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What are Hearables?

Men includes finger at wireless ear bud earphones inside ear. Pleasant experience Listening with headphones music in a cafe on the city terrace on a fresh summer morning.
Maryna_Auramchuk/Shutterstock.com

Odds are, you’ve heard of wearables—think fitness trackers, smart clothing, smartwatches, and display glasses. But what about hearables? We have all the info on what they are, who should use them, how they can help you, and where you can get them.

Upon first hearing the word, you might think that hearables are a type of hearing aid or a new fancy-schmancy type of wireless earbud. But while they can look like either (and reap many of the benefits of either), they’re actually neither.

So What Exactly Are Hearables?

Hearables are often also called smart headphones, or even earbuds, which makes sense given that the term is an amalgamation of “wearable” and “headphones.” The term hearables is often split between two categories: hearables for hearing health and hearables for other purposes (like standard earbuds you’d use to listen to music).

We’re focusing on the former for the purposes of this article, however. In that sense, hearables are defined as “electronic in-ear devices designed with hearing-aid-like features.” These clever hearing enhancement devices can increase the volume of any sounds in your environment, as they use both speakers and microphones to better capture and amplify noise. It’s also worth noting that, in this instance, hearables are the mid-point between true wireless earbuds and traditional hearing aids.

A man with a wireless earphone in his ear. The man turns on the wireless earpiece with his finger
Kseniia Ponomarenko/Shutterstock.com

You can think of hearables similar to the way you think about reading glasses. You don’t need to wear them all day, every day, but they offer you some extra support whenever you do want to wear them, and they can make certain scenarios a little easier to navigate. Select hearables may also offer various smart and/or entertainment features, like connecting to your preferred smart assistant (say, to hear incoming notifications from your phone) or even listening to music.

More importantly, hearables also fall under the category of personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs. They are a less powerful (but still capable and fascinating) alternative to pricey prescription-only hearing aids, which are often not covered by insurance companies, but they aren’t for everyone. Some recommend the devices as a more accessible first step for those with mild to moderate hearing issues. This makes sense since they essentially do the same thing (albeit to a less powerful degree than traditional hearing aids) but at a much lower price point.

How Do Hearables Work?

The main thing to understand here is that hearables essentially consist of a tiny computer that fits in your ear canal. The three main hardware components inside—a microphone, sound processor, and speaker—team up with powerful software that analyzes the sounds in your environment and amplifies them with a personalized algorithm that makes it easy for you to hear things better .

The audio augmentation process starts with the microphone, which picks up audio, digitizes it, and sends the signal to the sound processor. From there, the audio is amplified by the processor, returned to an analog signal, and sent to the speaker (or receiver). The speaker then sends those enhanced sound waves into your ear for you to process.

That process is pretty amazing, too. It’s more than just amplifying audio—it’s enhancing it. These hearables isolate background noise, block it, and enhance speech (or whatever else you’re listening to) in front of you. There are even hearables out there that can translate languages in addition to augmenting your audio. In short, hearables don’t just make the surrounding noise louder, they change what you hear to help you understand it better.

Otherwise, hearables also feature a battery and ear tips, which are either silicone gel or memory foam. Those are usually the same as those seen on modern earbuds, making them easy to swap out or replace as needed.

Person wearing a Nuheara hearable and touching the hearing earbud while looking at their smartphone
Nuheara

Most hearables can also connect to your smartphone and come with companion mobile apps. This additional functionality gives you the ability to fine-tune control over specific frequency ranges and scenarios better suited to your individual needs. For the most part, these apps allow you to adjust other settings, like volume, directional focus, active noise cancelation, and location-based hearing profiles.

These apps usually feature a self-assessed hearing test, as well. The tests will vary slightly from product to product, but they’ll share some similarities, like asking you when or if you can hear a sound as it plays. Typically, you’ll need to take these assessments alone in a quiet room and with earbud tips that are comfortable and fit well, in order to provide optimal audio isolation and amplification for you.

Who Should Use Hearables?

If you have mild to moderate hearing loss, you could probably benefit from using a hearable. Of course, we recommend visiting your doctor before buying any device, so they can issue an official diagnosis and help you better determine whether a formal hearing aid is needed, or if you could work with a mid-range hearable. If nothing else, hearing loss could be a symptom of a great problem, so always check in with a doctor.

Still, depending on which specific hearable you use, it should be much easier for you to hear people talking, TV shows, music, announcements, and any other sounds you might encounter daily.

Nicer devices will have much higher-quality hardware components and smarter software and algorithms that are better balanced, making it easier for you to hear what a specific person is saying. They might also allow you to customize elements like frequency ranges or other sounds and situations via their smartphone companion app if they have one.

