Consumer Reports: Hearing aid alternative

An estimated 360 million people around the world suffer from hearing loss, yet relatively few people seek treatment.

Prescription hearing aids can cost thousands and are rarely covered by insurance. If you've been tempted to try one of those cheaper sound amplifiers you find online or in drug stores, be aware: Consumer Reports warns some may do more harm than good.

Having trouble following conversations in a noisy restaurant? Straining to hear a co-worker in the cafeteria? Experts at Consumer Reports looked at some affordable, over-the-counter alternatives to expensive prescription hearing aids, called sound amplifiers.

Most are a fraction of the price of prescription hearing aids, which can cost thousands. Some amplifiers even cost less than $50. But Consumer Reports says be careful with these penny-saver models. The really cheap ones aren't that effective at helping people with hearing loss, and, more importantly, they could potentially damage people's hearing further by over-amplifying loud sounds - like a siren, for instance.

Two other, pricier, amplifiers -- the $350 Sound World Solutions CS50 Plus and the $214 Etymotic Bean -- did a little bit better, but it's complicated. When tested in a lab by a professional hearing aid researcher, both showed promise for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, while also protecting against over-amplification.

Plus, panelists who tried them said they were comfortable and easy to use. But in real-life situations, reactions were mixed. Which means, if you do decide to try an amplifier, be sure to check the return policy before you buy.

When it comes to these over-the-counter solutions, Consumer Reports says some amplifiers may be worth a try as a less expensive alternative to prescription hearing aids, but the best thing to do is see a hearing specialist first, to see if these devices are right for your needs.

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