By David H. Kirkwood
NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ–Songbird Hearing, Inc., called it quits—again. For at least the second time in the 12-year history of the original disposable hearing aid, the Songbird has apparently failed to build the market its manufacturer had hoped for.
In a brief announcement posted on its web site, Songbird Hearing, Inc., said that it “has decided to exit the hearing products business. As a result, we have discontinued the sale of our hearing products via the Internet, effective March 1, 2012.”
The statement also invited people in need of customer service and support to call 800/789-1830 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The product was also sold at Walgreen’s and CVS drug stores, and some units may still be available there.
It was less than a year ago that the North Brunswick, NJ, company announced the launching of Songbird® Clear™, which it called “the world’s first high-quality, low-cost sound enhancement product available at retail.” Clear was positioned as a device “for consumers who want to sharpen their hearing in hard-to-hear situations.” However, it appears that it was no more successful than previous Songbird products in carving out a large enough niche to stay in business.
FIRST SONGBIRD MADE A BIG SPLASH
The original Songbird debuted at the 2000 American Academy of Audiology Convention in Chicago. However, reports that a disposable, non-custom hearing aid was in the works long preceded its unveiling.
The amount of buzz resulted largely from the product’s outstanding pedigree. It was developed by Songbird Medical, of Cranbury, NJ, an offshoot of the renowned RCA Laboratories. Its investors, which included Johnson & Johnson, had much deeper pockets than was typically of start-up hearing aids. Reportedly, $40 million was invested in bringing the product to market. The Songbird also gained cachet from the involvement of David Preves, one of the hearing industry’s most respected engineers.
At the AAA Convention, audiologists waited in long lines at the Songbird exhibit booth, eager to find out more about it. The company held a press conference where officials fielded questions. Fred Fritz, CEO of Songbird Medical, estimated that the new product, aimed at people with mild to moderate hearing loss, would greatly expand the market for hearing aids.
The Songbird was unique in many ways, including that it retailed for only $39. However, since the battery was not replaceable, purchasers who liked the product and wanted to keep using it, would have to buy a new device when the battery died. The company estimated that would be every 40 days or so. In that case, over a 5-year period, the Songbird would cost as much as high-end hearing aids of the time. However, the company said, the low price of trying the Songbird would make it appealing to people who were not ready to spend over $1000 up front on a traditional hearing aid.
Also, Songbird told audiologists, despite its low per-unit price and a profit margin of just $19.50, the Songbird would create a steady revenue stream for a practice. Moreover, dispensers would need to spend little additional time and labor after the initial sale, because patients would simply pick up replacements or have them mailed to them.
Songbird was also unique in that it needed no physical or audiometric fitting. Originally, the in-the-canal device came in just one size, which the company predicted would fit more than 90% of adult ears. It had nine pre-set acoustical prescriptions, from which the dispenser would select the one that best suited the patient.
While the Songbird created a great deal of excitement, that did not translate into success. Problems surfaced almost immediately. While the sound quality was widely praised, practitioners who tried dispensing it—and not very many did—found that it did not fit comfortably in nearly as many ears as had been predicted. Songbird responded by providing a range of different tip sizes. Also, new price points were offered and the original analog technology was replaced by digital.
However, the innovative product never caught on among audiologists and hearing instrument specialists. Some questioned the wisdom of marketing a high-quality hearing aid as a throwaway device. And, perhaps most significantly, few practitioners embraced the idea of selling a Songbird for $39 and hoping for many repeat sales when they might better spend that time fitting a patient with a pair of $1500 hearing aids.
By 2005, the original Songbird had disappeared from the U.S. market. However, in September 2008, a new company, Songbird Hearing, Inc., which had acquired the rights to the technology, introduced the Songbird Flexfit.
Although it too was disposable (expected battery life was 400 hours), inexpensive ($79), and designed to be a one-size-fits-all device, it was different in other ways. For one thing, it was a behind-the-ear device. And it was sold directly to the consumer, who could order it by phone or over the Internet, without a hearing test.
The company soon expanded its line of devices, all of which were sold directly to consumers with mild to moderate hearing loss. In 2009, it introduced the Songbird Ultra.
Finally, last March 31, Songbird Hearing launched the Songbird® Clear™, a mini-BTE, which it planned to sell in more than 1000 stores nationwide. However, 11 months later, the company announced its withdrawal from the hearing device market. Attempts to reach company executive for comment were unsuccessful.