New, lower-price hearing aids promise to help people with mild to moderate hearing loss. But when you buy one, how well does it work out?
Six months ago, over-the-counter hearing aids began showing up in retail stores and websites following a new rule by the Food and Drug Administration. They offer an attractive alternative to doctor-prescribed hearing aids, which can cost $5,000 or more and come with a deeper commitment.
Though sales of these over-the-counter models are up, the better gauge of their success is the feedback from the people using them. Two men who purchased OTC hearing aids in that time offer a pretty compelling review. They say OTC hearing aids require a lot of experimentation with fitting and sound settings, and that frequent and reliable customer support from the manufacturer is critical.
David Davies, a 74-year-old who runs a water-filter business in Houston, bought a $299 pair of Volt hearing aids from MDHearing in November after receiving a postcard from the company with a limited-time offer. (A pair currently costs $399.)
Mr. Davies had never worn hearing aids but had been struggling to hear conversations. He figured the price was low enough to give them a try.
He initially had trouble getting them to fit comfortably in his ear, but says the company sent him different sizes until he found one that worked. “That’s one of the negatives of ordering hearing aids online—there’s a lot of trial and error,” Mr. Davies says. “The adjustment of sound is also a challenge.”
Mr. Davies, whose hobbies include music mixing, guitar playing and film editing, has a better ear for sound quality than many people. That meant getting on the phone with a customer-service representative for help fine-tuning his hearing aids to suit his needs.
MDHearing Chief Executive Doug Breaker says customers often need help long after they have bought hearing aids, which is why his company includes lifetime support from licensed hearing-aid specialists and audiologists.
Marc Tosiano, a retired statistician from Hampton, N.H., in December bought a pair of
6 hearing aids for $2,450.
Mr. Tosiano, 68, says the hearing aids didn’t sound right at first so he called the company. A customer-service representative reviewed his audiogram and programmed the aids remotely, through an app. He’s since called the same representative a few times with other questions.
“When they send you the device, they arrange for a welcome session with someone. I thought when you buy an over-the-counter hearing aid, it’s, ‘Bye, you’re on your own’—but customer support is part of the purchase price,” Mr. Tosiano says.
That is, many over-the-counter brands do include it. Others don’t.
says providing customer support for hearing aids is important, because without it, people hit a rough patch then give up. Eargo’s hearing aids are carried by some Verizon Wireless resellers where customers can have their hearing screened. The manufacturer, which had been able to sell directly to consumers online, saw quarterly sales rise by more than 60% after the FDA rule change.
As for advice, Messrs. Davies and Tosiano offer plenty after their experiences over the past few months:
Consider your lifestyle. Mr. Tosiano likes using his phone to change the settings on his Eargo hearing aids, but Mr. Davies purposefully chose a basic pair that doesn’t come with an app. “That’s an added level of complexity,” Mr. Davies says. “I wanted to be able to go out for walks or to synagogue and not have to take my phone with me.”
He only wears one in his left ear, where his hearing is worse, and says he can change its settings by tapping on it.
Mr. Breaker, the MDHearing CEO, says it’s a trade-off. Some people want to keep it simple, while others want app-based benefits, such as the ability to get remote adjustments from the manufacturer.
Compare features. The National Council on Aging assembled a group of reviewers who collectively spent more than 5,000 hours testing and interviewing customers about OTC hearing aids. They came up with seven winners based on such criteria as affordability, style and fit. (Eargo and MDHearing devices are on the list.)
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Gauge the level of support. Once you’ve narrowed down the brands that fit what you’re looking for, call their customer-service lines to understand the level of help they’ll provide. Ask whether they provide unlimited customer service. Is it included in the cost of the device or is it extra? Do they employ licensed hearing-aid specialists or audiologists to provide help? Will they do video calls?
Understand your options if you’re dissatisfied. Find out the companies’ return policies—the longer the return period, the better. Do they offer warranties on their hearing aids, and how long are they?
Be patient. Getting used to hearing sounds you haven’t heard in a long time can be jarring. It can take several weeks for your brain to adjust. Mr. Davies says water from a faucet sounded like a rushing river after he began wearing the hearing aid.
Mr. Tosiano says he didn’t realize how loudly he was talking until he heard his own voice through the hearing aids. “This has been good for my wife,” he says. “I’m no longer shouting at her.”
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Write to Julie Jargon at Julie.Jargon@wsj.com
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