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Hearing Aids And Personal Sound Amplifiers

5 guidelines for buying a personal sound amplifier

What are the differences between a hearing aid (HA) and a personal sound amplifier (PSA)? Both accept sound as input, amplify and deliver sound to your ear. The naming distinction really comes from the FDA's desire to regulate one but not the other. FDA regulates hearing aids, but not PSAs.

A hearing aid is a wearable sound-amplifying device that is intended to compensate for impaired hearing. A personal sound amplifying device (PASP) is a wearable electronic product that is not intended to compensate for impaired hearing, but rather is intended for non-hearing impaired consumers to amplify sounds in the environment for a number of reasons, such as for recreational activities ..... FDA

From the market's perspective, hearing aids are normally more expensive, better quality, and designed for people hearing impaired people; personal sound amplifiers are generally inexpensive with few features. Some PSAs are designed with hearing impaired people in mind and many are not. Some people are strongly against using PSAs for people with hearing loss and their reasons can be summarized as follow:

  1. Using a PSA may cause delay in diagnosis of potentially treatable conditions and lead to serious consequences.
  2. PSA may damage your ears if not used properly.
  3. PSA may not fit your needs as well as HA.

However, these reasons are invalid if you are an educated consumer. First, you should always seek medical help if you have hearing problems. This is independent of using HA or PSA. Low quality PSA can damage your ear if it does not have reasonable limits on its output volume; but many PSAs have the built-in safeguard (e.g. ZDB100A). A good PSA costs around $100 and a HA costs in the thousands; a HA should provide a better fit. It is liked saying do not buy a Chevy because Cadillac is more comfortable. If you have severe hearing loss, a PSA is probably not for you.

To an educated consumer, the real question is which device is more suitable to your needs and at a price that you want to pay. There is always a tradeoff among budget, luxury, service and quality. If your hearing loss is moderate or minor, a good PSA will help you. However you have to be careful on what you are buying and here are some guidelines.

Personal sound amplifier buying guide

  1. Look for available technical specifications and ignore the marketing hype. Skip the product if there is no technical specifications or missing key data.
  2. The most important frequency range for normal conversation is around 1000 to 2000Hz. The gain (amplification) in this frequency range should be high comparing to other frequencies. If the low frequency gain is too high, you would have problem understanding a speech as the low frequency noise would mask the speech.
  3. The equivalent input noise level, which measures the noise generated by the device itself, should be less than 30dB.
  4. Volume control is a must.
  5. The maximum saturation sound pressure level (SSPL) should be under 135dB. This would give you a few seconds to remove the device prior to causing any damages. Maximum SSPL is the loudest sound that can be generated by the device regardless of the input sound level. 140dB is the threshold of pain for many people.

Follow these guidelines to weed out unsuitable choices.

Most hearing aids are air-conduction based and are class I (general control) devices. They are exempt from the premarket notification procedures. The manufacturer has to register the hearing aid with FDA and adhere to certain labeling and User Instructional Brochure (e.g. technical data and warnings) requirements. Especially for the lower end hearing aid market, it is common for a HA manufacturer to sell its products as PSA first, while working with FDA to get its product registered and to get all the documentation and labeling in place. After the paper work is completed and the new packaging is designed, one can also expect a jump on the price.

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