to track those here, just in case you were curious:
Hearable Companies to Watch
In addition to the hearables mentioned above, other companies are out there working on wireless hearing technology that has the potential to revolutionize the hearing market.
Heart Math. According to Heart Math you can “…improve well-being, vitality, clarity of thought, access to your heart’s intuition, and a more balanced response to stress,” via their inner balance sensor.
Zen Sensor. The Zen Sensor clips to your ear and then sends your heart information to your smart device (i.e. iPhone, iPad). The purpose is to understand current information about your heart that can lead you down a path to improve stress.
Valencell. Valencell is one of the leading companies with a patented heart rate monitoring technology. This tech can be found above in the Jabra Sport Plus, LG HRM Earphones, SMS Audio Biosport, and Sony Smart B-Trainer, as well as many other wearable devices.
Human, Inc. This startup recently raised $5M for a product that for the most part, is a secret. They have alluded to a feature that may “break language barriers” and create “personal surround sound.” Check out the image below of these somewhat sci-fi stylized hearables.
Other companies to keep an eye on: Apply, Koss, Harman Kardon, Bose, Skullcandy, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Doppler Labs, and Invensense.
One of the best ways to gauge the status of the current hearable market is to analyze the patent war that every tech company is always waging.
As of writing this we've probably read through just over 100 patents discussing the potential of hearable devices. For now though we just want to highlight some of our favorites from companies we believe will be the major players.
In addition, Hearing Health Matters also compiles a monthly (sometimes it is quarterly) list of hearing related patents. We'll try to keep an updated link to them here: full patent list.
Apple's patent for “Sports Monitoring System for Headphones” is going to be huge among active users of hearing tech. They are likely going to make a big push into monitoring and measuring biometrics via headphones (likely incorporating their acquisition of Beats).
Update 4/30/16: Apple has officially filed a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove telecoils from future iPhones. If approved, it essentially allows Apple to include proprietary technology in their iPhones (which may or may not function with other wireless hearing aids). This has become a rather sensitive subject in the world of Audiology, so much so that several Audiologists have created a petition against Apple's petition.
Update 6/13/16: Apple's patent for a headset that utilizes bone conduction to improve speech recognition and hearing in the presence of ambient noise, has been approved. We do not know yet how Apple intends to use this device, or what other features it may include.
Update 12/13/16: Probably the biggest news of 2016 was Apple removing the 3.5 mm jack and releasing their Air Pods. Unfortunately, they don't really do much…yet. We'll be keeping on eye on them combined with some of the above Apple patents to see if Apple can potentially revolutionize the market in the future.
Update 4/20/17: Will Apple's Air Pods be measuring your vitals soon? Check out the video below to see how Air Pods may be Apple's largest foray into healthcare yet.
Update 6/5/18: As part of Apple’s iOS 12 software upgrade, AirPods will now have access to the ‘Live Listen’ feature, something that was previously reserved only for Made for iPhone hearing aids. Watch the video below for a quick explanation.
Filed in early 2014, Samsung's “Hybrid Hearing Devices” patent would allow users to use their Samsung device as a controller for amplifying sounds via air conduction or bone conduction.
More recently A New Domain discovered FCC documents and images to suggest Samsung is working on a hearable called the “Earcle” and possibly even a hearing aid.
There are rumors (based on some images floating around) that Samsung is working on a completely wireless earbud called the Samsung Gear IconX. It's official, check out the image below or take a closer look at the Samsung Gear Icon X, now available.
Oticon is potentially increasing functionality of hearing aid devices with their patent “Sound Simulator for Memory Enhancement.” This would allow an in-ear device to monitor brain waves in order to generate a better output sound.
For a complete list of patents you can check this list which is updated quarterly.
Future of Hearables
Even though many dubbed 2015 as the “year of the hearable” we're still in its infancy according to WiFore. Just check out this market prediction graph by Nick Hunn.
The above chart shows a segment by segment breakdown for “smart wearables,” and as you can see, hearables are on the rise.
In addition to the above, one hearable that we've heard very little about, but are super excited for is the Bose Hearphones. This is what the Bose website says about them:
- Directional microphones help you focus on conversations in noisy places.
- Focus, amplify or reduce real-world sounds to the level you want.
- Active Noise Reduction improves the listening comfort of conversations and takes the edge off the background noise.
- Use with the Bose® Hear app to customize the sound for the best experience.
- App presets let you save specific audio settings for different environments.
Also, as we mentioned above, keeping an eye on hearable related patents will also steer you in the direction that companies may be taking current (or newly developed) devices.
Ultimately though pop culture holds the future of hearable tech in their hands, and only time will tell how popular and ubiquitous this type of technology will be.
Valencell recently conducted a survey on the current status of wearables, and this may give some more insight as to where hearables can improve and how they may fare.
For now check out our recap off CES 2017 to see what's in store.