Breaking through the noise


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Bustling restaurants provide the ultimate real-world hearing challenge. As diners swap stories, their voices compete with the chatter of other tables, the clatter of dishes, and a smattering of background music that creeps into the foreground. It’s the perfect recipe to overwhelm someone with hidden hearing loss—a poorly understood condition that makes communicating in noisy environments a frustrating ordeal.

A new wave of consumer wearable technologies aims to help people with hidden or mild to moderate high-frequency hearing loss who are not good candidates for traditional hearing aids. For example, Sennheiser’s Conversation Clear Plus looks like and can act just like a regular pair of sleek true wireless earbuds that handle calls and stream content, complete with multiple sizes of eartips and ear fin stabilizers as you’d find with any standard consumer electronics. However, this personal sound amplification product also offers speech enhancement, automatic scene detection, and active noise cancellation technology so wearers can fully participate in everyday conversations without missing a beat.


“There’s a gap we try to fill: reaching people who have an issue but there’s not really a solution for it yet. They may not be ready for hearing aids due to stigma or just not feeling that it’s for them yet,” said Laura Jagoda, a psychologist specializing in speech perception and Conversation Clear Plus product manager.

Unlike traditional hearing loss where sounds become inaudible, hidden hearing loss makes distinguishing speech from background noise difficult. The condition is hard to diagnose, and many people with hidden hearing loss may pass standard hearing tests—myself included, as I’ll soon explain. More often than not, sufferers easily understand conversations in one-on-one or quiet settings, so they ignore common signs of hearing loss like asking people to repeat themselves. 

Traditional, always-on hearing aids amplify, but people with hidden hearing loss need clarity more than capacity, and only at certain times. The Conversation Clear Plus hearables combine technology and techniques from the long histories of Sennheiser’s personal audio products—such as the low-profile IE 900 audiophile in-ear monitors and connectivity-rich MOMENTUM True Wireless 4 earbuds—and parent company Sonova’s hearing aid development. 

Multiple beamforming microphones fill each Conversation Clear Plus earbud, allowing them to focus on what’s in front of the wearer while tuning out environmental noise. Active noise canceling blocks frequencies outside of human speech. Tests at Force Technology’s SenseLab, a third-party laboratory, found that 95 percent of users experience significant speech enhancement in noisy environments. 

“We have decades of hearing aid experience that really gives us an advantage,” notes Jagoda. “We’re not just tuning out all noise blindly—our techniques isolate speech while maintaining ambient awareness.”

The author adjusting the settings of the Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus earbuds while getting a drink in a loud coffee shop
While the Conversation Clear Plus earbuds can automatically adjust to the scene, the app lets you easily refine settings. Tony Ware

I’ve used the Conversation Clear Plus out and about for happy hours and in restaurants and coffee shops, situations where I increasingly found myself asking “What?” more than I’d like. Group conversations seemed to be a thing of the past, presumably thanks to years spent at clubs, concerts, and live sporting events with only a belated adoption of ear protection. I took a hearing test in 2023, fully expecting to be put into hearing aids. Instead, I was told my hearing fell in a normal range and got a few useful tips like trying to pick a table seat that put my back toward the din of a restaurant. It helped, but I still wondered if there was a discreet, over-the-counter solution for someone who needed slightly elevated audibility with a low barrier to entry.

With the earbuds paired to my phone via Bluetooth 4.2, Sennheiser’s simple smartphone app makes it easy to personalize the earbuds to my hearing, whether you use an iOS or Android device. And the system can automatically adjust levels according to the surrounding environment so I’d often put them in as I entered a challenging space. While AirPods have normalized the near-constant presence of earbuds, I felt compelled to point out that I was wearing the Conversation Clear Plus to help with my hearing, not to block out my conversation-mate for more Kylie. Only then did people notice anything was in my ears, proof that nothing about the earbuds screams garish or medical-grade (though I do have long hair). In moderately noisy bars, I successfully participated in small group conversations with just a little adjustment on the simple sliders to let more or less external sound in, plus occasionally toggling the “enhanced clarity” option to switch the mics from omni to directional pickup. 

Let’s talk about the occlusion effect. Popping in hearing aids, ear plugs, or earbuds blocks an ear pathway, which can make the wearer’s voice sound unnaturally hollow. Ultimately, it makes it hard for the wearer to determine the volume of their voice. With other hearing enhancement products, my voice sounded absolutely booming to me but I was often asked to speak up. Apparently, I was basically whispering. Conversation Clear Plus’s use of active noise cancellation mitigates this effect substantially. 

With Sennheiser’s device, I had normal, seamless conversations. And as I left, I simply popped the earbuds back into the charging case in my bag, assuming I didn’t have any podcasts to catch up on (they can last up to nine hours on a full charge—that’s a looooong conversation or playlist—and the case contains two additional charges). And all without using anything that looked like hearing aids. After all, hearing aids are for old people. Or that’s what people think, according to a National Council on Aging (NCOA) study, but signs of hidden hearing loss show up in groups as young as college students. The council found many people overlook or avoid addressing hearing issues for as long as a decade. Symptoms slowly creep into daily life, like turning up the TV or music far louder than other folks and feeling exhausted from concentrating on listening. NCOA found about 37.5 million American adults report perceived hearing issues, but many question whether hearing aids that cost an average of $4,600 are worth it. 

If you're experiencing hidden hearing loss, these could be your best 'buds when meeting up with buds.
If you find hearing in bars and restaurants challenging, these could be your best ’buds when meeting up with buds. Tony Ware

The Conversation Clear Plus—with its $849.95 MSRP—bridges the gap, but there are still hurdles to clear. Part of the problem is a general lack of awareness about hearing loss compared to similar problems like vision impairments. Though they are both physical problems, vision screening and corrective options are more commonly discussed and accepted. 

“You start wearing glasses quite early on, even if your correction is very low, right? It’s even a fashion item,” Jagoda points out. “Your vision can decline. That’s natural; just biology. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s the same for hearing actually. … We’re just not used to paying a lot of attention to that gradual decline and starting to act on it early on.” 

Various stigmas burden hearing loss. Not only can it be dismissed as a problem for the elderly, but others can confuse a sufferer’s physical impairment with a lack of intelligence when they persistently ask others to repeat themselves or miss parts of conversations. Embarrassment and frustration can lead people to retreat from social interactions. Leaving hearing loss untreated can lead to anxiety, depression, social isolation, and dementia, according to the World Health Organization.

“Some people basically give up or just avoid certain situations. This alone can lead to social isolation … depression,” Jagoda explained. “This sounds quite intense, but with an untreated hearing loss, your brain structure and function reorganizes as it reacts through to lacking input.” 

Game-changing solutions like Conversation Clear Plus add a valuable option between hearing aids and leaving hearing loss untreated. They provide people with hidden hearing loss or who need an audible boost with an accessible, affordable, and unassuming means to remain connected to friends and family.





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