*Steve Makris is a technology expert who does a weekly Tech Talk segment during Edmonton’s Sunday Morning News. You can watch the segment above.
I recently got an email pitch from US-based hearing aid maker Starkey, announcing a new top model, the Halo, whose tech angle is a wireless connection to an iPhone app.
It lets you wirelessly stream music through an iPhone, iPad and iPod touch directly to the Halo hearing aids through a Bluetooth 4.0 connection. A free download of the TruLink app is required from the App store. You can personalize and geotag the Halo sound settings for places that might be loud like bars, or quiet restaurants, even a library. When you revisit those places the Halo knows and adjusts sound appropriately, or you can choose a different setting through the iPhone’s screen. There’s even a default hands-free car mode that kicks in after the car accelerates.
Take iPhone calls from the Halo hearing aids, great in a noisy room, but you must still speak to the iPhone itself, nearby. An easy graphical iPhone screen interface lets you adjust balance, volume, mass and treble anytime or when configuring GPS-based memory settings. The Find My Hearing Aid feature helps find misplaced Halos separately. That’s a smart idea since this top-of-the-line model costs $4,000 per side.
There’s no Android app, yet.
“The iOS eco system made the adaptation experience seamless for clinicians and customers,” said Dave Fabry, Ph.D., vice president of Audiology & Professional Relations at Starkey Hearing Technologies.
He expects an Android app in the future using the current experience with iOS iPhones and iPads.
“We went with Apple because they have the cool factor down better than anybody,” he added.
Interestingly, the Halo uses the same quality MEMS microphones found in iPhones. Hearing aids come in different designs and functions.
Starkey, whose products are readily available in Canada, offered me to try them out, so I said why not, it uses an iPhone, right?
That became an ‘ear opening’ experience for me. In the process of getting a hearing test and fitting (something anyone can do for free in most hearing clinics) at Edmonton based Living Sounds Hearing Centre, I confirmed a long-held suspicion that my left ear was not keeping up, especially with high tones.
I swallowed my pride after a one-hour session and have been testing the Halos for the past month. Simply put, I didn’t know how bad my hearing was until I took them off. I realized how much sound around me I had been missing. I have been driving with no music, just enjoying the new sound around me. My ears said ‘keep them’ while my ego said ‘no way.’ The Halo doesn’t show when people look at you from the front or side. Its Brazilian Nut-size battery and brains rests behind your ear with clear thin wire curling into your ear where the tine 2.5 mm x 12 mm driver rests in the ear canal. A specially-fitted rubber tip makes sure the driver rests comfortably and is ventilated so you still hear natural sounds and the Halo’s amplified sound.
Hearing loss is more prevalent than you think, facing Canadians of all ages today. Research from the Hearing Foundation of Canada reports that out of three million Canadians who have hearing loss, only one in six wear hearing aids.
Hearing loss can affect anyone and has long term harmful effects during critical listening periods in affected children when they don’t pick up in the classroom or just trying to hear their friends or parents. But for adults, as in my case, the first sign ear trouble for me several years ago was the “cocktail party experience” in which I had trouble listening to a person close to me in a crowded room. Fabry explained that high pitch consonants which carry more information in words than vowels are missed, making it difficult to understand a noisy conversation.
“This extra concentration can cause exhaustion,” said Fabry, who pointed out that unlike eyes whose vision can be restored with eyeglasses, an ear with hearing loss gives audiologists a lot less to work with. The original idea of hearing aids was to simply amplify the sound.
Today’s hearing aids have come a long way and the Halo has some cutting edge features that make it the costliest purchase after your car. Here’s why:
- Frequency Transposition, only available in the mid to higher end models, is suited for folks with severe high frequency loss. It converts higher frequency sounds to a lower frequency so it can be heard. Typically 25 per cent of spoken language is in high frequency and that includes a child’s voice.
