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At the wizened old age of 28, one of my ears began to betray me. Seemingly out of nowhere, a shrill static hiss emerged in my right ear and began drowning out the rest of the world. Conversations often felt like someone was toggling my volume switch from normal to quiet with every word, like I could hear the beginnings and endings but the sounds in between just oozed together into unintelligible garble.
I started mishearing things all the time with no rhyme or reason; at the gym, “sink deep into the stretch” became “sink deep into the trash.” I started using my phone exclusively on the left side of my head. Crowded parties and social events at loud bars felt like I’d unlocked a cool new Difficult Mode for social interactions. My husband noticed having to repeat himself more and more. Chatting with friends at the gym over blaring Iggy Azalea, attempting to lip-read a bartender in a sardine-packed cocktail bar, alternately laughing at and being frustrated by my many odd mishearings of things people say to me — it all makes me want to cue up “Bring Em Out” and yell along with TI to the rest of the world: “I can’t heeeeaaaar you!”
I am now 30 years old, and I have a body part that I refer to as My Bad Ear.
My asymmetrical hearing loss is frustrating, adds a thrilling extra layer of complexity to human interaction, and will only deteriorate with time as I shuffle toward the inevitable decay of my corporeal form. And it’s surprisingly common among my peers. Millennials are losing hearing at higher-than-normal rates; one study analyzed hearing loss among teens in the mid-aughts in comparison to similar demographics from the late ’80s and found a 15 percent increase. NBC News even called us “Generation Deaf.”
After I finally relented to taking (and... not passing) an audiology test, my audiologist recommended I start looking at hearing aids. “It’s like a muscle,” she cautioned me, explaining that by ignoring my hearing loss, I’m essentially voluntarily subjecting my brain to atrophy. Naturally, I decided to ignore her — at least until I could shop around. I wanted to fully understand the options that were available, if any, beyond the beige chunk of plastic my great-grandma wore. I want the Warby Parker of hearing aids: smart-looking and aesthetic and maybe tortoiseshell. I want the Beats by Dre of hearing aids: slick and futuristic and high-tech. I’d even take an ear trumpet, revived as a quirky curiosity the way pennyfarthings and handlebar mustaches were. I can practically see one in the Anthro catalogue right now, embellished and copper and antique-y. I bet it’d sell out.
As it turns out, hearing aids have advanced beyond whining, Vienna sausage-hued plastic wedges. Tricia Ashby-Scabis, director of audiology for the American Speech Language Hearing Association, tells me that big strides have been made in the last 15 years in particular. “When I first started working as an audiologist back in the mid-’90s, we were fitting a lot of large, behind-the-ear hearing aids,” she says. “People would say, ‘It looks like somebody shoved a bunch of plastic down there.’” In more recent years, she says, manufacturers have developed “receiver in canal” (RIC) technology that essentially allows the hearing aid to be tucked away much deeper inside the ear canal, out of sight. “They’re much more cosmetically appealing,” she tells me. Other deep-fitting hearing aids, like the Lyric, work similarly, sitting close to the eardrum and left in for 30 days at a time. EarGo, glowingly reviewed last year by Gizmodo, made waves in recent years for its virtually invisible profile, even netting an esteemed Clio Award for product design.
Tori, a 32-year-old PR professional, realized she was hearing impaired at the age of 22 while interning on the fast-paced frontlines of CNN’s “The Row,” where dozens of scripts are approved and vetted. Tori constantly struggled to hear and understand her boss as he shouted out assignments to the interns, and her work suffered. She decided to spring for an audiology test, learned she was hearing impaired, and got fitted for hearing aids shortly thereafter.
“You’d be surprised at how small and sleek hearing aids are these days,” Tori tells me, adding that when she was shopping for her first pair in 2008, she had the option of choosing from several colors to match her hair for the piece that sits behind her ear. “The truth is, no one has ever seen my hearing aids unless they actively look for them when my hair is in a ponytail.” More often, people notice the tiny tattoo just behind her earlobe: a tiny speaker icon with the volume turned halfway up.
I was delighted to learn that Tori’s device not only has a “party mode” setting, which muffles background noise and amplifies the foreground so she can actually hear the person speaking to her over the din of a crowd, but also syncs with an app on her phone that allows her to use her iPhone like a mic when pointed toward the person speaking to her. And, like many modern hearing devices now on the market, it’s Bluetooth-enabled: One can use their hearing aid to stream music, pick up the audio on Netflix, and take phone calls. If you wanted, you could stream “My Favorite Murder” directly into your ear while commuting to work. You could, theoretically, low-key listen to a recipe tutorial while cooking to trick everyone at your dinner party into thinking you intuitively know how to fold dumplings.