Hearables are perfect if you’re tired of constantly asking people to repeat themselves, having to lean in close anytime someone talks to you, or just smiling and nodding, hoping that’s a sufficient reply. They can also be an alternative option for those who are unable to afford traditional hearing aids, which can run several thousands of dollars (and often aren’t covered by insurance companies, unfortunately).

Studio shot of stylishly dressed beautiful retired female with blonde hair holding hand at her ear while overhearing interesting conversation, struggling to hear some news, secret or gossip
shurkin_son/Shutterstock.com

What Are the Downsides of Hearables?

Although hearables are plenty capable (and definitely intriguing), there are a few noteworthy downsides worth considering. If you’re wondering whether you should buy hearables versus a pair of traditional hearing aids, we recommend thinking about these points.

For one, hearables aren’t as personalized as hearing aids. And while they are less costly, that expense is mostly due to the audiologist who tailors them exactly to your specific hearing loss, including the frequencies you have the most trouble with.

Hearables also pack different components that aren’t even on the same level as hearing aids. For example, cheaper devices usually offer blanket amplification for everything and run the risk of over-amplifying certain noises, like fire trucks. While that effect isn’t intended, it’s a possibly damaging side effect that you’ll need to consider.

Additionally, over-the-counter hearables are just that—a device available to anyone who wants to buy them that’s designed to work well enough for anyone who does buy them. You won’t visit an audiologist for a professional fitting, and no custom molds of your ears will be taken.

That means the hearables you buy might not be comfortable at all, let alone for all-day wear. It’s similar to how some earbuds and headphones fit; some are comfortable, others immediately aren’t. That also means they might not offer you perfect noise isolation, which is key to ensuring the optimal sound amplification for your specific needs. It’s a significant trade-off that you’ll make in exchange for a much lower price point.

Alternatives to Hearables

Still not sure whether hearables are right for you? Don’t want to deal with the stigma of being seen wearing hearables? Wondering if there are any better options out there? Boy, do we have good news for you!

Most modern true wireless earbuds offer a similar lightweight amplification feature that might do the trick for you. Just as many newer earbuds and headphones offer active noise cancelation (ANC) to help block out unwanted external noise while listening to music, they also have an ambient mode, sometimes also called something like passthrough or hear-through.

This feature allows you to clearly hear your surroundings without physically removing the earbuds from your ears. The buds have built-in microphones that “hear” ambient noise, amplify it slightly, then send it through the earbuds and into your ears. Depending on the buds, audio will sound slightly louder than what you hear naturally. This amplification is much less intense than it is in hearables (or actual hearing aids), but it’s better than nothing.

You probably already own a pair of newer wireless earbuds to listen to music or take Zoom calls at work. If you don’t, however, you can always pick up a pair and determine whether that amount of amplification is all you need, or if you need to step it up to a dedicated hearable.

The 6 Best True Wireless Earbuds of 2022

Best Overall
Jabra Elite 85t
Best Budget Pick
Skullcandy Dime
Best Premium Buds
Sony WF-1000XM4
Best for Athletes
Jabra Elite Active 75t
Best for Apple Users
Apple AirPods Pro

However, there is another route you can try out before making that jump, and that’s simply with your smartphone. Depending on your phone’s operating system, there are apps and built-in features that turn your smartphone into a sound amplification device.

Android users can check out Google’s Sound Amplifier app, which enhances audio heard by a compatible device. This app, in particular, requires headphones, wired or Bluetooth, and promises to tune in and only amplify “important sounds, like conversations, without over-boosting distracting noises.”

Likewise, Apple users may find the brand’s Live Listen feature useful. It allows you to turn your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into a microphone that sends amplified audio to your compatible headphones or earbuds. The feature claims it can “help you hear a conversation in a noisy area or even hear someone speaking across the room.

It’s super common at this point to see folks of all ages wearing wireless headphones or earbuds all day everywhere they go, from bus stops to grocery stores. Opting to use traditional earbuds or headphones is an option for anyone wanting to avoid the stigma that surrounds wearing hearing aids. It’s worth noting that some hearables also look like modern earbuds and regardless of whichever you choose, others probably won’t think twice when they see you wearing them.

How Much Do Hearables Cost?

The cost of dedicated hearables varies from brand to brand, but we do know that they’re far less expensive than hearing aids. You’ll also save a fortune on special fitting sessions, as hearables are over-the-counter and don’t require anything like that. On the other hand, they are a bit more expensive than garden variety wireless earbuds, thanks to all of their hardware.

