Personal Sound Amplifier. Reading glasses for the ears?

The idea of selling hearing aids as a mass consumer item without advice from a specialist or appropriate fitting has been around for a long time. The retail brand Claratone has launched a large-scale trial in Switzerland with its so-called Personal Sound Amplifier to be sold at local post offices. In other countries it will soon go on sale too.

People who have been working in the hearing-aid sector for a long time will recall a number of these offers. There have been almost 20 attempts in the last 30 years to establish "instant fit" devices on the market. These offers came mostly from smaller companies that sold their sound amplifier devices at an accessible price. Only Johnson & Johnson attracted considerable attention with their product “Songbird” in 2003. But despite immense marketing campaigns, the company’s offer was not a success, like all the others. And yet history continues to repeat itself.

According to Claratone, the Personal Sound Amplifier (PSA) is a "non-medical sound amplifier" and should be classified as a consumer electronics product. Unlike conventional hearing aid systems, the PSA can be "used straight away with no advice needed”. However, Claratone’s amplifier is significantly more expensive than the cheaper products mentioned earlier. The low-priced PSA by Claratone costs CHF 349 in Switzerland (around € 280), and the premium device CHF 699 (€ 570). At these amounts, price is clearly not an argument for winning over new customers. Also, since initial development of the market, basic hearing aids have been sold in Switzerland for around CHF 400 (€ 325), including quick-fit by a hearing aid specialist.

A successful product from the USA

In an interview for the Swiss Handelszeitung on August 6, 2013, Christoph Umbricht, CEO at Claratone explains that PSAs are successfully sold off the shelf in the United States: “We haven’t invented anything new – we’re just bringing a popular bestseller from the US to Switzerland”. Umbricht is also Delegate of the Board of Directors and a shareholder at Claratone and has experience in the hearing industry. From 2008 to 2012, he worked for Sonova Holding as Director of Development and was in charge of the development of a PSA product. He was also responsible for the development and commercial launch of the headset Audéo PFE. However, Sonova Holding did not place the PSA product on the market. Clearly Christoph Umbricht has not abandoned the idea and with Claratone now offers sound amplifiers in some 1,700 Swiss post offices.

The Swiss Federal Post Offices have about 540,000 customers each day. This is how the devices could attract greater public attention. “We want people to talk about our product so that the whole issue becomes a mainstream topic”, Christoph Umbricht adds.

The PSA products have three preset programs for "situational use covering all needs", Umbricht explains. They are intended “for people between 50 and 70 years of age who have problems communicating in certain situations, especially in a noisy environment”. In contrast to hearing aids, Claratone’s PSA must not undergo “lengthy adjustment”. Therefore, the device cannot replace professionally adjusted hearing aids,” he says. "Ideally, they should prepare customers for a true hearing aid."

Opposition from patient association Pro Audito

In an ideal scenario... But what if the opposite happens? “It is quite likely that many people who buy the PSA will not be satisfied with it”, says Christoph Schönenberger, Managing Director of Akustika, the Swiss Association of Hearing Aid Specialists. These unsatisfied customers may then believe that they have tried hearing aids, but got no benefit from them, and may not want to try again. "I see this as the biggest danger", he explains. He is also concerned about the fact that the Swiss press somewhat equates personal sound amplifiers with hearing aids.

“Some customers are not able to distinguish between the two", he explains. "In my view, the customers are actually being cheated. Their unawareness is exploited and they pay a higher price for an amplifier off the shelf than they would for a professionally adjusted hearing aid from a specialized vendor."

This is why Christoph Schönenberger welcomes the fact that Pro Audito, the Swiss Association for the Hearing Impaired, is critical of sound amplifiers. For Georg Simmen, the President of Pro Audito, some expert advice is definitely needed in this market segment. He criticizes the fact that the Postal Service, which is a state-owned company in Switzerland, is now participating in the healthcare market. That is why Pro Audito wants to lodge an official appeal with the Federal Government against these activities of the Postal Service. Doctors are on the same wavelength. They consider that it is important that patients be properly examined before getting a sound amplifier.

