Hearing aids directly link to iPhone for pristine surround sound

Independent audiology practice Hearing Studio has fitted the first hearing aids in Australia that are specifically designed to connect to iOS devices and allow users to adjust their hearing aid settings on their iPhone.

Using Bluetooth connectivity directly between the hearing aids and the iPhone app, wearers can receive phone calls straight into their hearing aids, customise the sound to suit their individual preferences, screen out ambient noise when used in both ears and, using the iPhone's geo-tagging capability, tell the device to remember the personal settings for different locations.

Hearing Studio audiologist Rachel Deane said the TruLink app was available with a new 'Made for iPhone' model called Halo from US-based manufacturer Starkey. Danish company ReSound also offers a 'Made for iPhone' hearing aid called LiNX. Last week, Ms Deane fitted her first seven clients with Starkey Halo hearing aids and the TruLink app.

Ms Deane said the hearing aids are still an ear-worn device, but through Bluetooth connectivity they connect directly to the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch without the need to buy or carry additional receiving and transmitting devices.

“It means it directs the sound from the phone directly into the hearing aid, and with the app on the phone, wearers can adjust the tonal sound quality and volume themselves,” she said.

Ms Deane said the technology offers an enormous amount of personalisation, which is one of what she believes are five major benefits of having this direct interface.

“Firstly, you can stream phone calls,” she said. “With the Bluetooth connection to your iPhone, it works the same way as a Bluetooth connection in your car. For example, if you're driving along in your car and you've got have the music playing and a phone call comes in, the phone call overrides the music so when you answer the call the music softens and the phone call comes through clearly.

“That's what happens with Halo, but you are now taking the call directly into your hearing aid in both ears, so you have the phone call but without any of the ambient noise distractions.

“This direct Bluetooth Made for iPhone technology means that wearers can stream phone calls but also Facetime calls or music or YouTube clips or podcasts or anything they like directly from the phone. That will go straight into the ear and it is customised for their hearing. It is very cool. And with Siri on your phone, she can talk you through your text messages and emails.”

Ms Deane said that at the fitting consultation, all of the audio settings are designed and tailored to restore the wearer's hearing. However, through the TruLink app, her clients can then adjust the sound quality to suit their preferences in particular environments in their daily lives, such as noisy restaurants or a cafe, without having to carry a separate remote control device.

“Wearers can now control volume, bass and treble on the fly, save the settings and there is no touching of the hearing aid as it's all done through the app via the Bluetooth on your handset,” she said. “You basically have the ability to have a fairly high-tech amp with your own graphic equaliser where you can customise your own settings.”

Ms Deane said the Bluetooth connectivity meant that the hearing aids and the app work together as a complete surround sound system, and if the hearing aids are used in both ears, the quality of the sound is, as the manufacturer describes it, “pristine”.

“I asked all my clients wearing Halo whether or not that was inflated marketing ‘speak’ and all nine clients said absolutely not,” she said. “They all said they would describe it as pristine. The one comment that we did get back was that it is pristine as long as it is in both ears, and only the iPhone 5 will stream to both ears. One of my clients has an iPhone 4 at the moment and the 4 hardware will only stream to one ear, so he is going out to get a 5 now.”

The binaural connectivity has a further benefit in that it is able to control much more ambient and background noise, as it uses binaural constant synchronisation between the two left/right devices, meaning they constantly work together to provide the clearest speech signal. But it is the fifth set of features that Ms Deane said was the coolest.

“Made for iPhone hearing aids use the geo-tagging capability in your phone, so because your phone has a GPS geo-tagging system it means that you never lose your hearing aid. And this geo-tagging means that the wearer can customise the sound quality in a more challenging situation, like chatting near a barista in a café, tag the location, and have the iPhone recognise where you are next time to implement those settings again.

“You can set it up so that it automatically uses the last settings for that cafe. Or it pops up a reminder saying that the last time you are here you used these settings, so would you like to use them again?

“It reduces the management and brings out this cool customisation – people can really own this amazing high fidelity system and design it the way they want. You never lose your hearing aid, you can customise it and geo-tag it and it'll save up to 20 of those personalised settings for you.

