Listening in on Able Planet's new 'personal sound amplifier'

Device comes with preset environmental filters that reduce background noise while amplifying harder-to-hear sounds. CNET's Elizabeth Armstrong Moore goes ears-on.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read

Now that I've spent the past week using Able Planet's newly released behind-the-ear "personal sound amplifier," I've learned that I don't hear as well as I like to think. Everything sounds crisper and perkier with the device.

Of course, that isn't necessarily what I want in every environment. I'll spare you the details, but you don't really need to amplify sound when you're going to the bathroom. Nor should crossing your legs in corduroys or pulling a slice of bread out of the plastic bread bag feel so... tingly. With the rather clumsily named PS1600BTE, sometimes the smallest background noises become so bright that it's downright distracting.

The PS1600BTE is worn behind the ear and available online for $850 a pair. Able Planet

In the intended noisier environments, however, these amplifiers feel like magic, even to someone who likes to think she's got stellar hearing. What's interesting is that it wasn't until I removed the device from each ear that I realized how much duller and more jumbled the sounds in noisy environments were. The PS1600BTE is like icing on a cake I didn't know existed.

The behind-the-ear device is meant to help even people with normal hearing in noisy environments, amplifying hard-to-hear sounds while reducing background noise. Available on its Web site for $850 a pair, Able Planet says it will roll out the amplifiers to U.S. retailers, e-commerce sites, and audiology practices over the coming six months.

It's the latest device in Able Planet's line of personal sounds amplifiers, a term that refers to what are essentially hearing aids for people who are experiencing hearing impairment but not actual hearing loss.

Able Planet is an audio tech company perhaps best known for its noise cancellation headphones. I first stumbled upon the company at CES 2012, when it was showing off its prototype of the in-ear precursor to the PS1600BTE. The concept was intriguing, but as someone without any hearing issues, I shrugged it aside.

One of the device's features is that it comes with preset environmental filters that are easy to adjust up or down right at the top of the device as it sits behind the ear. I did run into issues, however, because I have a lot of thick hair and I wear glasses, and any time I reached back to fiddle with the settings my fingers, strands of hair, and glasses rubbed ever so slightly against the device and the sound was annoyingly amplified.

Another issue: Able Planet describes the device, which is held in place by a tiny, clear over-the-ear sound tube, as "highly invisible." I disagree, and so apparently did my 9-month-old baby who, when I picked her up from a nap wearing them for the first time, immediately stared at my ear and tried to grab the tubing.

All that said, the PS1600BTE does what it's intended to do. Even though I have no known hearing impairments, I can certainly imagine putting these on regularly when I go to bars, rock shows, and soccer matches where I sometimes struggle conversing with the person right in front of me.

"Hearing abilities are like fingerprints and everyone is unique," Able Planet CEO Kevin Semcken noted in the company's press release last week. "Struggling to hear in noisy places, like on an airplane, in a crowded restaurant, or at your local pub is common to people with all levels of hearing.... Having difficulty hearing in certain situations does not mean you need to incur the expense of a hearing aid. When hearing becomes a challenge, simply put in your Personal Sound."

The PS1600BTE is now available through the company's Web site for $474.50 for one or $850 for a pair.

Able Planet