What the emerging “Hearables” audio market means to me and millions

I was in a sound booth. Not recording a song, not being interviewed for the radio. The kind of sound booth that would jolt my world.  The audiologist had me put the headphones over my ears – the ones I had donned so many times as a kid and an adult – to test my hearing. “Press the button when you hear any sound,” she said. I waited and waited, the room closing in on me.  I willed the sound to enter my ears, so much so that my mind started playing tricks on me.  Finally, I pressed the button with the faintest sound, relieved that I heard something, anything.  

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“What was that?”
“Could you say that again please?”

These were becoming common questions I would raise, often with a slightly frustrated tone. I have always been challenged by “mumblers”, those people who speak almost under their breath.   Now, in conference rooms I couldn’t make out what my colleague on the other end of the long table was saying.  In the audience of a large trade event, I could barely hear one of the panelists.  Nearly everyone became a mumbler to me, even my 8-year-old son. That is, before I realized in the sound booth that day I was the problem.

Otosclerosis was the diagnosis of my moderate hearing loss at the young age of 38.  I was mother of two young kids, wife and a professional.  My world was turned upside down. I had visions of my 90-year-old grandma with large putty beige hearing aids saying “What’s that, honey?” and turning the sound off so she couldn’t hear grandpa.  This old people’s issue was now my issue. It affected every aspect of my life.

Missing words in chit chat with the grocery store clerk (smiling all the while), squinting and leaning in trying not to miss important business communication (usually failing), and reading lips (poorly) became my new normal.  Instead of feeling frustrated having to ask people to repeat themselves over and over, I now recognized their overt frustration with ME over that same request. I learned that ailments and disabilities that can’t be seen don’t get you patience. They attract impatience from even your closest friends and family.  And I was too scared and embarrassed to tell strangers and sometimes even friends that I had a hearing problem.

I couldn’t come to grips with the surgical option recommended to me by my doctor: Two separate surgeries to remove the teeny tiny stapes bone in each ear by laser and replace each with titanium prosthesis. Fear won over. I could die on the table and leave my children motherless…I could lose my hearing completely…I can live with this.

So, I tried the second option, hearing aids (a little smaller and more advanced than those my grandma wore when I was a kid). I gave it my best shot for a week.  My hearing improved, but these $7,000 out-of-pocket devices didn’t fit my lifestyle (I exercise regularly) or my image (I thought they looked obvious when I put my hair up). I constantly fiddled with them to get the volume right and would need to stay on top of charging them too – a simple task I wasn’t even capable of doing for my iPhone.

I overcame my fear and had the surgery (two of them six months apart). With the support of my husband and kids, I recovered slowly without issue.  The next time I found myself in that sound booth, I rocked it.  My thumb was like a gamer’s on a controller.

New prognosis: Normal hearing, both ears!  Now, when my kids falsely say “I answered you already, Mom!”, I remind them that I have bionic hearing.  I don’t miss important details in meetings anymore. The TV no longer has to be on the highest volume to make out the words. And I have much greater empathy for people challenged with hidden disabilities.

My story is not unique. The Hearing Loss Association of America reports that about 20 percent of Americans (48 million) report some degree of hearing loss, and the Better Hearing Institute reports 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-40), or 7.4%, already have hearing loss. Now that I’m open about my hearing loss, I can’t tell you how many women and men in their 30’s and 40’s I’ve learned are suffering like I did.  I’ve discovered how fortunate my situation was, as many aren’t given the option of surgery.  Their only options are to 1. continue missing out on sound, or 2. get hearing aids.

This is, I believe, where the “Hearables” trend in Consumer Electronics comes in. Audio is undergoing a significant technological evolution. Headphones are no longer just for listening to music and talking on the phone, but for connecting to your world. Imagine true wireless earbuds (no cord connected to your phone, no wire to connect each earbud) sophisticated enough to reduce ambient noise in a crowded restaurant and zero in on your date’s words – all controlled through an app on your smartphone. That’s available today or coming soon from companies like Skybuds and Doppler Labs at $300-400 versus $7,000 for hearing aids.

I caught Daymond John (entrepreneur and investor of Fubu and Shark Tank fame) at the CES 2017 TechCrunch Fireside Chat, at which he plugged the Starkey Halo hearing devices as life-changers. But while Starkey has the technology, they’re still a hearing aid company without the stylish “normal” look of a consumer earbud.

This is just the beginning of the evolution of personal sound with “Hearables”. AI (Artificial Intelligence) using your brain (nestled between those smart earbuds) to control your world is already in development.

What the emerging “Hearables” consumer electronics market means to me and millions.  The audio world is transforming into something not just of convenience and fashion for the masses, but of life-altering value for millions of young people suffering through hearing loss like I did.  While I no longer need smart earbuds, I can’t wait to use them to take my hearing from bionic to supernatural.

About the author:

Suzanne Oehler is an energetic, driven business leader with 15 years in consumer and enterprise tech Sales. Widely regarded for opening and expanding business in brick-and-mortar Retail and digital E-Commerce for consumer technology hardware start-ups, she designs and implements winning Sales strategies that navigate the complexities of Consumer markets.

Follow Suzanne on twitter and read more at www.suzanneoehler.com