Last year, Bose released its SoundControl Hearing Aids ($850), the first FDA-cleared direct-to-consumer "self-fitting" hearing aids that you can fit and tune yourself without the help from an audiologist. Now it has some company with the arrival of Jabra's $800 Enhance Plus buds, which come in two colors -- gold and dark gray -- and according to Jabra, are 40% smaller than its Elite 7 Pro earbuds.
- Buds are small and they fit comfortably and securely
- Easy to set up
- Work as well as most hearing aids
- Sound decent for music listening and perform well as a headset for making calls (except in noisy places)
- IP52 splash-proof
- Only for iPhone users
- Battery life isn't as good as typical hearing aids
- Noise reduction could be better during calls
While you have to buy Jabra's Enhance Plus buds at a certified Jabra Enhance Center and they're only compatible with Apple's iPhones, they're easy to fit and tune on your own based on my hands-on experience with them (Jabra sent a review sample directly to me). The big difference between the Enhance Plus and the Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids is that the Jabras are more akin to standard noise-isolating earbuds, just smaller and more discreet. They may be geared toward augmenting your hearing, but you can also use them to listen to music and make calls -- two things Bose's hearing aids can't do -- and their compact design gives you an idea of what consumer earbuds might end up looking like in the not-so-distant future.
Jabra's parent company, GN, has a background in hearing aids and owns hearing-aid companies like ReSound and Beltone. Like some other "hearing-enhancement" earbuds, the Enhance Plus are engineered to "help bridge the average 6-year gap between first noticing some hearing loss, and actually seeking help," so they're more geared toward people with slight to moderate hearing loss. And while they're rated for 10 hours of battery life, with the charging case providing an additional two full charges, they seem designed more for situational use and not necessarily all-day wear, though I did find them comfortable to wear over long periods.
The only issue with their more traditional noise-isolating design is you're likely end up with a silicon ear tip pushed up into your ear canal, which could create an occluded feeling. GN competitor Signia has its Active X hearings aids that have a similar design but I found the Enhance Buds Plus bud more comfortable. In contrast, the Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids feature the "open" tube design of a typical hearing aid (a tiny non-intrusive sound tube is pointed into your ear canal).
The Jabras feature Bluetooth 5.2 and are IP52 splash-proof so you can use them for running and working out, and -- like with the Bose hearing aids -- you don't pair these buds to your iPhone like Bluetooth earbuds. You go into the Accessibility menu on your iOS device and connect them via the Hearing Devices submenu. Initially, I had a little trouble connecting them because I already had the Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids linked to my iPhone 13 Pro and you can't have two sets of made for iPhone, or MFI, hearing aids connected at the same time. Once I figured that out, things went smoothly.
You set up a hearing profile to personalize your sound by taking a hearing test in the companion Enhance app. It's a straightforward process, but you have to do it in a quiet place so you can hear the test tones to the best of your ears' abilities.
Once that's all set up, you can start playing around with the two sound filtering modes -- Surround or Focus -- or opt for an adaptive mode that adjusts the sound according to your environment. The Surround Mode is designed for general sound augmentation while the Focus Mode is for those times when, say, you want to have a conversation in a noisy restaurant with someone sitting across from you at your table. You can also adjust the volume levels and select a default preferred speech filter ("clear," "normal" or "full"). I went with the clear speech filter that has bit more treble (highs) and generally stuck with a volume level of only 2 or 3. I also used them to watch TV with the volume (on the TV) lower than I'd normally have it. Often folks who have hearing loss have to jack up the volume while watching TV, sometimes irritating others in their household.
The Enhance Plus buds work as advertised and like any hearing aid, they take some getting used to. Your voice in your own head sounds much louder than it normally would and as I type this, I can distinctly hear every keystroke on the keyboard as I type. You may have to dial things back a little initially if you're new to hearing aids. Though I don't require hearing aids yet, we all tend to have some hearing loss as we age, particularly in the higher frequencies. I have some experience testing traditional hearing aids and have worked with audiologists in the past to adjust the sound to more subtle levels so my brain can deal with hearing everything louder and more clearly.
Bose touts how simple it is to adjust the sound of its hearings aids with just two digital dials in its app. I do like that system, but Jabra's seems as user-friendly in its own way.
Better than expected for music listening
Lots of traditional hearing aids offer the ability to stream audio and make voice calls with your phone. The problem is most of them sound like a transistor radio (for those who remember what those are) with flat sound that's usually quite bass shy. Hearing aids are fine for listening to podcasts and audiobooks, but the music listening experience tends to be lacking, sometimes severely.
The Jabra Enhance Plus still can't quite compete from a sound quality standpoint with what Jabra offers with even its entry-level Elite 3 earbuds ($80), but they offer significantly fuller and richer sound than the vast majority of traditional hearing aids. They're still lacking in the bass department and they distort a little, but at least there's some bass and they actually sound quite decent with less demanding acoustical material.
Hearing amplifying earbuds like Nuheara's IQBuds2 Max (around $400), sound better for music listening, but they're full-size buds with some sound amplification features that aren't considered medical-grade hearing aids. I'd venture to call the Enhance Plus the best-sounding hearing aids I've encountered for streaming audio. They sound better than Signia's Active X earbuds for music listening.
They're also good for making calls, though they don't filter out background noise as well as they should. Callers said they could hear my voice clearly, but when I was out in the streets of New York, they complained about a lot of background noise. Jabra's PR team said I could change the settings to Focus for calls, but that didn't work -- I remained literally locked into Surround mode and couldn't figure out how to change that. In less noisy environments, callers said I sounded great.
The Enhance Plus are advanced hearing aids masquerading as super compact earbuds (they're small enough that you can comfortably wear them while resting the side of your head on a pillow, though they may fall out of your ears if you fall asleep with them on). The idea behind them and bud-shaped hearing aids like Signia's Active X is that they don't carry the same perceived stigma as traditional hearing aids and may encourage people to use a hearing aid without feeling embarrassed to do so.
Part of me wishes that they also featured active noise canceling and even slightly better sound for music listening. But needless to say, there are extreme challenges to making small earbuds that perform well with a reasonable amount of battery life. And I do appreciate that unlike the Bose SoundControl Hearing Aids, they're more than a one-trick pony and offer both audio streaming and voice calling.
The bottom line is they're definitely worth checking out if you're used to wearing true-wireless earbuds like the AirPods but are on the fence about getting hearing aids. Their price may seem high for in-ear headphones, but currently $800 is actually quite reasonable for hearing aids. That will hopefully change as more of these types of direct-to-consumer "self-fitting" hearing aids hit the market in the months and years to come.