The scoop: BEAN Quiet Sound Amplifier, by Etymotic Research, about $480 (for one; $860 for two)
What is it? These small in-ear devices are called "personal sound amplifiers", which sounds like a fancy word for "hearing aid". The BEAN Quiet Sound Amplifiers are aimed to be used occasionally, similar to how reading glasses are used for eyesight. In cases where you need to enhance softer speech, like in a church, classroom, lecture hall or a library, the BEAN units can help boost the softer sounds while also protecting your ears from higher volume levels.
The BEAN devices are powered by hearing-aid batteries that are easy to install, and provide automatic amplification (there's no on/off switch).There is a switch that lets you change between normal amplification (15-dB mild amplification and treble boost for soft sounds, with no loud-sound amplification) and high amplification (an addition 8-dB boost, with mild amplification for loud sounds). The units come with multiple ear-tip sizes and styles - I preferred wearing the foam ear tips (similar to earplugs) for the most comfort.
Why it's cool: The BEANs definitely amplify sounds around you when you're wearing them - softer sounds that would go unnoticed during a regular day suddenly become boosted. For example, I immediately noticed the clicking of my mechanical keyboard, the rustling of my shirt and even a small loose piece of plastic inside my desktop mouse after wearing these. When the air-conditioner/heater unit in my office turned on, it became even louder and more noticeable than before. For people who need a small boost in hearing the TV, a theater performance or other quiet sounds, these definitely will help.
Some caveats: You won't be able to hide the fact you're wearing the BEANs - they don't blend in with the rest of your ear, so if you're trying to mask your advancing age, these won't help. In fact, I felt a little bit like Lobot from "The Empire Strikes Back" (although they're not nearly as big as his ear units) or Uhura from the original Star Trek - wearing the small earpiece. From a geek/nerd perspective, this could be a cool thing, but for others they may feel a bit self-conscious wearing something like these inside their ears.
What would make this more appealing to a younger audience would be a design that combined the sound amplification features with a design they're more familiar with - say a pair of headphones/earbuds or even a Bluetooth headset. Even if those functions weren't possible, others would just think that you're listening to music or waiting to make a phone call. Etymotic already makes a bunch of earphones and headsets that provide safer listening levels for users - if they could combine those designs with the BEAN functions, they could appeal to people who don't want to yet admit needing a hearing aid.
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