This month saw the launch of the first ‘smart’ hearing aid from the Sonova group called the Phonak Audeo B Direct hearing aid. Smart means that it connects to a Bluetooth compatible phone without any intermediary device.
Not exactly ground breaking technology on the surface. Hearing aid manufacturers have been offering ‘made for iPhone’ hearing aids for years. Some manufacturers, such as Resound, are now on 3rd generation technology. So why the big time gap in Phonak developing this technology?
The Apple Offer
Following the release of Bluetooth Low Energy in 2011 Apple realised the potential for connectivity with hearing aids. They got their teams to develop an off the shelf solution for hearing aids to connect directly with iPhone. Then in 2012 Apple got all the big 6 hearing aid companies together and made a proposition. Simply pay Apple a licensing fee to build the protocol in to the hearing aid or reject it and spend years developing the technology in house and get left behind.
Many of the manufacturers jumped on board realising the benefit of partnering with Apple. Apple is probably the most recognised technology brand in the world with a dedicated cult following. You would be a fool not to get involved; or so you would think.
In the UK 37% of the population use iPhones, 57% use Android and the rest use feature phones or no phone at all. Even still, the made for iphone (MFi) feature has been a unique selling point for years and up until this year all except one manufacturer was on board with Apple.
David vs Goliath
Sonova were the only ones to stand up against the tech giant. Sonova is the parent company of the hearing aid manufacturers Unitron and Phonak. Instead of taking the easy route they took the decision to develop their own wireless protocol in house. This would obviously come at a huge cost to Sonova and evidently took 5 years to get to market.
For the hearing aid to communicate with any Bluetooth enabled phone Sonova had to develop a special chip. This needed to handle the usual function of a hearing aid as well as incorporate the use of demanding wireless technology. They called this the ‘Sonova Wireless One Radio Digital Chip’ or SWORD for short.
So why did Sonova go through all that trouble?
Sonova now have a much broader reach of the market compared to their counterparts and it gives them a unique selling point. It also means that they don’t pay Apple a licensing fee. This allows for larger profit margins for the company in the long-term. Having that slight edge over the competition is what each manufacture are trying to achieve and for years Phonak have been behind in this field but now they have taken a big leap forward and are out in front with the best of them.
Functionality of the Phonak Audeo B Direct
Talking on the phone
So why would you want to connect your hearing aid to a phone? Firstly, and most obviously so you can wirelessly stream your phone conversation to your ears and have the conversation amplified according to your hearing loss. It allows for a much clearer signal and results in a better outcome compared to using the phone as standard.
All of the ‘made for iPhone’ hearing aids are able to do this but require you to either hold the phone close to your mouth or use an additional accessory to act as a microphone. Phonak have surpassed this and have utilised the hearing aid microphones to act as a true hands free kit. They are the first manufacturer to achieve this. The phone will ring in your ear and you simply press a button on the hearing aid to answer it and start speaking.
Binaural vs Monaural
With the Phonak Audeo B Direct hearing aid you need the phone within about 5 metres to make and receive calls but it only streams to one ear (the preferred ear is specified in the initial appointment). This is somewhat disappointing as Phonak have long promoted their landline DECT phone which has a strong evidence base around the benefit of receiving the phone signal in both ears.
This shortfall is clearly due to the technical limitations of the current technology. Instead, to overcome this issue, Phonak attenuate the non-phone hearing aid whilst on a call to assist in reducing the environmental noise.
Limitations of the Phonak Audeo B Direct
Phonak have made it clear that this hearing aid does not replace their current range. They are calling this a portfolio device and understandably so. This is because, although you are gaining some fancy new technology you are also losing some nice features available in their other devices. I have listed some of the limitations of the Phonak Audeo B Direct below:
It will not work with the Phonak DECT phone – this house phone is great solution if having difficulties with hearing on the landline.
No binaural voicestream technology – a big loss for the hearing aid. This feature is particularly useful in situations with a lot of background noise. With the loss of this technology some of the premium features that differentiated the top of the range hearing aid from the lower technology levels are lost (such as speech in loud noise, and speech in 360). This makes it a bit more difficult to justify the jump between the premium and advanced formats for the Phonak Audeo B Direct hearing aid.
Does not stream music – The hearing aid does not allow for the wireless streaming of music when connected directly to a phone. To do this you would need to purchase the Phonak TV connector. The TV Connector is a plug and play interface to TV’s and other audio sources, supporting the direct connectivity of Phonak Audéo B-Direct hearing aids.
HEARING AID HACK – how to stream music from the iPhone
In the app store search for an app called ‘Bluetooth Streamer Pro” or “Blue2Car”. These are the only apps I could source to allow hands free Bluetooth devices (including the Phonak hearing aid) to play any media from your phone. The quality is restricted to 16KHz because of the data transfer speeds with the hearing aid but the sound quality is sufficient enough to enjoy some podcasts and audio on the go. Bluetooth streamer pro is a lot cheaper than the other with no obvious difference in quality and so I would probably go for that. I can not guarantee the quality of the app as I have not tried it myself (I just used the demo) and so if you purchase it, it’s at your own risk.
Made for iPhone vs Made for All
This is the big question really…what hearing aid do you go for?
If you don’t have an iPhone the answer is simple; go with the Phonak ‘made for all’ hearing aid. (This is if direct connectivity is the only variable factor you are considering in a hearing aid purchase which, by the way, I certainly do not recommend)
If however, you have an iPhone, the answer is a little more complicated.
I’ve tried to summarise the pros and cons below:
Comparison of generic ‘made for iPhone’ hearing aid and Phonak Audeo B Direct ‘Made for All’ hearing aid when using an iPhone 6 or later
As you can see, if you have an iPhone there are different strengths and weaknesses to each device. If you want a true hands free solution then perhaps the Phonak is the choice for you. Otherwise, as you can see from the list above, a ‘made for iPhone’ solution provides you with a greater range of functions. To put it simply, if you have an iPhone and plan on sticking with it, a ‘made for iPhone’ hearing aid is more likely to suit your needs.
Phonak’s entry in to the connectivity market is certainly going to push the other manufacturers to get a more practical solution for Android users. At present, Phonak are now able to tap in to this market without much competition (unless of course you buy an additional connectivity device).
The Audeo B Direct isn’t without its limitations though. Fortunately, Phonak have recognised this and have cleverly marketed this as a portfolio device. The product is certainly a valuable addition to their already extensive range of hearing aids but can’t quite stand up on its own.
For now, if I had an iPhone I would probably still opt for the ‘made for iPhone’ hearing aids due to the additional features but Phonaks first solution to direct connectivity is certainly mixing things up. They have developed it in-house and so they are a lot less restricted than those tied in with Apple. As such, I look forward to seeing some exciting developments in the future.
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