March 3rd marked World Hearing Day. Because of this, I thought I would make the day by making today’s post about the changes that are happening in the world of hearing loos and how advanced audio technology is helping millions of people to hear more clearly and easily.
Hearing aids are a bit like reading glasses. We don’t want to think about them until we really need them. But while reading glasses haven’t changed much in many years, hearing aids have undergone a steady evolution with new technologies like miniaturization and advanced audio processing changing how hearing aids function. Advanced technology is bringing big changes for people who suffer from hearing loss.
I’ve become increasingly interested in the recent convergence between the earphone and hearing-aids and how advanced technology is improving hearing devices and helping people with their hearing loss. I decided to find out a bit more about what’s currently on offer in the world of hearing aids and what the latest technology can deliver for people who’ve reached the stage in life where they may need a little help to hear properly.
Denmark probably has more hearing aid manufacturers than any other country. Big names in the hearing aid industry, like Widex, Amplifon and GN Resound, are all headquartered there. The small Nordic nation has been specializing in audio electronics ever since Peter Bang and Sven Olufsen set up their electronics business back in 1925. Bang & Olufsen went on to create some of the most iconic and cool audio gear that the world has ever seen.
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Denmark’s success in audio electronics is down to a ready supply of highly skilled labor and some incredibly inventive engineers. This has resulted in the Danish audio industry specializing in miniaturized electronics in much the same way that Switzerland is a center of excellence for watchmaking.
To find out what today’s ultimate hearing aids have to offer, I approached Widex, one of the market leaders, to find out a bit more about current tech trends in the industry. The company launched the Widex Moment in 2020 and has leveraged miniaturization, processing power and Bluetooth technology to push the envelope of hearing aid design. The advanced technology has helped to make hearing aids smaller, more powerful and even more user-friendly.
As far as I’m aware, I don’t need a hearing aid just yet, but I guess I do experience some falling off of the upper-frequency range, as we all do over time. I also experience a certain amount of tinnitus and, like so many of us, I don’t always find it easy to focus on conversations when I’m in a crowded room and there’s a lot of background noise.
My image of hearing aids hasn’t changed much since my childhood when I vaguely recall a maiden aunt wearing a large radio device on a belt. The device had a long and twisted cable with something that looked a bit like an ear trumpet on the end of it. It would howl and squeak and was often kept turned off to conserve the batteries which were ridiculously expensive and hardly lasted for any time at all. Even though the aunt had her hearing aid, I can still remember relatives having to shout at her so she could hear them.
Back in the post-war years, hearing damage was very common. Whether the hearing impairment was caused to soldiers returning from the Second World War, having experienced pounding artillery for days on end, or from munitions workers who toiled away in noisy factories and foundries with no ear protection, it was common to see people sporting large hearing aids that often seemed to be pretty ineffective.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that hearing impairment would be less common these days but that’s not the case. The widespread use of headphones following the launch of the first Sony Walkman, back in the late 1970s, may have been responsible for a new epidemic of hearing loss, some of it due to listening to music at raised volume levels for long periods.
According to the World Health Organisation, 468 million people have some form of hearing loss, which is about 6.1% of the global population. Some 432 million of those are adults who have developed hearing problems, often as a result of exposure to high sound levels. Furthermore, a third of all people over the age of 65 experience some level of hearing loss. Hearing is a big problem and it’s an even bigger market.
To find out what the latest hearing aid technology has to offer, I arranged to borrow a pair of the very latest hearing aids from Widex. The Widex Moment is a new type of hearing aid that’s small enough to sit discreetly behind the ear. It uses Bluetooth technology to enable users to stream music directly from their smartphones. Additionally, it’s fitted with super sensitive microphones that monitor and then relay the sounds into the user’s ear canal in as little as 0.5 milliseconds. Widex claims this is the lowest latency of any hearing aid on the market and it’s the company’s secret weapon for making the Moment not sound like a traditional hearing aid.
The problem with traditional hearing aids is latency. The gap between picking up a sound and then processing it and amplifying it before relaying the signal into the ear canal has an enormous effect on how the user perceives sound. The Widex Moment can relay sound in near real-time thanks to an advanced chipset that processes the sound and amplifies it at lightning speed.
The sound is carried from each hearing aid down a thin tube which terminates in a balanced armature driver. The balanced armature is a tiny high-resolution speaker encircled by a small silicone comb fitting that enables some natural sound to reach the wearer’s eardrum so that natural sound can mix with the processed sound coming from the hearing aid.
The mix of natural sound and processed sound is only possible due to the super-low latency of the Widex Moment. This is now possible thanks to a combination of two chipsets. One chip is a flexible core processor while the other has an accelerated core for achieving low-latency processing. The two chips provide a balance between processing efficiency and flexibility.
To find out how the Widex Moment could be tuned for my hearing, I had to arrange an online demo with a Widex audiologist on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Widex carried out my remote demo by using a smartphone app and a Bluetooth device that bridges between the hearing aids and the smartphone. This is where the technology gets interesting and impressive. I slipped the hearing aids into my left and right ears and after pressing a few buttons and firing up the smartphone app, the audiologist, thousands of miles away, was able to communicate directly with my hearing aids.
