“Volume Control” Entertains, Educates and Will Probably Make You Mad at the Big Six

One of the great things about being a writer is that it lets you pursue your passions and still call it work. Like many people who encounter hearing loss when they don’t expect it, David Owen, author of more than a dozen books, wanted to know what had happened to his hearing and why. So he wrote a book. (So did I.)

9780593147009In “Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World,” Owen starts with the basics – how hearing works and what can go wrong – and allows himself an entertaining and informative meander into a world that many of us veterans of hearing loss will recognize. But what a story he tells along the way.

Some of it you may have learned in high-school physics: there’s no sound in space because sound waves need “stuff” to travel through and if there’s no stuff, there’s “nothing to vibrate, nothing to push and pull.” Of the cochlea, usually described as a spiraling shell, Owen offers the amusing comparison to a “Barbie-size serving of frozen custard.” A newborn’s inner ears are fully developed and the same size as an adult’s. The National Institutes of Health maintains a cadaver registry for ears, which provides specimens to hearing researchers all over the world. “If you don’t mind the thought of pathologists and medical students using a band saw to remove parts of your skull after you’re dead, you should consider donating yours.” Here’s a link to the registry if you want to donate.

Occasionally he left me scratching my head:  “Turn an ear trumpet around and you have a megaphone, not a silencer; how can that be?” That’s because an ear trumpet IS a megaphone, right? It amplifies sounds that go into your ear.

And really, don’t take as gospel Rush Limbaugh’s opinion about what things sound like with a cochlear implant: “It’s totally artificial,” Limbaugh says, “because in my memory of hearing there isn’t anything I ever remember hearing that sounds like the way I hear sounds now.” The closest he can get, Limbaugh says, is that it’s like “scratchy, static AM radio.” That’s not my cochlear-implant experience. I don’t hear perfectly with the implant, but what I do hear is very much like what I heard with my original ears. But never mind.

Many of the paths Owen goes down have to do with specific individuals with hearing loss. Their stories are varied and informative. Just as no two ears are alike – your hearing aid probably won’t work with my hearing – no two people’s experiences with hearing loss are alike.

Among his detours is the history of Chilmark, on Martha’s Vineyard, where so many people were Deaf that the hearing people also learned to sign. Alexander Graham Bell is revealed as an anti-signing, eugenicist crank. A 19th-century Portuguese king sat on a throne that acted as a hearing amplifier. “Supplicants knelt before the king and spoke into the open mouths of lion heads carved into the ends of the throne’s arms.” Sound was funneled through the chair arms and eventually to the king’s ears.

More serious, and quite damning, is his discussion of pricing by hearing-aid companies. In 2016, Starkey executives were indicted for what the U.S. attorney called “a massive and long running fraud scheme.” One executive settled before the trial began. Another was convicted on eight counts of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. A third was convicted on three counts and got two years. Appointed successor was the founder’s fourth wife’s son, who — among other indiscretions — used company funds to build a chicken coop and a skating rink. The scandal was confined to Starkey, but as Owen notes, all the hearing aid companies will suffer “if potential customers conclude that, no matter whose products they decide to buy, they’re being ripped off. ”

One disillusioned Starkey employee, Diane Van Tasell, had long since left the company, in 2002, and went on to work with Andy Stabin, who as a graduate student developed a method that would allow consumers to program their own hearing aids. They were later joined by Kevin Franck, an audiologist with an MBA. (Franck is now a member of the board of the Hearing Loss Association of America, HLAA.) The result was Ear Machine, which later became the Bose product called “Hearphones,” self-adjustable high-quality headphones that are hearing aids in everything but FDA-approved name. Owen describes his tryout with Hearphones, in the noisiest restaurant he could find, and although they’re not for people with severe hearing loss, they do sound excellent.

Why didn’t the hearing aid companies embrace Stabin and Van Tasell’s self-adjusting technology? Kevin Franck was their ambassador to the Big Six. His first contact was always with the engineers at the companies, who seemed excited about the technology. Then he’d visit with the business side. “We like this, but we don’t want to anger our customers,” they would tell Franck. It took him a while to figure out that the hearing aid companies’ “customers” were not those who wear hearing aids. “They were talking about audiologists.” When asked if they weren’t interested in the new markets a self-adjusting hearing aid would create, Van Tasell says, they would answer no. “Frankly,” they told her, “they were making enough money as it was.”

And that’s one reason the average cost of a hearing aid in the United States is $2400.

