The growth of smartphones, and accelerating adoption of noise-cancelling in-ear headphones, has paradoxically created both a hearing-loss epidemic and a more cost-effective solution to it.
Hearing aids in general are a growth market, and that's likely to accelerate. Hearing problems increase with age, and with repeated exposure to loud sounds. Right now, almost 30 million Americans have bad enough hearing to be classified as hearing-aid-eligible. And as the average age rises—the number of Americans over 65 will increase 31% from 2020 to 2030—the number of people with hearing issues will grow. On top of this, growing headphone usage is bringing hearing problems to a younger demographic, too.
Since more people listen to headphones and adjust their volume, it's easy for someone not to notice how much their hearing has deteriorated over time. This can be a self-fulfilling problem, as worse hearing leads to higher volumes and more hearing damage. Newer headphones are louder, and have speakers closer to the eardrum than older music players like the Walkman did, so they're more capable of causing harm.
AirPods already have some hearing aid-like functionality, like the ability to amplify external sound rather than cancelling it out. And in 2020, AirPods sold over 100 million units, meaning that if they were an independent company, they’d be the 32nd largest in the US.
To date, prescriptions have limited the industry's growth. Many of the elderly live in rural areas, and are less likely to be within driving distance of one of the country's 18,000 audiologists.There's already significant online demand for hearing tests, with hearing test videos on YouTube racking up tens of millions of views.
Some products are sold as “hearing amplifiers,” rather than hearing aids, in order to get around prescription limitations. With the high fixed cost of selling regulated medical devices, the industry has consolidated, to the point that only four companies control almost 90% of hearing aid sales. A little-noticed provision of this month's executive order on competition called for hearing aids to be made available over-the-counter instead of being prescription-only products. With a more open market, rechargeable hearing aids and other new variants will be able to achieve wider distribution and higher sales.