Disclaimer: I purchased all three PSAPs and am not getting anything for these reviews.
It’s frustrating birding with others who are able to hear birds that you can’t. I have had that frustration for a few years now and over the past several weeks I have been trying out a new category of hearing-aid type devices called Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPS). These are designed for minor hearing loss, are much less expensive than normal hearing aids and don’t require a trip to an audiologist to purchase. But there are tons of these things available and very little reliable information on how well they work. And, there is no information that I could find on how they work for birding. Until now…
So, I did a bunch of research and eventually narrowed the field down to three devices to test out: Sound World Solutions CS50+, Nuheara IQbuds Boost ($499), and the Etymotic Beans quiet sound amplifiers ($400). I bought all three knowing they have at least a 30 day trial period with 100% money back returns. I’m not getting anything from these companies. I’m just interested for my own use. I tested them out in the field and in real-life tests and really liked all three. I did end up choosing one and sending two pairs back. I’ll tell you why, below.
The form factor of the three are radically different. The Beans look more like a normal hearing aid. They are small, fit into your ear without sticking out much, and blend in with my skin tone (YMMV). The IQbuds, on the other hand are large and black and stick out of your ear like a bluetooth phone device. CS50+ are large and black and stick out of your ear as well, plus they have batteries that go behind your ear. The Beans were the most comfortable of the three. CS50+ gets in the way of your glasses and take two hands to put in, squealing painfully as they go. The IQbuds were the least comfortable in my experience, but still not bad for a few hour birding excursion.
Both the IQbuds and the CS-50+ have an app that checks your hearing by playing tones like in a normal hearing test. IQbuds app then displays a visual representation of your results. It showed that my hearing was pretty good. No loss at lower pitches. Mild loss at high pitches mostly on the left side. The IQbuds and CS50+ then use your in-app hearing test to tailor the pitches amplified. For both, I used the setting that takes your hearing test into account, although you can choose not to and go with a generic profile. The Beans don’t have an app or any of this personalized functionality.
After the hearing test, the IQbud app allows you to set the buds to favor sounds coming from the front or not. I chose to do so in hopes (in vain, I would later decide) that it would help me locate birds better. The same can be done with the CS-50+. If you set them on “restaurant” they will favor sounds coming from the front. I played with this a bit using a fountain as the source of sound. Water is really loud in all three of these PSAPs, BTW. Using the CS-50+ in the “everyday” setting I was amazed to hear the fountain just as loud behind me as in front of me. It’s actually an odd sensation. When I turned them on “restaurant,” the fountain was perceptibly louder when in front of me.
The apps also give you control of what comes into your ears, with the CS-50+ providing greater control. The CS-50+ have sliders for treble, mid, and bass, so I typically bumped up treble a bit and felt that helped my hearing. CS-50+ also can tune each ear independently and can turn up the volume, something the IQ buds don’t do. IQbuds allow you to turn the “world” up or down. This, to my ears, meant turning treble up or down. I wanted to hear birds, so I turned world up most of the time and felt I could hear bird sounds better that way.
The Beans don’t have an app. They don’t do bluetooth. They don’t even have an on-off switch. You open up the tiny battery compartment about 2/3 of the way to turn them off. They simply have one switch that adjusts the amplification from Normal (+15 db) to High (+23 db). I pretty much always leave it on Normal unless I’m really trying to hear something in an otherwise very quiet environment.
Both the IQbuds and CS-50+ allow you to listen to your phone or music over Bluetooth. For the CS-50+, I could only get one ear to play anything and it initially took some effort. The IQbuds worked effortlessly and sounded pretty good. To control them, the IQbuds let you tap once, twice or do long taps to get to certain functions. I got a call while wearing them, tapped my ear and the IQbuds answered. I was able to chat easily as I walked down the trail. I have an iPhone and was able to talk to Siri through the IQbuds and, if I asked correctly, she would tell me the answer through the IQbuds. Pretty cool. I also liked being able to play podcasts or music through them when not birding. None of this was as easy with the CS-50+, so I didn’t use them for their Bluetooth capabilities much.
There is a downside of all these capabilities: you spend less time birding. I fiddled with the apps quite a bit when I was out in the field. I talked to Siri when I was bored. I always wondered if the settings were right or if I needed to change them. So I changed them over and over when I was supposed to be looking for birds. I’m sure this tendency would go away with time, but it was a bit counterproductive. With the Beans, I just birded. Sometimes I would flip their one switch to turn up the gain and see how that sounded, but mostly I just looked for birds. Which was why I was walking through the woods in the first place.
