It’s taken longer than we’d hope, but since October, the FDA finally established a framework for new category of hearing aids that don’t need a medical exam, prescription or a fitting by an audiologist. This has stimulated a new wave of products being announced at CES in the hearing space, OTC or otherwise. Sennheiser, a mainstay of the consumer audio world, is tossing its proverbial hat into the ring with the Conversation Clear Plus. It's not an OTC hearing aid, but a wearable focused specifically on helping those that struggle sometimes to hear people in noisy environments.
The company claims this dialogue enhancement is achieved in a number of ways. At the heart of the device is a Sonova chip. Sonova is behind some of the legacy names in hearing aids such as Phonak and Unitron and it also bought Sennheiser's consumer audio business about 18 months ago.
The Conversation Clear Plus looks a lot like a pair of regular true wireless headphones which will go a long way to removing any stigma or association with conventional hearing aids. Unsurprisingly, they do share a lot of features with regular headphones too. That includes active noise cancellation, even if the application here is more focused on reducing background noise in relation to dialogue.
Like most wireless headphones you’ll have the option to adjust the amount of noise reduction and there’s a companion app for further tuning your hearing experience. Sennheiser says there are three main prestets: Relax, Communication and Streaming. Those are all fairly self explanatory, but the last one marks a key difference between this category and legacy hearing aids — the ability to stream music and audio from your phone. Some hearing aids can do this, but it’s often a sub-optimal experience given that it’s not what they were primarily designed for. Given Sennheiser’s credentials in the headphone world, it seems likely streaming will be comparable to its consumer headphones.
On a more practical note, the Conversation Clear Plus offers a nine hour battery life per charge, with an additional 27 hours/three charges available via the case. This is a clue to the intended use scenario. These aren't meant to be an all-day device to fix overall hearing impairments, instead they are for occasions where it can be harder to hear people thanks to a noisy environment (and some mild hearing impairment).
Typically a set with a fitting from an audiologist would cost several thousand dollars, the Conversation Clear Plus will retail for $850. The experiences between the two different product categories will obviously be quite distinct, given the different form factor, but the modern, gadgety design will appeal to a lot of folks that might otherwise be turned off by the clinical design of classic hearing aids.
The Conversation Clear Plus will be available for pre-order starting Jan 5 and will go on general sale Jan 20.
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Conversation Clear Plus was an over the counter hearing aid.