2020 is the year that FDA-approved hearing aids come on the market, which may help bring the cost of all hearing aids down. As Owen says, “There is no better time in all of human history to be a person with hearing loss.”

That’s good, because, as he also writes, “Our ability to deafen ourselves with ordinary daily activities has never been greater than it is now.”

For more about living with hearing loss, read my books, available at Amazon.com and maybe at your favorite bookstore or library. If it’s not there, ask for it!

Smart Hearing Cover final



13 thoughts on ““Volume Control” Entertains, Educates and Will Probably Make You Mad at the Big Six

  1. On the Starkey fraud case, please clarify that the fraud was perpetrated AGAINST Starkey by high level executives who were convicted of fraud, and not against Consumers in any way. To misrepresent this company as defrauding consumers is disingenuous and disregards the facts of the trial.

    Please see here: https://www.hearingreview.com/hearing-products/accessories/components/five-indicted-20-million-fraud-starkey

    Starkey has fit more people with hearing aids around the world with no cost whatsoever to those in need than any of the other hearing aid companies. I have worked with Starkey for the last 12 years, and I can assure you that the needs of their patients come first. Hearing aids are now becoming more adjustable by the end user than ever with complex apps that allow you to adjust volume, tone, and noise management features as much as you wish, creating up to 16 of your own custom memories. As a specialist who works with this technology that people can self adjust all the time, do you know how many of my clients actually use those features? Very very few of them. In the neighborhood of 10%. This may be different for other specialists and other users, but this technology you can adjust yourself has now been available for at least the last 5 years with the iPhone compatible hearing aids.

    If you’re going to be mad about something, be mad about it accurately please.


    • Thank you for your comment, and Starkey is lucky to have such a loyal employee.
      I don’t dispute that the Starkey Foundation has long done good work, and Starkey makes good hearing aids.
      But talk about disingenuous: this fraud was perpetrated by the now-former President, the now former CFO and other top executives. The link in this comment, from Hearing Review (a hearing industries trade journal), clearly describes the fraud. The company did indeed lose $20 million but it seems fair to conclude that this cost was passed along to the consumer (whether you define consumer as hearing-aid purchaser or audiologist). This fraud and subsequent events do not inspire trust in the company. As Owen writes, Starkey went on to hire a new CFO (his wife’s son) who was himself not especially strict about what he did with company funds.
      The Hearing Review article reads in part:
      According to a press statement from US Attorney’s Office District of Minnesota, five prominent hearing industry executives have been indicted for conspiring to steal more than $20 million from Starkey Hearing Technologies and its principal owner William (Bill) F. Austin. US Attorney Andrew M. Luger today announced a federal indictment of fraud involving three former Starkey executives—former President Jerry Ruzicka, former CFO Scott Nelson, and former Senior VP of Human Resources Larry Miller—along with former Sonion President Jeff Taylor, and Larry Hagen, the founder of Micro-Tech and co-founder of SoundPoint Audiology (now part of Starkey and Starkey-owned All American Hearing, respectively).


      • As someone who has been hearing impaired my whole life, and who become a hearing care professional, I can tell you that as someone who just wanted to hear better, I had no idea what was involved or how complicated the whole thing is. Of course audiologists and hearing care professionals are the customers to hearing aid manufacturers. We are the people who have studied the problem and committed our lives to helping others hear better. We are the ones attending the ongoing training and learning how to work with the new technology every single year. There is a reason we exist. If it was as simple as sticking something in your ear and hearing perfectly, it would already be on the shelf, and everyone would already be happy. There would be no need for me or others like me.

        There is this animosity toward hearing care professionals and hearing aid companies who have a difficult job. People don’t know how hearing or sound works. They neglect to protect their hearing through their life. They put off getting help for their hearing for an average of 7-10 years from the time they first notice they needed help causing an irreversible process called auditory deprivation. They finally get fed up, plunk down a chunk of money and want to get 100% perfect hearing back. Believe me, we want to give it to them! I’d sure like it myself, having never experienced normal hearing in my life! And when it doesn’t happen despite the fantastic technological advances that have been made over the years, we get called rip off artists, the manufacturers get accused of defrauding people, and all manner of abuse is heaped upon us by people who have no idea of the complexities of the problem or the lengths we go to trying to fix it.

