Disclaimer: I purchased all three PSAPs and am not getting anything for these reviews.
I’m trying to find hearing aids that will help me, whose lost a bit of my ability to hear high pitches, hear bird songs like a 17 year old without the enormous cost of a true hearing aid. In trying out the efficacy of using Nuheara IQbuds Boost, Soundworld Solutions CS50+, and the Etymotic Beans to help hear birds, I ran several tests with the three pairs of Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPS). 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. Data are below. Note that lower numbers are quieter and therefore better results. The Etymotic Beans have a low and a high setting and so I tried both. The other two 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 are best at. The beans don’t do very well with Creepers, but do great with the higher pitched blackpolls. 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 as well as him.
So, in conclusion, they all appear to help a lot with most species. The Bean wins overall, but there is variation among them in what species they do best at hearing. I would base your choice on other factors.
Personal Sound Amplification for Birding: Etymotic Bean Quiet Sound Amplifier Review
Disclaimer: I purchased all three PSAPs and am not getting anything for these reviews.
Recently when hiking with my wife she asked me to identify a bird she was hearing. Fun, right? But, I couldn’t hear the bird. Less fun. I’ve noticed that I’ve lost a bit of the upper range of my hearing. It’s not terrible, but it’s noticeable when hanging out with people with normal hearing. So, I’ve been testing some solutions to the problem. I’m not to the point where I need hearing aids costing several thousand dollars, but there is a new line of Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs) that are cheaper and made for people with minor hearing loss. However, most have not been tested by birders. Until now…
The Bean quiet sound amplifier by Etymotic is much smaller than the two PSAPs I’ve already reviewed. It fits in your ear, doesn’t stick out much, blends in better with my ears, and looks more like a normal hearing aid. Its weight isn’t noticeable and doesn’t get as uncomfortable as the others or conflict with my glasses. I wore them for 5 hours birding yesterday and didn’t feel any real discomfort.
It also doesn’t come with an app for my phone or any bluetooth capabilities. You can’t listen to podcasts while pretending to listen to your family. You don’t have to putz around on your phone trying to find the perfect settings. they have one switch on them that takes them from normal amplification to high. It also takes normal tiny hearing aid batteries (size 10) that last for a few weeks in my experience. There is no on-off switch. To turn off the device, you open the battery door about 2/3 of the way. The battery will stay in and the Bean will turn off. The tiny batteries are tough to use. I’ve only changed them twice and both times I have dropped one that I then had to crawl around searching for.
Do they work for bird songs even without a special hearing test and app? Yes they certainly do. The tests I ran put this device ahead of both the Nuheara IQBuds Boost and the Sound World Solutions CS50+. (But only slightly and there was a lot of variation as I’ll detail in the next post.) I have used them in the field for many hours and have felt that they were very helpful. Just yesterday I was sitting in a field without wearing the Beans and saw a Savannah Sparrow fly into a bush and periodically throw its head back. I put the Beans in my ears and magically, the bird was singing and easy to hear. And, I was able to hear another Savannah that I didn’t see.
They have a hard time in the wind. But, even so, they do better than both the IQbuds and CS50+, both of which will cut out in the wind, but not before amplifying some really loud wind sound. The Beans do great with Blackpoll Warblers. I heard them like never before. I could hear Woodcocks from a distance. I could hear Black-throated Green Warblers like a 12 year old (but still not as well as Wes Homoya). I like the beans a lot.
For all of the PSAPs I tried, I felt a bit cut off from the world. Your voice sounds weird. You sometimes hear your footsteps. People treat you weird. The Beans were not nearly as bad in all these respects. I found that if you ease them out of your ears as much as possible without getting feedback squealing, they don’t give you the hollow voice and footsteps. I even cut the ear plug in half, which kept the beans from sticking out of my ears so much. Also, my experience birding and interacting with other people while wearing these was better. They apparently didn’t think I was an alien while wearing the Beans because they just look like hearing aids. It’s weird to have birders wear bluetooth-looking devices like the IQbuds and CS50+ while birding. It’s normal to have birders my age and older wearing hearing aid-looking products.
