I wanted to create this hearing aid buyers guide, because I know picking the best OTC hearing aid can be overwhelming. My entire website is aimed at making this choice easier, but at first glance, it can seem like another list of options.
This hearing aid buyers guide It’s a list of everything I look at to assess and review a hearing aid. For you, I want it to be a list of features you can expect and judge according to their worth.
This way, I hope you know what the baseline is for a decent hearing aid, what features are ‘extras’, and what each of the features is worth (to you). I think it’s still impossible to capture everything about a hearing aid into a checklist, but this is my best effort.
For every feature, I will give a short summary of what it means, and you’ll know if it’s standard or premium. This will always be a moving target. Dual microphones used to be a premium feature, but I believe it’s a standard now.
There are six different aspects to consider when buying an OTC hearing aid, and each aspect has its own section:
- Hearing aid type
- Standard features
- Premium features
- Smart hearing aid features
If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.
Hearing aid types
Right now, there are three main hearing aid types: classic, the earbud-style, and CIC. The classic is the hearing aid as we all know it, whereas the earbud-style and CIC are newer types. The earbud-style looks like normal earbuds (the little headphones you listen to music with). CIC stands for ‘Completely in canal’, and offers a model that disappears in your ear canal.
Classic hearing aids (BTE and RIC)
The classic hearing aids still form the bulk of the market. If you need a hearing aid because of (age-related) hearing loss, I believe this is your best bet. They generally offer the most features, the best value for money, and often have room for more features, too. Prices can range from $20 to $5,000, but a good pair without frills starts at $200, with the best OTC models sticking towards $1,000.
The difference between BTE and RIC hearing aids is a technical one, but since they look alike, I’ve put them in the same category.
Earbud-style hearing aids
The earbud-style hearing aids are getting more and more popular. With big brands like Sony and Jabra in the market, I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing these more and more. Often, these hearing aids offer premium and smart features, such as streaming. This usually comes with a loss on the bona fide hearing aid part of the device, or compromises battery life. For those reasons, I usually hesitate to recommend these to people who need hearing aids (that work all day).
CIC hearing aids
Because CIC hearing aids are essentially invisible (I like to describe them as high tech kidney beans), they’re rather popular. At first, the OTC market for CIC hearing aids was divided between questionable Chinese brands and Eargo. By now, there are more options in a normal price range between $200 and $900. CIC hearing aids generally offer fewer features than the other styles, but don’t compromise as much as the earbud-style hearing aids.
Aside from these main types, there are others, too. There’s the neckband, like the Neosonic NW10, or a box with earbuds. None of those are really alternatives to the great OTC hearing aids that are available these days.
Most new hearing aids offer a rechargeable battery, although some brands and models still stick with the conventional hearing aid batteries. Battery life for conventional batteries is often better, but most rechargeable batteries offer an overnight charge that gives you all the next day to use them.
Hearing aids with conventional batteries are getting less common, but have their advantages. Battery life is usually over a week, and sometimes even longer. They can also be cheaper, especially when offering a model in either rechargeable and conventional.
Most new hearing aids now have rechargeable batteries. A few years ago, this meant charging each hearing aid individually with a charging cable. By now, you pop your hearing aids in a charging station or a charging case, and they charge automatically.
The charging case is a relatively new phenomenon. The case works as a battery and charger in one. You charge the case (usually every three days or so), and it in turn charges the hearing aids themselves. This makes them easier for travel, so I call these travel cases, since it solves most of the problem of charging your hearing aids in Europe.
These are the features that I expect to see in every model hearing aid. Anything missing here means you’re dealing with a terrible knock-off that’s not worth considering. The same goes for a digital chip – anything analog shouldn’t be a consideration.
Noise canceling features
Especially when you’re just starting to wear hearing aids, any sound can be overwhelming. Noise canceling features make sure that the worst of these noises are filtered out, so you don’t get startled (more than usual) by a honking horn or a frying pan bouncing on the kitchen floor.
Feedback cancellation features
Feedback is the annoying singing sound you know from anywhere a microphone is used. It occurs whenever a microphone picks up its own signal (so when the microphone and speaker are too close together). This also happens when you cup your hand over your hearing aid while wearing it. Feedback cancellation features should make sure it doesn’t happen at random (like when you’re sitting too close to a wall).
Now, I know I’ve said I expect all of these features in a modern hearing aid, but here’s the one exception. Dual microphones used to be a premium feature, but are so commonplace that they’re pretty standard. However, for a budget model ($250 or less), I believe you could get away with a single microphone. It is a feature worth paying for, though. Dual microphones add direction to the sound, which (better) mimics how your ears and brain naturally interact.