Still, you can expect to pay anywhere from a couple hundred bucks up to a thousand or so, though we found the sweet spot to be around $200-$600. You’ll also need to factor in the cost of batteries or ear tip replacements, depending on the pair you choose. For comparison, a good pair of wireless earbuds with any sort of amplification feature start at about $100, while quality professionally-fitted hearing aids start at around $4,000 (and can go way up from there).

Which Hearables Can You Buy Today?

Interested in getting a pair of quality hearables for yourself or a loved one? There are several great options out there, like these three, and they’re relatively budget-friendly as well.

Olive Union Pro

The Olive Union Pro hearables in White, raised slightly out of their case.
Olive Union

Olive Union describes its Pro hearing earbuds as “Hear + Music + Care, Personal Hearing for You.” The company promises excellent speech understanding, automated background noise cancelation, and crisp audio with the hearing earbuds, whether you’re talking with someone or enjoying a fun social event.

You can use them for both general audio amplification and listening to music or podcasts. With the companion mobile app, My Olive (Android/iOS), you have control over individual earbud volume, noise reduction, EQ modes, hear-through (the standard ambient amplification mode), a five-minute hearing test, your subsequent hearing report, and more. The app also shows you the battery level for each at a glance.

Thanks to their stems and white finish, the Pro hearing earbuds look similar to Apple’s AirPods by design. You can opt for one of three sound modes: Boost, Clear, and Quiet, and switch between each quickly via the app; you can also slightly customize each with specific Hearing EQ Presets if you want. The earbuds offer over seven hours of battery on a single charge, and about 18 total thanks to the portable charging case.

Olive Union Pro

These buds look like Apple AirPods and offer a hearing test and customizable EQ.

Nuheara IQBuds2 MAX

The Nuheara IQBuds2 MAX in black, sitting in their case with the lid open.
Nuheara

The Nuheara IQbuds2 MAX have won several awards and offer extensive personalization that automatically calibrates the hearing earbuds to your specific hearing profile. They also use directional beamforming technology that augments audio and helps you focus on them while dropping annoying and unwanted background noises.

Nuheara’s app (Android/iOS) is easy to use and features a clinically-validated assessment of your personal hearing. It uses NAL-NL2 industry-standard calibration algorithms for its Ear ID hearing test, then automatically tailors the MAX buds for your hearing profile. The app also features a suite of convenient location-based presets, programmable tap touch controls, volume controls, and settings for directional focus and boosted conversations.

The hearing earbuds can connect to voice assistants (Siri and Google Assistant), and they last for up to five hours of Bluetooth streaming—like listening to music or podcasts—or eight hours of hearing processing. Their charging case gives three more rounds of charging, giving you up to 32 hours of hearing assistance before you’ll need to recharge them. The earbuds also come with three pairs each of silicone ear tips and Comply memory foam for an extra comfortable fit.

Nuheara IQbuds MAX

With a modern traditional earbud design and super tailored hearing profiles, these hearables are hard to beat!

Jabra Enhance Plus

The Jabra Enhance Plus hearable, with one sitting in the charging case, and the other sitting on a white surface in front
Jabra

Looking for a slim, compact pair of hearing earbuds that offer 3-in-1 functionality for hearing enhancement, music, and calls? The Jabra Enhance Plus earbuds offer all of that in a discreet and easy-to-use form factor. However, there is one potential downside: the Enhance Plus buds do not work with Android devices, so you’ll need an Apple gadget to use these.

The hearables use medical-grade technology and state-of-the-art signal processing to give superb audio clarity. The buds have four microphones and a proprietary microprocessor for processing and reducing background noise while improving speech clarity. There are also three Listen Modes you can shift between: Adaptive, which automatically adjusts to ambient noise and conversations; Focus, which uses directional beamforming to focus on sounds (and conversations) close to you; and Surround, which lets you hear more of your general surrounding ambient noise.

With an IP52 water-resistant design, you can even wear these in a light rainstorm or get a little sweat on them, and they won’t miss a beat. They last up to 10 hours on a single charge, and the included portable charging case gives you up to 30 hours before it needs to be charged. Plus, the hearing earbuds are available in two colors—dark grey and gold beige—so you have the option to choose the one you like best .

Jabra Enhance Plus

These 3-in-1 earbuds are a nice pick for those wanting hearing augmentation and solid earbuds for listening to music or taking calls.

Suzanne Humphries Suzanne Humphries
Suzanne Humphries was a Commerce Editor for Review Geek. She has over seven years of experience across multiple publications researching and testing products, as well as writing and editing news, reviews, and how-to articles covering software, hardware, entertainment, networking, electronics, gaming, apps, security, finance, and small business. Read Full Bio »