Now for the real clincher. Yes, they do a really good job of allowing me to hear the birds. All three of these PSAPs do, honestly. I got a bit of weird sound reproduction in these. But, not quite as bad as in the other two. I felt pretty confident in my ID calls wearing these. And, I think that will get better as I get used to hearing bird songs through them. The biggest difference was that I could locate the birds that I was hearing. I heard the three part call of a Tennessee Warbler in the trees and knew that it was in the top right side of the oak tree. With the IQbuds and the CS50+ I would search all over, not having a clue where the bird was. Perhaps it’s because the Beans are a bit more like part of my natural ear. But, for whatever reason, I was able to locate the birds much more readily with the Beans than with the other two PSAPs.
For me, the fact that I was able to find the birds visually that I was hearing was important enough that it overcame the lack of cool Bluetooth features. Sure, I would love to be able to listen to podcasts when I should be listening to my brother. Who wouldn’t? But, I really loved being able to find the birds I was hearing. How are other birders going to learn to believe you if you call out birds they can’t hear, then consistently can’t find those birds? All three PSAPs do a great job amplifying bird sounds. The Beans allow me to find those birds. To me, that was important enough that I sent back the IQbuds and CS50+ and kept the (relatively boring) Etymotic Beans. It didn’t matter in my decision, but they were also the cheapest at $400 for the pair.
In the next post I’ll give you the details of the bird hearing tests I ran on the three personal sound amplifiers…
Disclaimer: I purchased the PSAPs that I’m reviewing here. I plan to send back all but the ones I like the best. Each has at least a 30 day trial period. I'm just doing these reviews because I'm interested.
As a birder, I use my ears to identify birds. I’ve always been better at birding by ear than by sight. However, recently I’ve noticed that I can’t hear as well as a 17-year old. But I want to! I wan’t to hear better than humanly possible! And, why not? You use binoculars for seeing better than humanly possible, why not use technology to hear better, too? So, I’m on a quest to find a relatively inexpensive option that will give me bionic ears. In the last post I reviewed the Sound World Solutions CS50+. This post I’ll tell you about the Nuheara IQbuds Boost.
I really wanted to like these the best because I thought they were pretty cool. They look like a bluetooth phone device and are kinda big sticking out of your ears - there’s no mistaking that you are wearing a “hearable.” But, they quickly hooked up to my phone via bluetooth and I could easily listen to podcasts or music through them. I could also just touch one of them and talk to Siri - “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” And she answers in your ear, “The last person that asked me that ended up in a crevasse.” Pretty fun.
Like the CS50+, the IQbuds have an app. Unlike the CS50+, the IQbuds connect with your phone super easily every time. The app runs you through a hearing test and gives you a visual representation of your hearing. Mine showed a minor loss in high frequencies mostly in my left ear. The buds then amplified sounds based on my profile. The aspects of the amplification that you can change are fewer than with the CS50+. There are a few typical profiles, I kept mine on Home. You can set the buds on “focus” where sounds from the front are amplified more than sounds from behind. I kept mine on that setting in a (in vain) attempt to use them to help me find the birds that I heard singing. And, you can also turn “the world” up or down. I mostly had the world turned up, because the world included “background” noise like bird songs.
Do they help you hear birds? Absolutely yes! In the field and in tests (I’ll talk about in a future post), they allowed me to hear many more birds than with my bare ears. While on a bird walk with others, I heard several Warbling Vireos, a Yellow-throated Vireo, and a Scarlet Tanager that others didn’t hear. However, on the same bird walk, I felt cut off from everyone and a bit ostracized because I had these weird bluetooth devices in my ears. Also, like the CS50+, some of the bird sounds didn’t seem quite right to me. I was listening to a Carolina Wren, for example and it sounded a bit auto-tuned. This may just need some getting used to.