- Additional iPhone functionality like record, playback and email live sound sources and allowing Siri to read emails and texts through the Halo. The Live Microphone feature lets you leave your iPhone in the baby’s room upstairs while you watch TV and will play back any noise through the same hearing aids. I, for example, like to listen to the running water in my pond leaving the phone outside while working inside. Fabry said the iPhone controls are not as extensive as the initial clinic fitting session so there is no worry about throwing the aids off their factory setting.
- Halo can be fitted with a customized mold offering even high sound amplification.
- No feedback, as in my case. The only unnatural sounds were brief high pitch beeping sounds in my car electronics.
- Speech clarity by processing 16 sound channels, calculating which is the target voice and surpassing background noise, even other voices. “The level of sophistication has a compression algorithm, a noise management algorithm and an amplification algorithm running on one milliamp drain on a 1.5 volt battery,” said Fabry.
- Managing loud sounds while keeping lower level sounds.
- Nano moisture repelling coating and less maintenance issues. “The ear is a hostile environment with moisture, dust and wax…the challenge is to come out with a better mouse trap, we have come up with a better wax trap,” said Fabry.
So why are hearing aids so pricy? Living Sounds models start at $1,200. Depending on your needs, the type of hearing loss and your budget hearing, clinics can recommend models. The majority of first time users are already retired with fewer financial responsibilities and hearing clinics can offer payment plans too. But when a $4,000 TV can be had for half the money in a few years, what’s up with hearing aids?
“Compared to the gazillion TVs sold in 2014, between 10 to 11 million hearing aids are sold globally”, said Fabry. “This year Starkey is committing about $80 million to R&D to make devices like the Halo, which now includes a Bluetooth radio for iPhone, still very appealing.”
He added the service costs for every sale are higher, with free exams and trials as well as the expertise of trained and licensed technicians.
One dilemma for cost conscious hearing aid buyers is whether to buy one, or as typically required, two units – one for each ear.
“When I was working clinically I would argue I wanted two devices on everybody even if it meant downshifting a couple levels of technology to achieve localization and binaural balance,” said Fabry.
He added North America has a more than 80 per cent binaural adoption rate compared to Europe where up to 90 per cent of populations only use one hearing aid.
“It’s like going back to the monocle before glasses became popular,” said Fabry.
Being a first time hearing aid user didn’t take long to get used to, especially when I got good results. The Halo delivers with few drawbacks, like the unnatural hearing beep sounds when I adjust the car fan control. I can live with that because my life is back in stereo mode. My “cocktail syndrome” is gone and I can listen in noisy places. I was even able to configure a “spy mode” on the iPhone TruLink app that allowed me to have superman hearing from far away! Being an audiophile, I had high expectations and despite the most excellent every day hearing improvements including the sound of rain, I found listening to music from speakers, or over the ear headphones not up to par, for those who notice. Hearing aids go up to 8,000 Hz with pricier models boasting 12,000 Hz and the bass as low as 160.
That takes us to what we can expect from the next generation of high tech hearing aids. Fabry said Starkey is working on higher quality hearing aids designed for hearing preservation to meet the high expectations of today’s baby boomers. A study for WorkSafe BC found that 25 per cent of young people entering the workforce had the early warning signs of hearing loss, with a further 4.6 per cent showing “abnormal” results on hearing tests. This would involve separate speaker drivers for low and high frequencies, and may not initially fit in everyone’s ear canal.
Fabry noted the more frequent cycles spurring new technology.
“The industry life expectancy of a sophisticated product like Halo is about 18 months before the next generation product comes along,” he said.
It might not be worth investing on pricier hearing aids when the next flagship model might be one year away. Still, hearing centres take the sting of purchase away, offering trial periods like 90 days with Living Sound. Read shop and compare.
What can we expect for the next Halo? Fabry eluded to even more powerful processing, wireless communication between the two earpieces and implementation of Starkey’s ‘Just Talk’ technology where your voice while on a phone call would be picked up by the Halo microphones and vibration from inside your head for a noise free call even if you were in the middle of a loud bar.
But as impressive as it all sounds, Fabry said the best hearing aid technology pales in comparison to the human brain, “even if you were to plug into a wall or tow your hearing aid in a little red wagon,” he said.
© Shaw Media, 2014