There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between these two products, and that confusion is increased by the number of advertisements floating around for inexpensive personal sound amplifiers (PSAs), compared with how relatively few you see for hearing aids. However, you won’t see nearly as many hearing aid promotions on television or in magazines because they are medical devices. As medical devices hearing aids are regulated by the FDA and can only be obtained from a licensed audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. Hearing aids are intended to help people with genuine medical hearing problems; they amplify sounds, but hearing aids also have extra controls and filters which make them programmable to satisfy each user’s hearing requirements.

PSAs, on the other hand, were designed to increase the volume of sounds for people who have normal hearing. PSAs are sometimes created to resemble hearing aids, but they are not. The only purpose for a PSA is to make things louder. They are not designed to help with the challenges that a hearing-impaired individual may have.

If you are on a tight budget, PSAs may appear to be a more reasonably-priced alternative to hearing aids (typically $100 or less, versus thousands of dollars for hearing aids). For this reason the Food & Drug Administration cautions that the two different kinds of products shouldn’t be mixed up. Their guidance is straightforward: if you are having difficulty hearing sounds at what other people consider normal volumes, have your hearing checked by a qualified audiologist before you think about purchasing a personal sound amplifier. Relying on a personal sound amplifier instead of getting your hearing examined can postpone essential treatment that might bring back your hearing, and in some cases (setting the volume too high) may even cause further damage to your hearing.

The FDA thus suggests that you see your hearing specialist before you make any decision about buying any kind of device to assist your hearing ability. Some cases of hearing loss, for example those attributable to accumulated ear wax, can be dealt with in one office visit. Other hearing problems are more significant, but can also be corrected with correctly-prescribed and correctly-programmed quality hearing aids. A hearing specialist or audiologist will be able to figure out the underlying cause of your problem. In certain scenarios you won’t need a hearing aid or a PSA.

If, however, your audiologist finds no evidence of significant hearing loss, and you are still having difficulty hearing faint sounds, then you can think about buying a personal sound amplifier. If you do this, be certain to only consider PSAs whose technical specs say that they reliably amplify sounds between 1000 to 2000 Hz, which is the range of normal human conversation. Also, don’t consider any PSAs that do not include volume controls and electronically-enforced decibel limits that do not permit their levels to surpass 135 decibels. A quality PSA has its uses, and can improve the ability of those with normal hearing to hear weak or faraway sounds. The danger in PSAs is mixing them up with hearing aids – which they are not. If you suspect hearing loss, schedule an appointment to have your hearingprofessionally tested.