Aside from the features that we’ve come to expect in most hearing aids, there are some premium features. These aren’t found in all hearing aids, but they’re usually, well, a premium feature. That also means they’re not worth buying for everyone. If you’re not going to use the telecoil, for example, you’re better off looking at an alternative without telecoil.
Speaking of telecoil, it’s one of the premium features that will pop up, even in newer models. Hearing aids with telecoil allow you to hear music straight from a telecoil system. Such a system is common in churches and theaters, so if you frequent any of those, it’s worth seeing if they’ve got a telecoil system for you to use. Read more about how a telecoil works and if you need one.
All hearing aids have listening modes; different sound settings for different environments. Usually, you can change these yourself, sometimes through a smartphone app. In smarter models, the hearing aid adjusts to your environment and adapts the sound settings to your needs automatically. This is now common in prescription hearing aids, but will become more common in OTC hearing aids, too.
Best example: Olive MAX
A less common feature, but I’ve seen it in for example the Otofonix Encore. Using a slightly different setup, such a feature gets more decibel out of your hearing aids. That doesn’t always mean that it’s great sound quality, but it stretches the life of your hearing aids.
Tinnitus is the ringing in your ear that’s common with hearing loss. Although rare, some hearing aids offer tinnitus features as well. Like the auto-adjust, it’s a feature I expect to see more of in newer models. The new Olive, the Olive Max, is one of those newer models with a tinnitus features.
Keeping moisture away from your hearing aids is one of the most important things you can do to extend their life. This means you should use a dehumidifier, but hearing aid companies have also found ways to make hearing aids more moisture-proof or even waterproof. The Eargo 7, for example, can be submerged in water (like accidentally dropping them in an aquarium).
Now I’ve said above that a dual microphone feature used to be premium. With the Jabra Enhance, we’ve seen the first OTC hearing aid (that I know of) with four microphones. Either way, more is better in this case. More microphones help the hearing aids process sound the way your brain is wired to.
Smart hearing aid features
The last set of features are smart features. This means that these features somehow connect your hearing aids to your smartphone through Bluetooth. Such so-called smart hearing aids (or Bluetooth hearing aids) can have a different configuration of the features listed below. To me, a smart hearing aid is a hearing aid that has all three of these features, but there is no standardized way to differentiate between different types of smart hearing aids. .
The first and most common feature in smart hearing aids is that you control volume and sound settings from your smartphone. This simply means turning the volume up or down or selecting one of the predefined listening programs.
Another feature that is increasingly more common, is a self-fitting feature. This means that the first time you use your hearing aids, you’re led through a set of process that (somewhat) adjusts the hearing aids to your personal needs. It’s the over-the-counter equivalent of someone fitting your hearing aids.
The last smart feature is a streaming feature. Streaming hearing aids also function as earbuds, so you can stream music, video sound, or phone calls straight to your hearing aids. Perhaps not surprisingly, this feature is quite common with the earbud-type hearing aids.
Finally, it’s worth taking the company into consideration. It is remarkably easy to order some cheap hearing aids from China, put a sticker with a logo on them, and sell them for a cheap discount. A reputable company doesn’t. Their products might be made in China, but they’re not simply pulled off a shelf.
Age and reputation
The first way to judge a hearing aid company, is by its age. Companies that have been around for a while and have built a reputation, automatically have built up some trust, too. Aside from age, it’s also worth seeing how well a company has been doing over the years. It’s one thing to get some bad reviews, but it’s another to have a number of lawsuits in your wake (as is the case with Nano).
Best examples: Lucid Hearing, Neosonic, MDHearing, Lexie, Go Hearing, Otofonix
Then, make sure the warranty agreement is to your liking. Anything less than a 30-day money back guarantee and a 1-year warranty has a better alternative. Watch for tricks, such as Eargo, which charges (or used to) a few hundred dollars to replace your Eargo 6.
Lastly, it’s worth considering anything extra the company offers. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of the Lexie models, is that they offer a discount when you wear them. That’s clever marketing, of course, but it also helps you. The first 45 days are around the same time it will take you to get used to hearing aids. Before then, it’s uncomfortable and will feel like a chore. A company that helps you with that gets brownie points for sure.
There you have it, all the considerations (I can think of now) to buying an OTC hearing aid. If there’s anything unclear or you’d like to see something added, please let me know so I can help you (and others) find the perfect OTC hearing aid.