How ZVOX soundbars use advanced tech to help the hard of hearing enjoy TV again

These speakers sound clear to the hard of hearing. Here's how that's possible

Zvox Soundbars
ZVOX Audio

When Tom Hannaher designed and sold his first soundbar, he had no idea that his biggest fans would be the hard of hearing.

It was 2003, and he had just started a small audio company called ZVOX after years of working at Cambridge Soundworks in Boston. Aiming to create a small form-factor, great-sounding speaker to pair with TVs, Hannaher’s new company had built a rectangular speaker to place below TVs. It would eventually become recognized by industry experts as the first commercially successful soundbar.

People didn’t care about surround sound or bass … they just couldn’t understand what was being said on TV.

Building the first successful product in a now-expansive product category is a massive achievement, and much of the success is owed to the fact that ZVOX’s model was designed to replicate higher-end systems with dedicated speakers.

The original ZVOX soundbar had a center speaker explicitly designed for vocal dialogue, mirroring discrete home theater speaker setups, meaning that the voices on screen rise above other sound effects from a particular show or film when reproduced on the ZVOX soundbar.

ZVOX 315
The original ZVOX soundbar, the ZVOX 315.

After some slow sales in the beginning (understandable given how new the product category was) those with hearing issues – mostly elderly buyers — caught wind of this little speaker that made their favorite TV shows easier to understand.

“Early on, we realized that what we were selling as a home theater system, people were purchasing as a dialogue clarification system,” says Hannaher. “People didn’t care about surround sound or bass … they just couldn’t understand what was being said on TV.”

Hannaher and his company had tapped into an unanticipated market and they did everything they could to keep it. The team of engineers and developers spent the intervening years working on making both hardware and software improvements to their soundbars, creating what they call the AccuVoice feature for those who are hard of hearing or want maximum clarity from the on-screen dialogue.

“It’s really a crazy combination of good,” he says, “… we built a hearing aid into a loudspeaker.”

AccuVoice technology, which has since been patented by the company, is able to manipulate the dialogue signal from a speaker without changing the background sounds in any given scene. This means the hearing impaired can turn up the dialogue without turning up the background noise, revolutionizing the way people with hearing loss can experience TV and film programming.

For Hannaher, the decision to focus his company on improving the listening lives of the hearing impaired has personal context. His father was in the artillery in World War II, and by the time he was 60, he was really hard of hearing. When his father was older, he put quality speakers on every TV he owned, which allowed him to turn down the volume from what he described as “marriage-breaking” volume.

The response to AccuVoice from buyers has been spectacular — beyond what Hannaher ever expected when originally launching his company to create great-sounding, compact home theater speakers. After all, ZVOX is providing listeners with a quality-of-life improvement that goes beyond a simple audio upgrade.

ZVOX is aiming to help those with hearing loss using the same technology in its AccuVoice soundbars.

“We got this handwritten letter, sent by snail mail, [from a senior citizen] and it talked about how he got his ZVOX system, hooked it up, sat down and watched a movie with his wife. He turned to look at his wife and she was crying. He said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and she said, ‘Nothing’s the matter. I just took out my hearing aids and I can still hear what they’re saying!’”

“We understood for the first time how it can feel to make a product that … solves a problem,” Hannaher adds. “It’s way more fun to sell that than to sell a subwoofer that goes down to 28Hz.”

ZVOX's AccuVoice AV205
ZVOX’s AccuVoice AV205 Speaker can be fine tuned to the hearing impairment of an individual. ZVOX Audio

In the intervening period, ZVOX has expanded upon its life-improving ambitions by developing and selling its own hearing aids for significantly below average pricing, aiming to help those with mild to moderate hearing loss with the same technology it developed for its AccuVoice soundbars. With the introduction of the Hearing Aid Act, which was signed into law in 2017 and will go into effect by August of 2020, ZVOX will be allowed to sell outside of licensed clinics, making it even easier to get corrective technology for those with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Feedback on the hearing aids (which are only sold directly from the company’s website until the law goes into effect) has been stellar so far — the company even got a letter from a retired ENT doctor in Florida complimenting them on their product.

