Like many men in their upper 40s, I’ve lost a bit of my hearing, mostly in the upper register. I can still function in my daily life just fine. I don’t need hearing aids to get by. I’ve actually honed the skill of being oblivious to much of what is going on around me. Just ask my wife.
But, I’m a birder. I’ve been working for most of my life to learn to identify birds by sound. I use this skill in my job as professor of Biology at Marian University. I also use this skill in my summer job as a Park Ranger in Glacier National Park. So, it really has pained me to hang out with people over the past few years who can hear better than I can. I noticed especially last year as I was leading my weekly bird walk around swiftcurrent lake in Glacier. For two weeks I had a crack 17 year old birder with me who’s hearing was magical. He could hear things singing a quarter mile before I would end up hearing them. I could eventually hear them, but only when we got close. I want to hear like a 17 year old!
So, I started researching hearing devices for birders. Seems like someone has solved this problem, right? Or, better yet, has figured out a way to make my hearing even better than a 17 year old’s! Why not? With my Swarovskis I can see better than any 17 yo with their bare eyes. They augment my natural sight hugely. Why not wear a hearing device that augments my natural hearing?
I knew that actual hearing aids prescribed by a doctor were out of my price range. So, I looked into a category of hearing augmentation devices called personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPS). These are not quite hearing aids, are marketed to those with mild hearing loss like me, and tend to be much less expensive. Unfortunately, in the boilerplate language that EVERY PSAP company uses, “bird watching” is mentioned. So, when searching for people who have used these things for birding you come across that same phrase in every write-up, but almost no actual reports from birders. There is also an enormous range of PSAP options from $30 each to $1200 each with little useful data for distinguishing among them.
I really only found one device that was marketed specifically to birders. This device, Songfinder, lowers high pitches so that they can be heard. I don’t think my hearing is that bad in the upper register yet to necessitate these. And, they are being discontinued.
I did find a few articles in the medical audiology literature where researchers have tested several PSAPs. They are mostly being tested for their ability to help individuals with mild hearing loss distinguish speech. And, that often involves cutting out background noise – like bird sounds? A few PSAPs were tested across multiple articles and came out as being “not crap.” I also tried to find literature on what pitches these PSAPS could reproduce, thinking that the higher they could deal with, the better for birding.
I ended up with a list of five that I thought might be worth trying. That list got shortened to three because Soundhawk appears to be out of business. And, the Bose Hearphones involve something you wear around your neck. As I got to thinking about it, I wondered if that would be a problem with binocular straps, backpacks, and weird NPS collars. So, in the end I decided to try 1. Nuheara IQbuds Boost, 2. Sound World Solutions CS50+, and 3. The Etymotic Bean quiet sound amplifier.
My plan is to review each, do some tests, then put it all together and do a Big Day with the one I like the best.
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"