There is a lot of misinformation about the difference between these two categories of devices, and that confusion is elevated by the number of ads that you see for inexpensive personal sound amplifiers (PSAs), compared with how few you see for hearing aids. One reason you don’t see as many ads for hearing aids is because they are medical devices, monitored by the Food & Drug Administration, and therefore not available for sale without an individual prescription from a licensed doctor, hearing specialist or audiologist. Hearing aids are intended to help individuals with diminished but still functional hearing; they have settings and sophisticated electronics that can be programmed to match specific hearing difficulties.
Personal sound amplifiers, on the other hand, were designed to increase the volume of surrounding sounds for individuals who have normal hearing. Some PSAs look a little like hearing aids, simply because they are smallish and can be worn on the body, but all they do is increase sound. Personal sound amplifiers cannot adapt to individual needs, selectively boost selected frequencies or filter background noise the way that hearing aids do.
At $100 or less, PSAs are appealing to people on a budget, considering the fact that the best hearing aids run over a $1000 dollars. The enormous variation in cost is one good reason the Food & Drug Administration is now involved creating information campaigns and websites to ensure that consumers understand the difference. In case you are having trouble hearing, do not buy a personal sound amplifier without having your hearing tested by a professional audiologist. If you have real hearing losses, using a PSA can delay treatment that might improve your hearing, and in some cases could even damage your hearing even more (for example, by allowing you to turn the volume up too high).
Before buying any product to improve your hearing, see a hearing specialist. This is the FDA advice to make sure you get the appropriate care. Some hearing problems, such as blockage of the ear canal from impacted ear wax, can be cleared up and your hearing recovered in one office visit. Other sorts of hearing impairment may be more serious or even irreversible, but they can also be effectively cared for using quality hearing aids that have been correctly prescribed and correctly adjusted. Ignoring the underlying problem by using a product that does nothing but increase volume levels may cause you to delay treatment that might restore your hearing, and thus negate the need for either PSAs or hearing aids.
That said, if your hearing instrument specialist or audiologist finds no signs of serious hearing loss, but you are still having some difficulty hearing, you can consider an inexpensive PSA to help you hear. If you choose to get a personal sound amplifier, you should read the specifications carefully and try to find one which states it amplifies in the frequency range of human conversation. That range is 1000 to 2000 Hz. Only consider units with a volume control and built-in limits that do not permit the sound levels to exceed 135 decibels. A good quality PSA can make weak sounds easier to hear for people with normal hearing, and consequently have a legitimate role. It just shouldn’t be mistaken for more sophisticated and more precise hearing aids, or be viewed as an alternative to them by individuals who have experienced real hearing loss.