“We thought that was very cool,” Hannaher chuckles.

The company has also recently launched its first pair of headphones, the AccuVoice AV50, a noise-canceling headphone designed to help listeners hear TV and podcast dialogue more clearly.

After over a decade making products that appeal to the hard of hearing, ZVOX has made a name for itself in an especially important market, but that doesn’t mean the company wants to see the need for products for the hard of hearing grow.

During our conversation, Hannahar talks about how he wishes more people were aware of the dangers and causes of hearing loss, and hopes that more people will consider lowering volume (and wearing earplugs at concerts) to avoid it.

“One of our engineers has been wearing [earplugs] for years now,” he says, “And his ears, when he turns my age, are going to be in way better shape than mine.”

Product Review

The Bose Frames stuff speakers into sunglasses for a brilliant set of shades

With the Frames, Bose is digging up fertile new ground in the somewhat stagnant audio genre. But can these audio sunglasses offer enough versatility to make them worth their $200 price tag?

Google may speed up the rollout of RCS Chat by taking over for carriers

What is RCS messaging? It's the successor to today's text messaging. It offers features like real-time audio, read receipts, and encryption, but adoption so far has been slow. Here's everything you need to know.

Make your games sound amazing with one of these sets of awesome gaming speakers

If you want to take your gaming sound to the next level, you need to find the best gaming speakers for your set up. Whether you're on a tight budget, want some fancy RGB lighting, or just need the best speaker set money can buy, these great…

The best soundbar deals for June 2019: Vizio, Samsung, and Polk Audio

We've rounded up all of the best deals on the top soundbars that the leading manufacturers have to offer, so you won't have to traipse all over the internet looking for a bargain.
Movies & TV

Prime-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite TV series currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Experience 4K on the cheap with this great deal on a 55-inch Samsung 4K Smart TV

Retailers are stumbling over each other to encourage you to buy a 4K TV. Walmart is the latest retailer to take a sledgehammer to its prices, knocking $100 off the 55-inch Samsung UN55NU6900 4K TV — a deal that's not to be missed.
Home Theater

Comcast lets people with physical disabilities control a TV with just a glance

Comcast is now making it a little easier for people with physical disabilities to watch TV by giving them a way to connect their existing assistive devices like eye-glance systems with their Comcast cable boxes.
Movies & TV

GLOW season 3 trailer sends everyone to Vegas, brings on Geena Davis

Netflix released the first trailer season 3 of GLOW, its hit series about a group of female professional wrestlers in the 1980s, inspired by the real-world show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The season premieres August 9.

Looking for a new smart TV? Don’t miss this fantastic deal on a 60-inch Vizio 4K TV

This 60-inch Vizio D-Series has a sticker price of $700, a significant amount less than the $1,500-plus price tag that would have once been attached to it, but it's now on sale for just $480 — down $220.
Movies & TV

These are the best comedies on Netflix right now, and that's no joke

Looking for a laugh? Lucky for you, Netflix offers an assortment of comedies, each designed to elicit laughs in one way or another. Here are our current favorites, from Pineapple Express to The Emperor's New Groove.
Home Theater

What is Dolby Atmos Music, and how can you experience it?

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound format that creates immersive, 3D soundtracks to make movies come alive. But the same technology is also being adopted for music creation, and it's a game-changer. Here's everything you need to know.
Home Theater

WarnerMedia just bought a $500 million weapon to fight Netflix: J.J. Abrams

By signing a $500 million deal with J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company, WarnerMedia proves that it's doing everything it can to compete with Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus for a share of your streaming budget.

This gorgeous 65-inch LG 4K TV gets a steep $200 price cut at Walmart

There's no doubt about it: Now is the best time to purchase a 4K TV. Networks all around the world are churning out 4K content at warp speed and prices of 4K TVs are on the decline, like this 65-inch LG.
Home Theater

Picture-in-picture reportedly headed to Apple TV in tvOS 13

When tvOS 13 is released to a general audience this fall, it could be sporting a previously undisclosed feature: Picture-in-picture mode. It was spotted in an early developer release and it reportedly only works in the TV App.