The consultation process enables the patient and the audiologist to communicate with a two-way video chat much like Facetime or Zoom. This enables the audiologist to visually check the fit of the aids and to chat to the patient to find out a bit more about their lifestyle and the kind of hearing problems they experience. Using the software, the audiologist can conduct a full-spectrum hearing test remotely. The patient sits there while the hearing aids test the patient’s hearing before sending the results directly back to the audiologist.
Within a few minutes, the audiologist’s software can create personalized hearing profiles for the patient and those profiles can be remotely programmed into the hearing aids. There’s no need to visit a hearing center as everything can be done remotely. I had three profiles downloaded to the hearing aids I was wearing. One of the profiles was the Widex PureSound with a ZeroDelay profile.
PureSound delivers an imperceptible 0.5ms delay, although that level of processing can drain the batteries a little more quickly than a less processor-intensive profile. It’s possible to use the Widex smartphone app to switch over to a regular hearing profile that has slightly longer latency for situations where ZeroDelay isn’t required. My third custom profile was tuned for music listening, enabling me to stream music from my smartphone directly to the hearing aids over Bluetooth. The music profile boosts the bass response of the driver and provides a more satisfying sound for listening to music, something that music lovers will appreciate as regular hearing aids don’t usually make music sound so good.
Another piece of technology in the Widex Moment that’s worth mentioning is WidexLink Binaural InterEar communication which ensures that the two hearing aids are in perfect synchronization. This is an essential feature because when hearing aids are out of sync with each other, they can make hearing particularly difficult. The technology involves each hearing aid communicating with the other at up to 21 times a second to accurately adjust the sound so that both devices are singing from the same hymn sheet.
The Widex Moment has four A/D (analog to digital) converters which the company claims deliver the highest linear input range in the industry at 113dB SPL. These are paired with a linear input dynamic range of 108dB which preserves the integrity of the sound is amplified and provides a cleaner listening experience. The microphones used in each hearing aid are high-definition locator models. These multi-channel microphones use a fully adaptive directional system with low-frequency compensation. By focusing on speech in each channel and adapting to non-speech noise, the high-definition locator emphasizes speech coming from all directions, minimizing the risk of missing important speech cues. It’s the perfect eavesdropping technology.
As you’d expect with cutting-edge technology, there’s an element of artificial intelligence involved. The Widex Moment uses a real-time, machine-learning algorithm called SoundSense Learn. This helps listeners hear by combining real-time machine learning and input from the listener to analyze over two million sound comparisons. The more the patient uses this feature, the more the hearing aid learns how they hear and want to hear. Data is stored and processed in the cloud, so even if a patient loses a hearing aid, the valuable profile that they have created through machine learning won’t be lost.
Now we come to the most important matter of battery life. The days of replacing batteries with expensive button cells are now over. That’s good for running costs and it’s also good for the environment. Each Widex Moment has a rechargeable battery that can work for up to 16 hours on a single charge. The batteries are recharged at night using a supplied charging cradle. The batteries are good for around three years of average use and then they can be replaced by Widex at one of the company’s service centers.
It was interesting to try out the Widex Moment for a few days. First off, the comfort levels are superb, I hardly knew they were there. Fitting the aids was very easy and secure when moving around. The big surprise is how clear the hearing aids sound. There’s an uncanny clarity. It freaked me out a little because, with the hearing aids in, I could hear upper registers more clearly and crisply.
My hearing can obviously register those upper frequencies but when I took the aids out, the sound of the radio I was listening to seemed more muffled and less distinct. That was a little worrying as I wondered if I was experiencing a hearing decline. I’m approaching the age when people do suffer some hearing loss and I would need to conduct a full-spectrum hearing test to find out for certain but a part of me isn’t too keen on that in case I don’t like the result.
There’s no doubt that hearing-aid technology has come a very long way since the maiden aunt with the large hearing aid. The use of miniaturization and dual-core processing providing super-low latency means that wearing a hearing aid has never felt less like wearing a hearing aid. I’m really glad I found out more about what is on offer as there are several companies making earphones that claim to be hybrid devices enabling them to be used as regular earphones as well as helping with hearing loss helpers. They are not licensed medical devices and there is a danger that using such a crude device to boost hearing loss could do more harm than good.
There’s no doubt that some very advanced technology is used in cutting-edge devices like the Widex Moment. It’s also fair to say that these hearing aids don’t come cheap. I don’t have a specific price to quote for a pair of hearing aids like the Widex Moment as pricing depends on the amount of hearing loss. To give a rough idea, I think it would be sensible to budget up to $4,000 for two hearing aids, which includes the consultation to get everything set up. There’s also the cost of ongoing care and occasional servicing to budget for but it’s hard to put a price on good hearing in much the same way that it’s hard to put a price on good eyesight or health in general. Still, it’s good to know that advanced technology is being used to make hearing loss something more people can live with.
The main thing I can take away from my short experience with a pair of hearing aids is to say that if you think you have a hearing problem and it’s impacting your quality of life, it would be well worth seeking the help of a professional audiologist to see if a hearing aid could help with your hearing loss. None of us likes to admit that we’re getting older, but it is nice to see advanced technology being used to make devices that can improve people’s quality of life. Hearing aids have changed and those awful devices I saw elderly relatives wearing when I was a small child are, thankfully, a thing of the past.