“I think they're also planning to bring out a web-based platform so you can go into your own web page and start to manipulate your own program and design it and set it all up. I just love it.”

The technology also harnesses other existing features of the iPhone such as its microphone and recording capability. If a wearer is attending a conference or lecture, for instance, they can leave their phone on the lectern and sit in the back of the room, and have the speech sent straight to their hearing aid via Bluetooth from the phone microphones. “It is truly like a remote microphone and it has an enormous range,” she said.

The first person fitted with the new technology was Debbie Dover, one of Ms Deane's clients. Mrs Dover suffered hearing loss after a traumatic head injury seven years ago, and has never particularly liked using her hearing aids. She also suffers from tinnitus, rating it as an eight on a scale of 10 for severity.

Mrs Dover is also a bit of a hi-fi buff and loves to use gadgets, so Ms Deane chose her to test this new technology. “I've had hearing aids before, but these are unbelievable and mind-blowing,” Mrs Dover said.

“They are the most natural-sounding that I've ever experienced. It's mind-blowing to have them in your ears and not even know that they are there. It's not like any other hearing aid, it's so natural.”

The ability to stream phone calls straight into the hearing aid is also a huge benefit, Mrs Dover said. When Pulse+IT spoke to her by phone, she said she could hear every question very clearly.

She also said her tinnitus had reduced to the level where she barely notices it, but there were other practical benefits that she also loves.

“With the iPhone I don't need to carry a transmitter any more as well as a phone and everything else. I have to carry my phone anyway. And with the app, you can customise your own needs right at your fingertips.

“Say I go to a restaurant and the noise there is annoying to my ears, I can go into my phone and make the adjustments for noise reduction and so forth, and then I save it and because I have locations activated on my phone, it remembers it. It vibrates and I go in and it asks you if you want to use those previous settings.

“And you can use Siri on your phone and she just talks into your ear. I'm not using that at the moment but I have tried it as I like anything to do with technology. When you read the instructions for Siri on the iPhone they are written for people with hearing and they'll say put the phone to your ear and start speaking. But because I wear a hearing aid I don't need to put the phone to my ear; I put it to my mouth. If I want to make adjustments, I can tell it to do that.

“I'm actually a bit of a hi-fi buff myself so I can have the hearing aids set up to the hi-fi sound in my room. You can do that into your ears from the iPhone. It goes directly into your ears. You have the bass, the treble and you can choose what you want to suit your listening needs.”

Mrs Dover said the new hearing aids had given her a new lease on life, something Ms Deane noticed straight away, as did her neurologist. Mrs Dover admits she can be a “bit pedantic” and if technology is not to her liking she won't use it, including her older model hearing aids. For this reason, she has heavily relied on her husband since her accident. Now, both she and her husband have far more independence.

“With hearing aids, if they don't do something for me then I just cut them off,” she said. “But ever since I've had these I don't take them out of my ears. I can't even feel the hearing aids. I have to keep touching my head to make sure they're still there. They are awesome.”

Ms Deane has fitted nine clients with the Halo hearing aids and they all report that the sound is remarkable. One client is a surgeon specialising in hearing disorders who had been using the premium version of the previous generation technology, and he said the new capabilities with Apple devices was “a significant step up”, Ms Deane said. “Coming from him, that is quite remarkable.”

Ms Deane said the technology was suitable for people with mild to severe and even severe-profound hearing losses. It cannot be used with cochlear implants, as implantation means most of the ear is obliterated, but Ms Deane said she could see the day when an app is created to allow cochlear implant patients to customise their hearing needs on the go as well.

These new technology hearing aids are first customised by the audiologist for each clients’ specific requirements, and then the client can personalise them on their iOS device. As the technology – hearing aid, Bluetooth and app – works together rather than as independent devices, Ms Deane said there was constant synchronisation that addresses interfering noise as a single seamless sound system.

“You now have a high-fidelity, customised surround sound system designed for you and also by you,” she said.

Posted in Allied Health

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