        We are dealing with a complex organic problem and attempting to apply a mechanical solution. It doesn’t matter how clear or beautiful or amazingly digitally optimized the sound is pumped into my damaged system, my system remains damaged. Because of that damage, I will never hear 100% until by some miracle, we discover some way to heal every part of the hearing system back to perfect wholeness. I’m not holding my breath. Until then, we have hearing aids, and we have the dedicated companies and professionals who are trying their hardest to assist those who live with this problem.

        You stake your hopes on OTC sparking some amazing innovation to solve the world’s hearing problems and make it all cheap. I have no such hopes because I am anchored in the reality that this is a complex problem that will not be healed by putting any device in your ears, no matter how fancy or no matter how cheap. There is currently no substitute for normal hearing, and there are currently no promising cures on the market or in the pipeline to address all the various different ways the hearing system can develop problems.

        I further hold that of all medical procedures and devices, hearing aids are have been one of the most cost effective medical interventions on the market. The only reason consumers complain about the costs is because insurance companies don’t cover them and they must pay for their care themselves. It is not because they are “too expensive” or because the care is lacking. Most hearing care professionals for years have practiced what is called “bundling” where all of the services needed to take care of the devices for years was included in the up front price, which you are allowed to know before you agree to get the hearing aids, unlike most other medical care you receive. There is nothing else on the market where you can pay once for something and get taken care of for years without additional cost. However, we hearing care professionals aren’t thanked for our service, we’re lambasted because you have to pay for your hearing care at all instead of the insurance companies.

        There is also no lack of cheap devices on the market proclaiming that they can fix your hearing. There are some in Walgreens right now in the as-seen-on-TV section for $39.95 each that you can get and try at home today. There are hundreds more being hawked on facebook, Amazon, eBay, AliBaba and more. There’s MDHearingAids, Eargo, Bose Hearphones and more. If OTC hearing aids were going to solve everyone’s hearing problems, don’t you think even one of those hundreds of companies and products already on the market would have done it?

        I want just as much as anyone to hear normally. I try my best every day to help people hear as close to normally as they are capable of and to educate people on how sound and hearing works, why they should care about their hearing, why they should protect it and more. I’m getting awfully burned out at all the negativity thrown at me and my colleagues who are trying so hard to solve this problem.


      • I agree with much that you say here. I am also a big fan of audiologists. And I love my hearing aids.
        OTC hearing aids will not work for someone with hearing loss as severe as mine, but they may help people with mild to moderate hearing loss who otherwise would not be able to treat their hearing. I also support OTC aids because somehow we need to get more people paying attention to their hearing loss, and we need competitive pricing.
        But none of this is relevant to your original comment on this post. Good audiologists, good hearing aids, a good Foundation — none of that excuses the fact that Starkey execs betrayed their company’s interest and — I would argue — that of their customers.


  2. I’ve always enjoyed reading your comments. You cover subject matters very well. Richard Herring

    On Mon, Jan 20, 2020 at 5:52 PM Katherine Bouton wrote:

    > Katherine Bouton posted: “One of the great things about being a writer is > that it lets you pursue your passions and still call it work. Like many > people who encounter hearing loss when they don’t expect it, David Owen, > author of more than a dozen books, wanted to know what had hap” >


  3. Looking forward to reading this book by a patient/consumer who, like many others, feels a bit under-served when it comes to hearing health. Vast majority of adults are never screened for hearing loss; most insurance companies don’t reimburse for hearing devices; hearing aids are really expensive; noise pollution laws are not funded or enforced; spaces of public accommodation work for wheelchairs and walkers but not hearing aids or implants; and most disturbing — untreated hearing loss is associated with quite a few other problems. (Depression, lower income, struggles in school, loss of balance, falling, cognitive decline, social isolation, etc.)
    Making hearing loss visible is a good place to start. Thank you for sharing.


      • Yes, very annoying! It’s not like they are selling stents or pacemakers to surgeons. A patient’s success with hearing aids depends on a process that is interactive, very personal and time-consuming. It will be very interesting to see how things develop with OTC options.


  4. Katherine, How about doing a survey of the hearing aid features your readership is most interested in? I think it would render some interesting results. Cheers Berl

    On Mon, Jan 20, 2020 at 5:52 PM Katherine Bouton wrote:

    > Katherine Bouton posted: “One of the great things about being a writer is > that it lets you pursue your passions and still call it work. Like many > people who encounter hearing loss when they don’t expect it, David Owen, > author of more than a dozen books, wanted to know what had hap” >


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