It wasn’t all that long ago when the only way to buy “real” hearing aids was with a prescription from an audiologist, but that changed following the passage of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act in 2017. Consumers with mild to moderate hearing impairment can now buy certain types of hearing aids online or over-the-counter (OTC) without a prescription in the US. In our coverage of hearables of many types, we’ve tried and written about OTC hearing aids from Nuheara, Olive Union, and Wear and Hear, as well as prescription-only hearing aids from Phonak and Widex. We had a chance recently to try out a pair of a new type of OTC hearing aids from Audien, the Audien Atom Pro. The Atom Pro hearing aids fit nearly completely inside the ear canal. Unless someone looks directly into your ear, they probably won’t see the aid or even just the tiny removal wire.

The Atom Pro is certainly affordable at $249 per pair. (Some high-end stereo earbuds cost nearly that much.) The Atom Pro aids are interchangeable; there’s no left or right, and you can use each in either ear. The box includes the two hearing aids, a portable charging case that Audien says can hold up to four days worth of charging, an AC wall charger with a USB-C charging cable, an assortment of ear bud domes in graduated sizes, a volume adjusting tool and cleaning brush, and four wax guard replacement tools. Audien suggests replacing the earbud domes and wax guards once a week (depending on the amount of wax buildup you observe). An Audien Accessory Pack with 12 replacement domes and 8 wax guards costs $12 for a one-time purchase or $9 with a monthly subscription.

One of the major characteristics that differentiates OTC and prescription hearing aids — aside from the vast cost differentials — is the hearing testing and hearing aid adjustment. When you purchase a hearing aid by prescription, an audiologist tests your hearing and will adjust the device settings. With OTC hearing devices from many companies, you just run an online tone recognition test. In some cases, the OTC devices self-adjust various settings based on your hearing profile. Many also let you configure various settings starting with audio equalizer-like settings for relative volume for different frequency ranges. Other settings with some OTC hearing devices include noise cancellation, directional focus, background sound de-emphasis with voice amplification, and listening profiles for different settings such as noisy restaurant, home, driving, and walking on the street. The Atom Pro is different from most other OTC hearing devices that we’ve tried; there’s no testing and the only adjustment is via a small volume screw on the outer surface of the Atom Pro.

Audien recommends users start by wearing the Atom Pro for just a few hours a day, gradually increasing wear time while the brain gets used to the amplified sound. In my limited experience I found the Atom Pro hearing aids were reasonably comfortable to wear. There was less sound differentiation than I’ve experienced with professionally tuned hearing aids or with more advanced (hence more expensive) OTC hearing aids, However, the Atom Pro amplifies sound in a manner that sounded crisp and clear to me and seemed to favor voice more than just broad range amplification.

It’s certainly a change to have manufacturers able to call hearing devices “hearing aids” rather than the previously common (and safer-at-the-time) “hearing assistance devices.” Only four years have passed since the OTC Act; I’m personally and professionally excited about progress made in this short time and about the developments still to come.