I’m one of the members of the population that suffers from tinnitus. Despite what I thought, it turns out I’ve had it since I’ve been a kid. I distinctly remember laying in bed about to go to sleep, and hearing nothing but a ringing noise in both of my ears. I thought it was normal — turns out that’s not normal at all. I thought that loud fans were needed when sleeping for everyone to block out the constant ringing when you’re about to go to bed.
Things got worse in 2018 randomly when I started hearing the ringing 24/7, instead of when laying in bed in silence. It started to interfere with my ability to hear things more than normal. I’ve always had a bit more trouble hearing people and following conversations (especially with background noise), but the tinnitus just made things harder. I’m a been a big fan of music (which I’ll be talking about a lot here in the future), but I find myself putting headphones in whenever I’m alone and start playing music, just to help drown out the ringing.
Since all the doctors and specialists I’ve seen have no idea what’s going on (my hearing tests are within a normal range, and there’s no obvious cause for my tinnitus), and don’t have anything to give me to really help out, I’ve started to look into other solutions to help. Sound machines and other stationary devices (fans even, like I used when I was younger) can help with tinnitus while sleeping or laying in bed, but on the go has always been more of a challenge for me. There are definitely some really good tinnitus and white-noise apps out there for iOS and Android — ReSound, AudioNotch, and Relax Melodies are three that I’ve used. The American Tinnitus Association has their own list of recommended apps that I recommend checking out as well. Apps like these work great when you can throw your headphones on or are resting, but when you’re out and about and need to hear your surroundings, or are having a conversation, that’s a different story.
There’s been a rise of wireless earbuds that combine both audio from your phone and outdoor noise into one mix. The Samsung Galaxy Buds and AirPods Pro are two of the most well-known ones right now. I’ve used both, and while they do exactly what they say they do (noise cancellation with the ability to mix in noise from the environment), I’ve found that the ability to understand speech over whatever you have playing (even white noise) can be difficult, even when things are playing at lower volumes. The maximum environment volume might not be enough to truly understand someone or hear your environment well, even if you’re not streaming anything from your smartphone. At least, that’s what my experience has been. Also, at least with the Galaxy Buds, the sounds coming from your environment sound very un-natural.
After trying these different devices and apps and sound machines, I’ve sort of settled in to the pattern I’m at now — sound machine and apps when I really need them, trying to understand conversations and asking people to repeat themselves, and just attempting to get used to the crazy high pitched ringing in my ears.
When CES 2020 came around this year, I poured over technology blogs like I usually do, reading about all the new amazing things that companies have invented. There was a big focus on “hearables” and other audio enhancement devices this year, which really got my attention. Two really caught my attention the most — The Phonak Virto Black and the Nuheara IQBuds2 Max.
The Phonak Virto Black is like a hearing aid on steroids — it’s the size of an earbud that can stream from just about anything (including your phone, so you could use the tinnitus and white-noise apps anywhere), take phone calls from your smart phone, automatically tune audio to its surroundings, and has an amazing microphone accessory to essentially make you a super-human of hearing. They have a custom fit, and despite being shaped like traditional wireless earbuds, they can be worn all day. The biggest downsides? It’s set to be about $6,000 in the US and, since it’s a standard hearing aid, one would need to go through a doctor to get it (there are OTC hearing aids coming in the US, they’re just not here yet). Since I don’t need a hearing aid according to doctors, and health insurance doesn’t do much for hearing aids when it comes to cost, I’m personally of out of luck here. If this fits your situation well, and would like to know more, Engadget has a great hands-on article here.
The other device is the Nuheara IQBuds2 Max. After taking a look at Nuheara’s site, I noticed something that stood out — individuals that have tried their products in the past have actually had some success with helping with tinnitus. I did some additional research, and these seem like a huge fit for my personal use case — they can stream anything from your phone (including music and white-noise / tinnitus apps) while blending in outside noise, you can adjust how you hear your environment a variety of ways, and they supposedly have very high quality sound. They also include a built-in hearing test that will adjust audio based on your personal hearing situation. Add on active noise cancellation, and these essentially seem to be like the Galaxy Buds or AirPods Pro, but with a bunch of hearing enhancement technology on top of them. They’re also way cheaper than hearing aids would cost out of pocket, retailing at $399 in the US. Yes, that’s significantly more expensive that AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds, but you’re getting a lot of extra features on top of it. It is worth mentioning that Nuheara’s previous product, IQBuds Boost, does have mixed reviews. It’s been a few years since they released the Boost, so I’m hoping that the new tech they put in the IQBuds2 Max will make them better. It’s also worth noting the battery life — if you’re streaming audio to them, they’ll only last about 5 hours before needing a charge from the carrying case. If you’re not streaming audio, they’ll last about 8 hours. This isn’t unusual for true wireless earbuds at all, but that would prevent using these for an entire day uninterrupted. Despite that, I ended up ordering these on pre-order. Taking a pretty big gamble on something so new, but if it helps those with tinnitus, I definitely want to get the word out. I’ll write a review of them after I receive them in March.
There were a few other hearing-related devices that I took note of that came out of CES 2020 that might fit your need. Olive’s Smart Ear is a single earbud that does a lot of what the IQBuds do, including a hearing test, streaming audio and phone calls from your phone, and audio enhancement. I personally passed on this since my tinnitus is bad in both ears, but if you just need help in one ear, this could be an even cheaper option at $299 in the US.
Lizn is creating Hearpieces that look to be a less complex version of other audio-enhancing earbuds that were at CES. It offers the ability to stream audio, improve speech in front of you, and boost the sound around you. There’s no app to keep things extra simple, and they are probably one of the most discrete and stylish earbuds I’ve seen, let alone ones that enhance hearing. Retailing at $199 in the US and shipping in February or March, they’re one of the cheaper options out there. However, the lack of app prevents things like hearing tests and customizable audio enhancement, which may appeal to some. There also looks to be a requirement to keep the charger with you at all times if you want to stream audio from your phone, since it acts as a bridge between your phone and the buds. I haven’t seen this in other wireless earbuds, so I’m not sure how I feel about this in practice (see the bottom of the page here). If simplicity and lowest cost are your goal, this could be a great option.
If tinnitus is primarily bothering you in your sleep, it’s possible that the ZenBuds by Amazfit might help. These are earbuds that block out outside noise, and instead play soothing sounds through the buds. Depending on the sounds that are available, this could potentially help cancel out the sounds of tinnitus. These also will last an entire night’s sleep, so you won’t have to worry about battery life. It looks like there is no way to use your own custom sounds with the ZenBuds, however, so there’s a pretty big risk if these will actually help those with tinnitus or not. No price was available at the time of publication.
Regardless which option fits you well, the current wave of devices that are coming out to help with hearing difficulties looks very promising. Whether you have tinnitus and difficulty understanding speech like I do, have more severe cases of hearing loss but can’t afford a hearing aid, or just want to be able to hear your surroundings better, technology is advancing in ways to help everyone hear. Here’s hoping that this trend continues.