Here’s an interesting experience I had. With my IQbuds I went birding with a local expert-led bird walk. I hadn’t met any of the birders before and as we assembled I told them that the big black things in my ears were hearing aids. I just wanted them to know that I wasn’t listening to the radio or being rude in some other way. I was able to hear really well and pointed out several things I was hearing – as you do while on a bird walk. Typically, if you are on a bird walk and someone hears a tanager, people stop to try to find it. But, when I pointed it out, they pretty much ignored me. As they did for nearly everything else I mentioned that I was hearing. They hated me. I hated myself. Wearing those things, at least initially, I felt cut off from the world. Like I was watching a video of my life. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have paid attention to myself either. Also, I could hear birds, but I really had no idea where they were. So, I started questioning myself. I could hear, but the experience was a bit strange. I did eventually lose a bit of the cut-off-from-the-world feeling, but I still felt ostracized for wearing big Bluetooth headphone devices in my ears.
I had a similar experience with the CS-50+ talking to a neighbor. She kept looking beyond me, like she was hoping the real person would come along and talk to her. You know the guy at the airport that is loudly talking to himself while wearing a bluetooth phone headset? I was a quiet version of that guy while wearing these things. It’s not fair. We don’t judge people for wearing different types of glasses. But, there is a bit of a stigma to wearing big black things that stick out of your ears. Especially while birding.
I never had this issue with the Beans. My guess is that people assumed they were hearing aids, rather than assuming I was listening to the radio. Birders are used to seeing gray-haired birders wearing hearing aids. The Beans, at least in the color I got, just look like funky-looking hearing aids. The first time I wore the beans I felt a bit odd, but not nearly as bad as while wearing the IQbuds and CS50+. And, I quickly got used to wearing them around others.
I ran several tests with the three pairs of Personal Sound Amplification Products. In test one I sat in the back yard while my daughter Alia played bird songs on an iPhone at progressively quieter volumes. I raised my hand whenever I heard the song. When I stopped raising my hand, she recorded the volume (number of little bars designating volume on the screen). The backyard had lots of bird song as ambient noise, so it seemed like a decent test in real-world conditions. We tried a few different songs, focusing on higher pitched species. The results are below. Note that lower numbers are quieter and therefore better results. The Beans have a low and a high setting and so I tried both. The other two PSAPs were set on what I thought worked the best for hearing birds.
I also did a trial where Alia played the bird song on the porch and I walked toward the porch from far away and recorded the distance in meters where I began to hear the song. So, big numbers are good in this trial. They mean I could hear the call from far away. I tried a couple new species here.
There are some interesting patterns here. One is that overall, there isn’t a big difference among the three. They all help a lot with most species. The bean did slightly better overall, but I doubt that is a real difference considering the sources of potential error. More interesting is the difference among them in which species they amplify the best. The Beans don’t do very well with Brown Creepers, but do great with the higher pitched Blackpoll Warbler. They also don’t do as well with Clay colored Sparrows. Lastly, none of them do well with the trill in a Savannah Sparrow song. I could hear the chips that precede the trill, but not the trill itself. I first noticed this in the field wearing Beans. My young friend with amazing ears could hear the Savannah easily, but I couldn’t even with the Beans until I got closer. It seemed as though most other species I could hear wearing the Beans as well as him.
I really wanted to like the IQbuds the best. I loved the Bluetooth capability. I loved being able to talk to Siri; it reminded me of Ender in the Ender’s Game trilogy. I also wanted to love the CS-50+. They were very versatile and I could crank up or down the volume and treble as needed. I really felt like I had bionic ears while wearing them. I did not want to like the Beans. They were boring. And looked more like hearing aids. No Bluetooth. No app. But, in the end, what clinched it was that with the Beans I could find visually the birds that I was hearing. With the other two I could hear a bird, but really have no idea where it was. This frustrated me, it might not frustrate you, but, it frustrated me.
So, in the end I chose the Bean quiet sound amplifiers by Etymotic because they were boring, but did the job that I wanted them to do. I don’t have to play around with an app. I’m not temped to listen to music or talk to Siri. I put them in while birding and really don’t think much about them until I get done. And they’ve proven through my tests and through lots of time in the field that they really help me hear the birds. And, importantly, they help me find the birds after hearing them.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"