Eargo's in-app test transforms its next-gen hearing aids

The Eargo 5 can be tailored to your ears.

James Trew / Engadget

Eargo recently announced its latest smart hearing aid — the Eargo 5. We don’t do a lot of hearing aid news here at Engadget, but the California-based company makes some of the most "gadgety" we’ve tried and the latest model certainly appears to continue that trend.

Like the Neo HiFi and the Neo before it, the Eargo 5 is a tiny, "invisible" (completely in the canal, or CIC) hearing aid that comes with a charging case. With older Eargos, that case doubled as a way to connect the “buds” to your phone. Unfortunately, that meant the buds had to be in it while they were updated. What’s new this time around is that you can perform profile changes and more while actually wearing the hearing aids. What's more, there are key new features that change how the hearing aids sound. It’s an exciting update for fans of the brand as it adds to Eargo’s already slick user experience, something sorely lacking in many of the mainstream brands you find at your local audiologists.

The most interesting new feature is “Sound Match." Hearing aids have long had different profiles, and will usually be tuned for your own needs by an audiologist, but Eargo’s direct-to-consumer (and the need for the buds to be in the case) approach has made this much-needed personalization difficult. Until now?

Sound Match is effectively a hearing test built-in to the Eargo app. Once you pair the case (via Bluetooth) you can remove the Eargo 5s and the app will walk you through the test. If you’ve ever completed a hearing test, you’ll be familiar with this one. The app plays a series of sounds and you tell it if you can hear it or not; at the end, you’ll be presented with the results for each ear.

Eargo 5.
James Trew / Engadget

As simple as this is, my initial experiences with it weren’t entirely smooth. Not least because it took a few tries (and some back and forth with Eargo) to even get the case to pair with the app. After trying several restarts and installations, I was able to get connected and access the test — most likely due to me having early hardware.

From then on the test was mostly straightforward, until I spotted there was a “replay” button. I noticed that sometimes when I didn’t initially hear a sound, I definitely heard it after tapping replay. As in, it was audible enough that I wouldn’t have missed it the first time around. This meant I had to re-do the test to make sure I hadn’t incorrectly tapped “No” when really the sound just didn’t play at all.

Minor hiccups aside, once I was confident I had completed the test properly, I could further customize the experience by changing what profiles are available on the device. There are six situational ones (restaurant/meeting etc) and four presets. You can store a total of four on the hearing aids themselves.

Previous Eargo models would simply tell you the number of the audio profile that is active as you switch through the four on offer (via a double-tap on your tragus). With the Eargo 5 it now tells you the name of that profile if you chose one of the "situational" ones to eliminate any guesswork. You can also further tweak these profiles in the app, or simply change the volume and noise reduction (there’s now noise reduction here too I should mention) without having to permanently change the profile. This includes adjusting the volume and the treble/bass.

Eargo 5 smart hearing aid.
James Trew / Engadget

Although you can now adjust the sound and profiles while actually wearing the Eargo (before, you had to take them out and plop them in the case, which is less than ideal), there’s no capability for music/audio streaming from your phone. Eargo uses ultrasonic commands to communicate between the case and the hearing aids. That’s a neat way to enable small updates, but not enough for anything more heavyweight. Remember, size is key here, and streaming on devices this small, that go fully in your ear, isn’t a simple thing to do.

This new customization functionality really does improve the Eargo experience. I have tried several different devices and the ones that best serve my hearing loss are, predictably, the ones that have been tuned by an audiologist. This meant that, while older Eargos were some of the most appealing in terms of user experience and fit, they weren’t quite suitable for my personal situation and only provided users with limited tools to adjust the sound to their needs.

With the Eargo 5, I find them much more assistive in my hearing, particularly on the side I have problems with. In fact, I personally prefer just wearing only one, as my hearing loss is unilateral and having a boost on the "good" side can feel a bit much. I also find wearing both a bit less comfortable. There’s no logical reason why wearing one for extended periods should be fine, but two isn’t, but I think the combination of too much "extra" hearing (on my good side) and the physical feeling of something in both ears is just a lot of sensory stimulation, for me at least. Obviously, if you have a bilateral hearing deficiency you’ll want all the assistance you can get.

If you own a pair of older Eargos and were wondering if the hearing test feature might come to your model via an update, sadly it's not possible. There's specific hardware here to enable the ultrasonic commands, that isn't present in previous models.

Eargo 5 smart hearing aid.
James Trew / Engadget

Beyond Sound Match, Eargo claims the sound has been redesigned from the ground up for “optimal audio and speech performance.” The company doesn’t elaborate further but, with the new customization feature, it’s fair to say this is a very different experience than previous models already so any other improvements are hard to pick out, but good to know they are there.

Beyond the core updates, there are some welcome usability tweaks, too. The charging case now has lights around where the hearing aids should be placed to help you correctly seat them at night. Those lights also provide feedback by changing color when there’s a software update or the aids aren’t charging properly. You’ll also no longer need to make sure the contacts on the buds meet the ones in the case. A new magnetic inductive charging system means they will click themselves into the right position automatically.

While Eargo's app remains a slick experience, there are a few small opportunities to improve it further. The volume control is nice and simple, and you can choose to boost either side individually, or both as a pair. What’s lacking is visual feedback or even a tone in your ear, to let you know when you’ve reached the top or bottom of the range. There’s also no indication of whether any changes you make to a profile are permanently saved or an obvious way to reset them to default, but these are minor UI issues.

Battery life is claimed to be around 16 hours per charge. Add to that the battery in the case and this means you won’t need to plug them in for a couple of days, which is handy for weekends away where you don’t want to have to worry about finding an outlet. Should you need to, though, the charger is USB-C, so likely something you already have for your phone or laptop (a cable is, of course, included).

All in all, it's a substantial update for a direct-to-consumer product. Eargo has been getting a lot of things right in terms of making its products user-friendly and appealing to a mass audience. This matters when it's estimated that over 40 million Americans could benefit from an assistive hearing device. What was lacking, until now that is, was a way to tune them to your specific needs. Which in the world of hearing loss, can be the difference between understanding the television a bit better and being able to pick out quieter sounds in a noisy environment. The latter is something that makes daily life feel a lot more natural and makes social situations much more comfortable, so it's something really valuable to have on a device this small.

Remember, though, hearing aids are not a cheap product category. A good pair will often run you a couple of thousand dollars, more if you want something bespoke. The Eargo 5, then, at $2,950 might seem steep compared to a pair of wireless headphones but is relatively affordable among its hearing aid peers. If you’re already an Eargo user looking to upgrade, there’s a “repeat customer discount” that can shave off $500 from the MSRP.

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