The race to the bottom in hearing aid prices has taken another leap with the arrival of earbuds from Linner Nova. While most over-the-counter hearing aids that have hit the market in the past year hover around the $1,000 mark, Linner’s Nova set can be yours for just $300.
As you might expect, that price comes with a few caveats, and in the case of Nova, many are effectively deal-breakers.
Let’s start by taking a look at the design of the Nova. Rather than secreting carefully inside the ear canal the way most modern aids do, these hearing aids look suspiciously like oversized Apple AirPods, with a fat, white tail drooping outside the ear entirely. There’s even room for two physical buttons to be placed on each earbud; these are used to control ambient audio volume (individually for each ear) and perform the typical media control functions.
If this makes Nova sound a lot like traditional audio earbuds instead of hearing aids, well, that’s because these really are earbuds when you get down to it. The selling point is that they don’t just play recorded media, they also amplify environmental sound. The problem is that the Linner Nova doesn’t do either one of those things very well. Let’s look at each piece of that equation in turn.
As audio earbuds go, the Linner Nova are roughly in line with a set of Bluetooth cheapies you might pick up at the airport because you left your preferred earbuds at home. They do the job, but the quality is so middling that I found myself desperate for my usual buds after just a few minutes. There’s no immersive bass, no sense of clarity, and an overall tone that comes across as muddy and indistinct, regardless of the audio source. It’s like listening to music playing loudly from another room: Sure, you can hear it and even make out the lyrics of a song, but it just doesn’t sound great.
Next there’s the hearing aid part. As aids go, I again found the Nova to be rather blunt, turning out amplified audio with plenty of echo, boom, and occasional feedback. Voice amplification was particularly ineffective—though not terrible—especially when multiple audio sources were present, such as someone talking while a television was on. My own voice was the worst, amplified to a booming scream that drowned out everything else.
Those volume buttons on the earbuds are arguably the most useful feature here, as they let you dial down the “world volume,” as Linner puts it, for each ear individually. These buttons work only for ambient sound, not recorded media; to adjust media volume you will need to do so at the source.
You can also use the Nova in both modes simultaneously; if you’ve ever used noise-canceling headphones with an “ambient sound” mode you know how this works: Instead of filtering ambient sound out, the earbuds pipe it in directly alongside your source audio so you can talk to a friend or place an order with a flight attendant without having to remove your earbuds. The Linner Nova essentially works in this mode all the time—ambient sound mode is always on—though again you can dial the world up and down using the buttons on the earbuds or through the Linner HA app. (It’s important to note, however, that the physical buttons do not control volume at all when media is actively playing; they switch to media controls.) Again, the ability to set ambient amplification levels individually for each ear is helpful, so if you have mild hearing loss on the right and severe hearing loss on the left, you can fine-tune the volume for each without having to reach for an app to do so.