There is a lot of confusion about the difference between these two categories of devices, and that confusion is increased by how many ads floating around for low cost personal sound amplifiers (PSAs), compared with how few you see for hearing aids. One reason you don’t see lots of ads for hearing aids is because they are medical devices, supervised by the Food & Drug Administration, and therefore not available for purchase without an individual prescription from a licensed doctor, audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. Hearing aids are designed to help individuals with reduced hearing; they have controls and sophisticated microprocessors that can be programmed to match individual hearing losses.
Conversely, PSAs were created for people with normal hearing. A personal sound amplifier raises the volume of sounds. Some PSAs appear very much like hearing aids, but they aren’t; the only thing that they do is raise the volume of sounds. Personal sound amplifiers are not able to correct the subtle sorts of difficulties that hearing-impaired people have.
The price of personal sound amplifiers (under $100, in contrast to thousands of dollars for hearing aids) can make them seem appealing to those on a tight budget. The enormous difference in cost is a primary reason the Food & Drug Administration has gotten involved developing websites and information campaigns to make sure that consumers understand the difference. If you are having trouble hearing, do not purchase a personal sound amplifier without having your hearing checked by a qualified audiologist or hearing specialist. Using a personal sound amplifier when you really need a hearing aid has many disadvantages. First it can cause you to postpone assessment and management of your hearing condition. Second, it might damage your hearing further if the personal sound amplifier is used at elevated volumes.
Before you purchase any device to improve your hearing, see a hearing instrument specialist or audiologist. That is the FDA advice to ensure that you get the best care. Specific cases of hearing loss, for example those due to excessive ear wax, can be dealt with in one appointment. Other hearing impairments are more significant, but can also be reversed with correctly prescribed and programmed good quality hearing aids. Trying to ignore the underlying problem by buying a device that only boosts sound levels can cause you to postpone treatment that might possibly lessen the need for either hearing aids or PSAs.
After a hearing evaluation, if your hearing is determined to be normal, you may select a PSA if you still have trouble with certain sounds. If you do this, be certain to only consider PSAs whose specs say that they reliably amplify sounds between 1000-2000 Hz, which is the frequency range of typical human conversation. Get a model with volume controls that do not allow it to go beyond 135 decibels. That’s already extremely over the top! A high quality PSA has its uses, and can improve the ability of individuals with normal hearing to hear weak or faraway sounds. It should just not be mistaken for more precise and more sophisticated hearing aids, or be perceived as a substitute for them by individuals who have experienced real hearing loss.