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…
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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"