The scoop: BEAN Quiet Sound Amplifier, by Etymotic Research, about $480 (for one; $860 for two)
What is it? These small in-ear devices are called "personal sound amplifiers", which sounds like a fancy word for "hearing aid". The BEAN Quiet Sound Amplifiers are aimed to be used occasionally, similar to how reading glasses are used for eyesight. In cases where you need to enhance softer speech, like in a church, classroom, lecture hall or a library, the BEAN units can help boost the softer sounds while also protecting your ears from higher volume levels.
The BEAN devices are powered by hearing-aid batteries that are easy to install, and provide automatic amplification (there's no on/off switch).There is a switch that lets you change between normal amplification (15-dB mild amplification and treble boost for soft sounds, with no loud-sound amplification) and high amplification (an addition 8-dB boost, with mild amplification for loud sounds). The units come with multiple ear-tip sizes and styles - I preferred wearing the foam ear tips (similar to earplugs) for the most comfort.
Why it's cool: The BEANs definitely amplify sounds around you when you're wearing them - softer sounds that would go unnoticed during a regular day suddenly become boosted. For example, I immediately noticed the clicking of my mechanical keyboard, the rustling of my shirt and even a small loose piece of plastic inside my desktop mouse after wearing these. When the air-conditioner/heater unit in my office turned on, it became even louder and more noticeable than before. For people who need a small boost in hearing the TV, a theater performance or other quiet sounds, these definitely will help.
Some caveats: You won't be able to hide the fact you're wearing the BEANs - they don't blend in with the rest of your ear, so if you're trying to mask your advancing age, these won't help. In fact, I felt a little bit like Lobot from "The Empire Strikes Back" (although they're not nearly as big as his ear units) or Uhura from the original Star Trek - wearing the small earpiece. From a geek/nerd perspective, this could be a cool thing, but for others they may feel a bit self-conscious wearing something like these inside their ears.
What would make this more appealing to a younger audience would be a design that combined the sound amplification features with a design they're more familiar with - say a pair of headphones/earbuds or even a Bluetooth headset. Even if those functions weren't possible, others would just think that you're listening to music or waiting to make a phone call. Etymotic already makes a bunch of earphones and headsets that provide safer listening levels for users - if they could combine those designs with the BEAN functions, they could appeal to people who don't want to yet admit needing a hearing aid.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five)
The scoop: ChargeCard and ChargeKey, by Nomad Goods, about $25 (each)
What is it? These two devices include a small charging port (for either the iPhone 5/5S or a Micro USB port) as well as a regular USB port. The ChargeCard is the size of a credit-card, allowing users to carry it with them in a wallet. The ChargeKey is even smaller, meant to fit onto a keychain. The purpose of both devices is to provide a smaller charging option than having to carry around a recharging cable. If your smartphone is running out of juice, just connect the ChargeKey or ChargeCard to the phone on one end and a USB port on the other end and start recharging.
Why it's cool: The small size really does make it more convenient than having to carry along an additional charging cable, so having it always available on a key ring or in your wallet is pretty cool.
Some caveats: The issue for me is that you still need to find a USB charging port somewhere, and that usually means booting up a notebook or searching for a random USB port. Having the charging cable with you that can plug into a power outlet isn't as inconvenient as it seems, and there seems to be more power outlets out and about (at airports, coffee shops, etc.) than USB charging outlets (again, apart from your notebook). If a draining smartphone battery is constantly a problem, I'd rather invest in a backup battery attachment or cover case. I guess it all depends on whether you prefer recharging your phone via power outlet, battery or USB port. If they could create a ChargeCard or ChargeKey that included a small battery, then we'd be talking ultra-cool.
Grade: 3 stars