Almost everyone eventually suffers hearing loss. Even if you take great care of your ears, it typically happens with age. And for many of us who have spent more time than we should have in loud environments, we’ll probably pay for it in the long run. Of course, there are also millions who have always had some difficulty hearing. Until recently, the only recourse was to go whole hog into a physician-prescribed, extremely expensive, personally fitted pair of hearing aids.
But with some changes in the regulatory environment and advances in technology, a new product category called hearables has begun to come to market. Hearables combine the features of a typical consumer pair of earbuds with some hearing-augmentation functionality. I got some brief hands-on demos of several at CES, but it was hard in that noisy environment to tell how effective they’d be in the real world.
Recently, Nuheara has started shipping the Boost version of its IQBuds ($499), staking out territory as one of the first hearables in the market. I took a pair with me on an extended overseas trip and put it through its paces.
Setting Up and Using IQBuds Boost
IQBuds come in a package with a variety of differently sized foam tips. For effectively blocking out the world, you’ll want to select a pair that really fills your ear canal so you can get sound isolation. Before you use them for the first time, you place the earbuds in the provided case and plug it into a USB charger. The case will charge itself and the earbuds. Then it is a pretty simple matter to download the app and pair the earbuds with your phone or tablet. After that, you can start playing with them, but at some point you’ll be well served to take the 10-minute hearing test. You’ll learn something about your hearing, and the earbuds can use the information to customize your experience.
The only small glitch I found when using the IQBuds was the need to restart the Android app once in a while after my phone had gone to sleep and been woken up. Even in that case, the IQBuds worked fine, but the app UI got stuck. In addition to turning world sounds on and off and setting the mode, you can configure taps to pause media or launch either Siri or Google’s Assistant. That makes is particularly easy to use the IQBuds to initiate phone calls.
I found the audio quality on the IQBuds as good or better than the other wireless earbuds I’ve evaluated, but I didn’t attempt an extensive comparison of them with alternatives for music listening. Battery life seemed reasonable to me, around 4-5 hours when I was using them actively, and more if I just had them in to reduce ambient noise. The charging case also can recharge the earbuds 2-3 times on its own.
IQBuds Are Hearables, Not Hearing Aids
Surprise: Better Hearing Takes Work
As a long time glasses wearer, until I started testing hearing devices I’d assumed they were a lot like glasses: You put glasses on and you can see better. Right away. Hearing aids, and now hearables, aren’t that simple. Our brains have worked to adapt how we listen to whatever our ears can hear. They compensate for missing frequencies as much as they can. Suddenly restoring those frequencies to their proper levels can be confusing at first. Plus, the sound from a hearing device doesn’t enter the ear exactly the same way as it would coming directly from the outside. As a result, there’s a learning period to adapt to how things sound when using a hearing device. In my case, I noticed that while I could often hear sounds from quite a distance when I cranked up the World amplification on the IQBuds, it didn’t immediately translate into a better ability to understand speech.
Is an IQBuds Hearable in Your Future?
Frankly, I suspect that most people will wind up owning at least one “hearable” device over the next decade. It only makes sense that even the vendors of the most popular earbuds will begin to incorporate additional customization and hearing augmentation technology in their consumer earbuds. For now, though, buying into a hearable like Nuheara’s IQBuds Boost requires a sizable financial commitment. You can get more traditional models of similar wireless earbuds for under $200 if you don’t need the additional functionality. Personally, I spend enough time on planes alone that the extra money is probably worth it. But it takes some effort to take full advantage of the additional capabilities provided by the Boost technology.