While hearing aid manufacturers attempt to keep pace with tech, the aesthetic blueprint for hearing aid design seems to be universal and largely unchanged in recent years: the less visible, the better. Millennials, though! Sometimes, when it comes to technology, we’re anything but discreet. And some of us might not want to uphold stigma by seeing hearing loss as something to hide. So what about those who not only don’t care whether their devices are visible, but want to make it part of their outward appearance, the way glasses are? Where are the devices disguised as rose gold earbuds, or made to look like minimalist geometric jewelry? Why does clunky plastic rule over pastel enamel or marbled ceramic? (The likely answer, according to audiologist Michelle Kennedy, is that synthetic polymers are the industry go-to because they’re lightweight, which is important since they either sit in your ear canal or on top of your ear. But, she adds, “I don't see why enamel or another type of material can't coat the hearing aids to create individual designs or looks.” See?)
Options do exist for those who want to make their hearing aids a Look, but it’s quite limited. Perhaps the closest thing to “a fashionable hearing aid” happened in 2015, when Audicus partnered with Advanced Style for a line of devices in leopard print, glitter, polka dots, and hologram. They’re actually really cool — and the campaign video, starring the impossibly glamorous Joyce Carpati, is serving very good octogenarian style icon vibes. (Though the styles don’t appear to be available for purchase on the site anymore, a publicist tells me the company still has the inventory if customers ever request it.)
Michelle Neidleman Kennedy, a clinical assistant professor in the otolaryngology department at NYU, tells me that colorful hearing aids are mostly developed for pediatric patients. Depending on the type of hearing loss you have and the corresponding device you require, some people wear plastic ear molds, which are much more visible than something like the Lyric, but also offer a wealth of colors and styles to their users. “There’s glitter and purple, tie-dye and marble,” Kennedy says. “So people, especially children, will pick something that they like and that they’re excited about.” And indeed, the options presented on manufacturer Unitron’s color chart include translucent acrylic (chic in a Zoe Kazan for Warby Parker kind of way, maybe?), teal glitter, and even a patriotic red, white, and blue swirl.
Kennedy also tells me that a small cottage industry of handmade hearing aid bling has sprung up on Etsy, mostly thanks to parents of kids with hearing loss. “They try to make it fun with charms and ‘ear bling’... lots of things people have come up with to make it more fun and more stylish.” I’m not a pediatric patient, but would I be opposed to these enamel peaches dangling from my hearing aid? No. I’d be even more into, say, a line of delicate rose gold hearing aid jewelry from Catbird, or, like, something spiky and weird from Verameat. I’m just saying!
Slick and high-tech or clunky and lo-fi, hearing aids have one thing in common: They are incredibly expensive. Rarely do private insurance plans or Medicare cover hearing aids or audiological care, forcing people to pay out of pocket (or forego a device entirely, which might have pretty grave consequences). According to this study, the mean out-of-pocket cost for a set of two hearing aids is $4,700. On top of paying a few hundred dollars out of pocket for her audiological testing, Tori plunked down $8,000 for hers (which she classifies as “the Lexus of hearing aids,” but not the Land Rover or Mercedes E-Class) on the spot. “And it’s not a car or house you can then trade in or sell later,” she says. “You should replace your hearing aids every five to seven years simply because of breakdown and because new technology will be available. That means forking over thousands of dollars again every few years for the rest of my life.”
All of this — the tech, the design, the prohibitive cost — might be poised for a good old-fashioned tech-style disruption. You know how anyone can just waltz into a Rite Aid and buy a pair of inexpensive reading glasses without a prescription (ordinarily in order to read a little better, but also maybe as a last-ditch effort to look intellectual before your very first real job interview, which I certainly did not not do)? That possibility is looming on the horizon for hearing devices, too.
“We’re moving into a marketplace where there are things called hearables [and] personal sound amplifying products, and there’s a big push to move into over-the-counter hearing aids,” Ashby-Scabis tells me. Personal sound amplifying products (PSAPS), such as this $200 metallic gizmo, aren’t medical devices, aren’t regulated as such, and can’t address the underlying neural processing issues that contribute to hearing loss for some. But for people who just need to turn up the volume a little, they could present a more palatable option than an $8,000 device.
They could also force manufacturers to keep up with the times, technologically and aesthetically, and maybe encourage more competitive pricing, according to Kennedy. “I think with that competition, maybe we'll see a change in price point,” she tells me. “All the manufacturers are going to have to shake up what they're working with.”
I don’t know how soon that’ll happen, or whether that means a high-tech and affordable statement hearing aid is on the horizon. What I do know is that, either way, my own hearing loss is almost certainly going to get worse. At a point, I’ll have to weigh my options: stubbornly dig in my heels while gritting my teeth and pretending to hear people through every loud group gathering, or embrace the technology that does exist and get the hell on with my life. With time, I’ll probably lean toward the latter, especially once my friends and family truly get sick of having to constantly repeat themselves. But in the meantime, I’ll still hold out hope for that ear trumpet.