They come with a case that acts as a battery charger. This is necessary because the batteries only last for 5 hours or so. This was never a big deal for me because I never wore them for that long. In fact, they were uncomfortable enough that I didn’t want to wear them that long. Especially if I wasn’t birding. Their comfort was ok for a while and I didn’t mind them as long as they were helping me hear birds I couldn’t otherwise hear. Again, the comfort might be something that just needs getting used to.
I really wanted to love these things because of their cool and easy bluetooth capabilities. I loved it that while I was out birding with them one day, my daughter called and I was able to tap my ear to answer the phone and talk to her while walking down the trail. However, I was constantly frustrated by my inability to actually find visually the birds that I was hearing. Don’t you love the feeling of making an ID call via song, then having that call confirmed by sight? I could hear the birds, I knew what they were, but I had a terrible time finding them.
So, for $499 for the pair, the Nuheara IQbuds Boost absolutely help you hear birds. They have fun bluetooth capabilities. But, they might lead to you being ignored by other birders because they look weird (for a birder). Plus they might give you the constant frustration of not being able to find the birds that you are hearing. These are only potential drawbacks based on you and how you happen to feel about it these issues. They ended up being important enough to me that I didn’t choose to keep these (really cool) devices.
Next time I’ll review the PSAPs that I’m still using daily, the Etymotic Beans.
Disclaimer: I bought the PSAPs that I am reviewing. They each have at least a 30 day trial period, so I did end up sending back all but my favorites.
So, I’ve lost a bit of my hearing in the upper register. It’s not very bad, but it is a bit of a bummer because I have spent years of my life learning to ID birds by song and now I don’t hear them as well as I used to. The CS50+ does a pretty good job of amplifying bird songs. I found it amazing to hear a bird, then take off the CS50+s and have the bird song disappear! Let me tell you more about them.
They are big and black with a large battery that goes behind your ear. This was a bit uncomfortable with my glasses, but not a big deal. They say the batteries last long enough for 18 hours of use. And, two batteries come with the PSAP, so you can recharge one while wearing the other. The in-ear portion is black and looks like a Bluetooth phone device. Kinda ugly and weird for a birder. Are you birding or talking on the phone? I had a hard time putting them on. I had to take off my glasses and free both hands to don the device, which would squeal loudly in my ear as it was being inserted.
They come with an app that I put on my iPhone. The app runs you through a hearing test. You put on the CS50+s and the app plays sounds at differing pitches and amplitudes and you tell it when you hear something. Once completed the devices amplify sounds based on your personal hearing loss. This seemed to work well enough. You can also control the amount of amplification and what pitches are amplified (treble, bass, or mid) using the app. I liked this a lot and tended to jack up the treble and overall amplification to better hear birds.
You can also listen to podcasts or music with them using Bluetooth and your phone. I was only able to get one of them at a time to do this, so I didn’t use the feature. Plus, I was birdwatching…
And, they really do help you hear birds. I did a decent amount of birding in these things and was really impressed with what I could hear. I felt like I could hear really well. Super human in fact. And, the tests I did proved that I was hearing much better when wearing these (more on the testing in a later post). At one point on a birdwalk I put these on and immediately was able to hear a Yellow Warbler that I couldn’t hear at all without them. This is a fun feeling! However, birds sounded a bit weird to me, so I tended to question myself. Perhaps that’s something that would just take getting used to. The other flaw (that ended up being a fatal flaw for me) was that, while I could hear that yellow warbler for example, I couldn’t for the life of me find it. Over and over I would hear a bird, but not be able to find it. The CS50+s have a directionality setting (Restaurant) which makes sounds from the front louder than from the back. This helps. At least you can tell if the bird is in front or behind, but I still couldn’t find the birds. I spent a lot of time trying to get used to this and didn’t.
I found it frustrating to be able to hear birds, but (1) feel a bit questionable regarding my identification and (2) not be able to verify my ID because I couldn’t find the bird. So, you may be better at finding birds without the aural clue or perhaps are happy to just hear the birds better. If so, the $350 per ear CS50+ might work well for you. I decided in the end, that although they are pretty cool and definitely help me to hear birds they weren’t the best for me.
In the next post I'll review Nuheara's IQbuds Boost
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"