Reading glasses for the ears?

Christoph Umbricht compares his business with the sale of reading glasses. One can buy them today at any large service station. “Customers are happy with the idea of wearing glasses and when they need more, they consult an optometrist”, explains Umbricht, former employee of Sonova. So if patients with hearing loss notice that they need “greater amplification”, they would be open to “medical hearing aids”. He considers that PSAs are simply "reading glasses for the ears".

If it were up to Claratone, they would recommend PSAs for people who need a light acoustic reinforcement. The company has set ambitious goals. “In five years we would like to be number 1 in selling non-medical sound enhancers”, according to Arnold Hahn, Director of Claratone’s Swiss business, cited in the Neue Züricher Zeitung. Through the deal with the Swiss Postal Service, the company now has its first major distributor, and it does not plan to stop there. According to the Neue Züricher Zeitung, trial sales are currently underway at consumer electronics stores, pharmacies and opticians. In addition, there is a website for ordering online. Even a general practitioner in the canton of Graubünden can be found on the Claratone website as a point of sale.

It is not yet clear how interested target customers will be in these Claratone products. The information video for RPSA10 on YouTube had a double-digit range of views as of mid-August. So far, it does not appear very likely that the PSA will meet with market success.

Claratone is part of RS Audio AG, a Swiss corporation founded in 2011, with its head office in Meilen on Lake Zurich. The company operates not only in Switzerland. In Spain, for example, PSAs are on sale in an optician chain and a pharmacy chain. In England, the devices are sold in individual pharmacies and opticians. Germany, Austria, Scandinavian countries, Italy and France should follow the Swiss example in the near future.

Claratone’s products come from different companies. These include US provider Focus Ear, RCA Symphonix, Acoustic Research, as well as Soundà, which belongs to RS Audio AG. All four providers expressly state on their websites that their PSAs should not be equated with hearing aids. According to the providers, PSA products are fitted with “ultra-modern digital technologies”. Customers can buy the devices either as behind-the-ear (BTE) PSAs or in-the-ear (ITE) products. Most of the BTE devices look like classic BTE hearing aids.

RIGHT TO REPLY

After publication of the above article on the Audiology World News site, Claratone wishes to add the following statement, which we are happy to publish.

“The Swiss company Claratone sells non-medical Personal Sound Amplifiers in selected European countries. The devices are intended for those who feel they need support in certain listening environment, but who are not yet ready nor willing to acquire a hearing aid. Claratone introduces solely bestseller products that have a proven track record from very satisfied customers, worldwide. As with any launch of a new product category, you will meet opponents but also advocates. Those being open minded and willing to embrace new trends can ultimately make their own businesses grow. It is undisputable that people who start experiencing problems understanding and communicating in busy listening environments will seek a quick solution of impeccable quality. However, they are emotionally not ready then to undergo the procedure of a hearing aid fitting. This is where the high-tech PSAPs from Claratone come in, offering a “plug&play” solution that will instantly convince the user of the benefits of a hearing device. The feedback Claratone is receiving from Swiss customers, who are known to be picky about quality, is promising: people who bought a Personal Sound Amplifier applaud the easy handling and instant gratification.

In Switzerland, Claratone is now selling its products online and via a wide range of credible partners such as the Swiss Post, Migros, all Swiss pharmacies as well as selected optical shops. Since 2009, the American Food and Drugs Administration has officially distinguished between medical and non-medical hearing devices, allowing both product categories to coexist next to each other. The success of PSAPs in the US shows that there is indeed a market for this product category and that PSAPs ultimately have the potential to grow the entire hearing care market.”

Updated: 19 December 2013

Dennis Kraus, Audio Infos Germany


Translation: J.F.L.M.

Photos: Switzerland's Post Service