Hearing aids sans prescription: Earbuds marketed as audio enhancing alternatives

Headphones and earbuds transformed the way we listen to music. Now, the tech industry wants to do the same for how the hearing impaired hear the world.

A federal law signed this month could help speed up innovations that would make devices more affordable. Some could also be available over-the-counter for the first time without a prescription.
 
KR Liu has worn hearing aids since she was two and a half years old. Her devices today are small and hidden, but that doesn't mean the stigma has disappeared, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"You wear glasses and it's socially acceptable; you might have five or six pairs. It's a fashion statement. Why can't hearing technology be that way?" remarked Liu, director of advocacy and accessibility for Doppler Labs.

Doppler Labs, a San Francisco-based startup, hopes to market a version of its $300 Here One earbuds as an alternative to standard prescription hearing aids that cost thousands.

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Doppler Labs' Here One

CBS News



"This industry is going to be completely disrupted. The question is by who?" Doppler Labs CEO and co-founder Noah Kraft said.
 
Kraft said the earbuds are not just for those with hearing loss. They can be used to stream music, answer calls and raise or lower sounds around you. 

In a demonstration room made to sound like a noisy restaurant, Kraft showed us how his earbuds and a smart phone app can help anyone hear better.
 
"So now you're amplifying and enhancing my speech. That's essentially what a hearing aid would do," Kraft said.

An audio sample from Doppler also simulates what it sounds like on a plane when the noise filter is activated.

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CBS News' John Blackstone tests out the Doppler Labs' Here One earbuds

CBS News

Doppler's product is currently sold in select stores and online as wireless earbuds, not as a hearing aid. But that could soon change.
 
In August, the Senate passed a measure allowing companies like Doppler to market devices directly to people with mild to moderate hearing loss, no prescription needed.

"What this legislation does is that it opens the market to technological leaders to say we're actually looking at these problems differently," Kraft said.

Roughly 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from some hearing loss. In a study earlier this year, researchers at Johns Hopkins found the rates may nearly double by 2060.
 
Audiologist Sol Marghzar wants more people with hearing loss to get help but worries self-diagnosing might in some cases mask a bigger problem.

"There are many diseases that create hearing loss and they could be medically or surgically manageable, and by just going and getting a hearing aid, you will neglect that," Marghzar said.
 
Doppler isn't the only company that sees huge market potential. A handful of others have introduced similar audio enhancing gadgets.

"Everybody's needs are a little different. Can you match them with an over the counter product?" Blackstone asked.

"We can do it better, and I say that with full confidence," Kraft said.
  
Kraft and Liu hope that for those with hearing loss, high-tech earbuds will not just bring sound, but also acceptance.

"She may be amplifying the world, and I may be streaming music. We're both just using our ears. We just happen to hear the world differently," Kraft said.