Why are headphones sometimes dangerous?

The difference between people who can hear without problems but want to hear something else and people who have impaired hearing is usually clear: some wear headphones, others hearing aids. The separation is visible, headphones have this bracket and cups for the ears. At least that's what headphones looked like for a long time. You knew right away: This person is probably listening to music and wants to be left alone. Hearing aids, on the other hand, are small and placed in the auricle or behind the ear, they are skin-colored or made of transparent materials. You should be invisible. And that's why they sometimes attract a little attention.

The distinction now dissolves here and there. This is mainly because headphone design is changing so much. You could say: The fact that there has been the trend towards extra fat headphones with super bulky headband in recent years (think of the Beats models) was more of a final blow for headphones in their classic form. The trend has long been going in the opposite direction, towards the "earbud", translated as: ear bud or ear button.

These mini headphones, which are placed directly in the ear canal, have been around for a long time, but thanks to Bluetooth technology, they have recently become completely wireless and wireless. In addition to listening to music, they are suitable for all sorts of things - depending on which app you control them with. They can be a telephone receiver, a navigation aid, a secretary, even an environmental filter. Their function changes depending on the situation without this being recognizable from the outside. The ear knobs also have integrated microphones, which means that if you are bothered by baby screams, for example, you can even activate a special anti-baby filter on some models and block out these noises in a targeted manner.

Selective perception thanks to earbuds. The question now is whether these earbuds are already potential hearing aids: The hi-fi company Bose, known for its loudspeakers and headphones, passed the first hurdle with the FDA, the food and drug authority, in the USA one and a half years ago for approval of an announced new earbud hearing aid. It should over the counter be sold, so: without a prescription. The alarm bells are ringing in this country, and for good reason: the fact that in the future one should buy a hearing aid without health insurance and without advice from a hearing aid acoustician and adjust it independently would certainly not be a welcome development. Rather, it could still pose a risk to damaged hearing.

Hearing aids that look like earbuds

In the USA, however, the situation is different, where there is a hearing aid emergency due to the poor health system. It was therefore hailed as a success when President Trump signed the Over-the-counter Hearing Aid Act in 2017 initiated by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. The regulation aims to make it easier for Americans with mild to moderate hearing loss to get affordable hearing aids without a doctor and without health insurance. Overall, the number of people in need in the states is estimated to be at least 35 million. A huge market, then. The hi-fi companies want to conquer it with new, prescription-free earbuds including app-controlled, allegedly clinically tested hearing aid functions.

Whatever you think of such devices from a medical point of view, their design is interesting. For example, the "IQbuds Boost" from Nuheara (to be bought for 280 euros) are not transparent or skin-colored, but black. Visually, they hardly differ from earbuds, which are primarily intended for listening to music, or from the Bluetooth headset that the DHL courier wears in his ear when he is guided through the city by the navigation system. In other words: The aesthetics of these devices fit perfectly into the image of a technically optimized person who has almost become a cyborg in the third millennium, or at least to the digital interface to which all possible aids, known as "anthropofacts", can be docked.

Does a disability still have to be a stigma in such a technologized human image? Not necessarily. It can also be seen as a technological challenge and designed aggressively. Of course, it is still understandable when hearing impaired people want devices that remain as invisible as possible, as was the goal of the traditional hearing aid industry up to now.

Does he phone, does he listen to music - or does he want some peace and quiet?

However, almost no hearing aid works perfectly, and many of the communicatively challenging, stressful situations that hearing impaired people are exposed to on a daily basis arise because their disability is invisible. People react to an invisible restriction with even greater incomprehension. Couldn't it be an advantage to have a button in your ear so that everyone can see it?

That would be an experiment: the more normal it becomes in everyday life to meet people with earbuds, the more natural it would be to first check what is going on with the respective person in order to initiate a conversation. Does she phone, does she work? Does she want to stop acoustically? Or should you speak to her a little louder or more clearly? The presence of earbuds, precisely because their sight is ambiguous, could lead to greater understanding and clarity.