Opinion | Editor’s Blog
By Karl Strom, editor
One question The Hearing Review gets all the time is: “Are Costco hearing aids any good, or are they just garbage [or perhaps insert a stronger word for garbage]?” The short answer is, if you’re talking about the Costco Kirkland Signature brand, then Costco hearing aids really are pretty good. But there’s quite a bit more to this answer…
Kirkland Signature Hearing Aid Technology Is Very Good
First, let’s get the easy part out of the way and address the Kirkland brand’s technology. For at least a decade, Costco has been purchasing its hearing aids from 3 of the 6 global leaders in hearing aid manufacturing: Sonova (which makes the Signature 9.0), Sivantos (formerly Siemens), and GN ReSound. Global hearing aid manufacturers invest many millions each year in R&D, manufacturing, and distribution to compete in a highly competitive industry which occupies a relatively tiny niche of the medical devices market (only about 4 million hearing aids were sold in the US in 2019, with most being sold in pairs/binaurally). Costco sells a whopping 12-15% of all the hearing aids in the United States; it’s quite possible only the VA sells more. So, the Costco Kirkland contract is a huge prize for any hearing aid manufacturer—and there’s cut-throat competition for it.
What does that mean? Costco gets access to top-level hearing aid technology at an amazing volume discount compared to other companies and clinics—which is one reason Costco can sell their hearing aids for around $1500 per pair.† But there is a catch: any global manufacturer that wins this contract must also continue to sell its top-of-the-line products to competing clinics in Costco’s market area (and Costco is virtually everywhere!). The manufacturer who wins the contract wants to make sure it doesn’t completely undercut those clinics/businesses, and some hearing aid features can be difficult to include at such low costs. So, these companies tread a thin line. The result is that, traditionally, there have been some significant compromises in Costco Kirkland hearing aid features; the devices might not have all the “bells-and-whistles” compared to the same model from a private-practice hearing care clinic. However, the Kirkland Signature brand has for years offered very good hearing aid technology (the Signature 9.0 is made by Sonova, the parent group of Phonak and Unitron brands). And that’s unlikely to change.
Are Your Dentist’s Fillings Any Good?
But…the problem with the question “Are Costco hearing aids any good?” is it doesn’t really address the heart of the matter. That’s because any well-made, high-technology, properly prescribed* hearing aid should provide you with exceptional benefit IF it’s skillfully fitted using best practices. In fact, a now-famous study by the late-great researcher Robyn Cox and colleagues showed that a good lower-technology (lower-priced) hearing aid can provide close to the same amount of benefit as a high-technology (higher-priced) hearing aid IF those two aids are fitted by professionals who use best practices. A general axiom in hearing healthcare is that about two-thirds of the value of a hearing aid fitting actually resides in the professional service, while only about one-third is due to the hearing aid technology.
So, answering the question if Costco hearing aids are any good is like asking if your dentist’s fillings are any good. The answer is, “Of course they are, but how good is your dentist?” Costco employs state-licensed audiologists and hearing aid specialists, and it’s generally acknowledged that the company’s training programs and protocols for hearing aid fittings are pretty good. Two of the “knocks”—fair or unfair—about these professionals is they generally don’t have as much “skin in the game” as someone in private practice, and the “Costco dispensing model” is not one that emphasizes comprehensive hearing care, particularly for people with more complex/severe hearing losses who could benefit from more specialized and individualized attention (eg, many follow-up visits, assistive technologies, aural rehab and tinnitus services, etc, for obtaining the best possible outcomes).
Ultimately, Costco is a store where people can buy toilet paper, groceries, and can find solutions for a chronic medical condition like hearing loss at reduced prices all under one roof; so it may not be fair to expect the same level of hearing care you’d get in a traditional hearing care clinic or multi-specialty medical facility. (Note: Some of the excellent Costco hearing care clinicians I’ve met might disagree with the above!)
Kirkland Signature Hearing Aids Are Locked So Others Cannot Reprogram Them!
Finally, you should know that Costco hearing aids have traditionally been “locked” so other hearing care professionals cannot access the software and reprogram the devices. In other words, if you buy a Kirkland Signature hearing aid, the only person who can usually adjust them is a Costco-employed clinician who has access to their proprietary software. There are other hearing aid networks (eg, Miracle Ear, Audibel, Avada, and more) that also use this “locked” programming policy. In general, their explanation is that it provides better quality-control over their brand; however, for obvious reasons, most private-practice clinicians think it’s simply a strategy to exert greater control over the market and the consumers who buy their products. Whatever the case, a locked hearing aid will prevent you from moving on (at least with that device) to another practice/network in the event you become dissatisfied.
Overall, Costco Kirkland Signature’s hearing aids—with their good technology, professional fittings, and very low prices—make them a good option for some consumers, but they come with important trade-offs.
Anecdotally, I think it’s telling that many consumers purchase their first set of hearing aids from Costco and then buy their second set from a private practice or clinic for substantially more money. In my opinion, this isn’t a “knock” against Costco. Instead, what has happened is that the Costco hearing aids have opened their eyes/ears about the positive impact that good hearing has on their lives, and now they’re willing to pay more (and get more) on their second purchase.
†Two other big factors in the low price: 1) Costco makes money from its membership fees and thus doesn’t need to command the same profit margins, and 2) The Costco dispensing center does not pay the same overhead (eg, rent/mortgage, utilities, marketing, etc) required of other hearing care practice settings.
*Properly prescribed, meaning that the hearing aid is appropriate for your specific hearing loss and hearing and communication needs.
About the author: Karl Strom is the editor of The Hearing Review and has been reporting on hearing healthcare issues for over 25 years.
Thanks to my colleague Eli Patterson of Medqor publishing for prompting me to write about this question and ruining my Saturday!
Images: © Trong Nguyen | Dreamstime.com and © Dimitar Gorgev | Dreamstime