There’s a lot of confusion with regards to the difference between these two categories of devices, and that confusion is increased by the number of advertisements floating around for inexpensive personal sound amplifiers (PSAs), compared with how relatively few you see for hearing aids. The reason you don’t see lots of ads for hearing aids is because they are medical devices, supervised by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and therefore not available for purchase without an individual prescription from a properly licensed doctor, audiologist or hearing specialist. Hearing aids are meant to help people with real clinical hearing problems; they amplify sounds, but hearing aids also have additional controls and processors that make them programmable to meet each person’s hearing needs.

PSAs also boost the volume of the sounds you hear, but they’re intended to do this for individuals with normal hearing. PSAs are occasionally created to look like hearing aids, but they are not. The only purpose for a PSA is to make sounds louder. PSAs cannot adjust to individual requirements, selectively amplify specific frequencies or suppress background noise the way that hearing aids do.

The modest price of personal sound amplifiers (under $100, in contrast to thousands of dollars for the top hearing aids) may make them sound appealing to those on a tight budget. This is the key reason why the Food & Drug Administration has published warnings about personal sound amplifiers and has created information campaigns and websites to educate the general public about the differences between these sorts of products. Simply put, personal sound amplifiers are only for people with normal hearing. For anyone who is having problems hearing in situations where other people are not having problems, you should see an audiologist for a hearing exam. If you have genuine hearing losses, using a personal sound amplifier can delay treatment which could improve your hearing, and in some situations could even damage your hearing further (for instance, by helping you to turn the volume up excessively).

The Food & Drug Administration therefore advises that you see your hearing specialist or audiologist before you make any decision about purchasing any kind of product to improve your hearing ability. Some hearing problems (such as a blockage of the ear canal due to a buildup of ear wax) can be reversed in one office visit. Hearing loss attributable to permanent inner ear damage can be improved with meticulously fit and programmed hearing aids. Attempting to dismiss the problem by choosing a product that only boosts volume levels can cause you to postpone appropriate treatment that might possibly alleviate the need for either hearing aids or personal sound amplifiers.

If, however, your hearing specialist finds no evidence of significant hearing loss, and you are still having difficulty hearing weaker sounds, then you can consider purchasing a PSA. When looking for one, study the PSA’s technical specs, and only consider those that satisfactorily amplify sounds in the frequency range of human conversation (between 1000 to 2000 Hz). Only consider models with a volume control and built-in limits that do not permit the volume levels to go beyond 135 decibels. A high quality PSA has its purposes, and can increase the ability of people with normal hearing to hear faint or distant sounds. The risk in PSAs is mixing them up with hearing aids – which they aren’t. If you think you may have hearing loss, schedule an appointment to have your hearingprofessionally tested.