In 2013, I wrote a couple of blog posts about my hunt for the best hearing aids to meet my needs. They were popular posts, partly because in the process of explaining the reasons why I ended up with the hearing aids I did, I also described some general challenges faced by blind hearing aid users who want to participate fully in social, family and professional life.
Recently, I began the process again, evaluating the technology that exists today. The evaluation process took on a much greater sense of urgency than I was expecting, when I accepted the position of CEO at Workbridge here in New Zealand, a position I’ll begin on 4 June. So, it was important to me that I had found a solution that was viable, that I’d had a few audiology sessions to tweak parameters based on real-world conditions, and that my brain had had enough time to adapt to my new permanent aids before meeting new colleagues.
Technology keeps evolving, so I was expecting not only improvements in capabilities, but also in sound. Today’s hearing aids are powerful computers, making many thousands of judgements every second about how to present audio in a way they think will give you the best chance of hearing in a given environment. There are several fascinating and opposing philosophies about how to do that.
In the past, I have found that the marketing hype, of which there is an abundance when it comes to hearing aids, far exceeded the actual results I experienced. Finally, as you’ll read later in this post, I have found a product that I think really does live up to the marketing.
Before I get into the details, here are a few things you should keep in mind when reading.
Assistive technology doesn’t get much more personal and configurable than hearing aids. What works for my hearing loss and the way I work may be very different from what’s optimal for you. While I had less than stellar success with the first hearing aids I tried this time, you may love the way they sound.
Please treat this post as a guide to facilitate the understanding of what’s possible. It may act as a catalyst for discussion with your audiologist.
That said, this post does raise some important issues applicable to every blind person who wears hearing aids.
Over the 26 years that I’ve been a hearing aid wearer, I’ve been described by several of the audiologists I’ve worked with as a “challenging” patient. Hopefully, for the most part, it’s a description that’s offered with a wry smile. I can’t tell you if that’s the case though, since I’m totally blind.
It’s not possible for me to resort to lip reading in noisy environments, or otherwise use sight to supplement my hearing aid technology. So I need it to be as good as it can be, in as many listening environments as possible. Some audiologists appreciate that, because it means I provide detailed, quality feedback.
Totally blind hearing aid users like me are a tiny minority. Since most people develop both vision and hearing loss when they’re over the age of 80, those of us who are hearing aid users, totally blind and of working age are an even smaller subset of that tiny minority. Add the fact that I operate my own studio for podcasting and broadcasting, and my set of needs are very rare.
I’m grateful that because I know a bit about audio and am not backward about coming forward, I’ve enjoyed good relationships with my audiologists over the years. The people I’ve worked with have relished the challenge of trying to solve the complex set of issues I bring to an appointment.
How I began the journey
I regularly read forums and blogs about hearing technology, so when I knew I was eligible for funding to get a refresh of my hearing aids and related accessories, I had a set of criteria I wanted my technology to meet. They were:
- Better speech intelligibility in quiet environments and meetings
- Improvement to being able to function in noisy environments, where I have been struggling significantly
- Made for iPhone with the best possible latency
- A fully accessible app so I could make full use of the features provided by the hearing aid manufacturer
- Direct audio input for working with my studio mixer, laptop, PC and talking ATMs
- The ability to continue to use my Roger pen remote microphone, or the provision of an equivalent
- Good TV connection so I can participate in watching shows with the family.
After discussing these requirements with my audiologist, reading extensively and putting a few iOS apps in demo mode, I decided to try the Widex Evoke aids first. If they didn’t work out, I would look at the Oticon OPN S aids.
Direct Audio Input, the best kept secret for blind hearing aid wearers
It saddens me how few audiologists, and therefore how few blind hearing aid wearers, understand the significance of Direct Audio Input for our use case. Therefore, too many blind people are left struggling with suboptimal streamers for hearing aids with hideous latency and quick hibernation times.
Thankfully, newer streamers are improving a lot, but I still maintain that for many use cases, nothing comes close to Direct Audio Input.
Unfortunately, many hearing aid manufacturers aren’t offering it anymore, as most sighted people, understandably, are cool with wireless solutions.
So what is it and how does it work? Direct Audio Input is usually only available with behind the ear (BTE) hearing aids, because of the space it requires. It’s usually added by fitting a special battery door to your aids. The bottom of the door contains a connector that’s unique to the hearing aid industry known as a Euro connector. A range of receivers and accessories can plug into the connector, but the one that should float the boats of many blind people is a splitter cable with two Euro connectors at one end (one for each hearing aid), and a 3.5mm headphone plug at the other.
Using this cable, you can just plug into anything with a 3.5mm headphone jack, such as the headphone jack of your computer, digital talking book player, talking ATM etc.
It is stereo, it’s efficient on the batteries since there’s no wireless streaming involved, and the feature is always on. It doesn’t have to hibernate to save battery. No wireless technology means no glitches in the audio at all. It just works, and it is rock solid. It’s enabled me to keep functioning in my studio.
Made for iPhone hearing aids
Before I describe my experiences with specific products, I want to spend some time discussing Made for iPhone hearing aids in general.
Made for iPhone, or MFI hearing aids connect using a Bluetooth-based proprietary protocol to a device running iOS. Currently, they don’t work with MacOS or watchOS.
Just because your hearing aid has an iOS app, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s MFI.
MFI aids must be paired to your iPhone just like any other Bluetooth device. Like Braille displays, they have a separate place from the standard pairing screen to pair them. You pair an MFI hearing aid by opening and then closing the battery doors on your aids. This places the aids in pairing mode for three minutes. During that time, you can double-tap Settings, General, Accessibility, MFI Hearing Devices. Assuming you’re wearing MFI aids, they’ll be visible here and you can double-tap the name of the aid to begin. You’ll get a pairing request for each aid. Once the process is complete, VoiceOver will be piped directly into your hearing aids. You’ll hear music in stereo, and of course you’ll hear phone calls.
You’ll use the microphones built into the iPhone when making calls.
There are some benefits of going with MFI assuming you’re an iPhone user. First, there’s no need to use an external streamer to work with your phone. It’s a direct connection between your iPhone and your aids, so you don’t have to worry about carrying around, charging and potentially losing an external device.
Second, latency with newer MFI aids is superb, and as many will know I am very hard to impress when it comes to latency. Latency is simply a fancy word for lag, and it’s a big problem with many hearing aid streamer products.
Third, MFI hearing aids provide an iOS feature called Live Listen. When enabled, the microphones on your iPhone become microphones for your hearing aids. When in a meeting, you can put your iPhone in the centre of the table and enable Live Listen. Most MFI hearing aids will let you use a combination of the mics in your aids and Live Listen if you wish.
The connection will go to sleep after a few seconds of inactivity. However, you don’t lose any VoiceOver speech because it’s buffered. When you cause your iPhone to talk, there’s a small delay if the connection has hibernated, but then you hear everything VoiceOver is saying.
If the going to sleep thing bothers you, and it certainly does me when I’m writing and take a pause to think, you can keep the connection awake easily enough by creating a long MP3 file full of silence, and playing it on your iPhone. Most sound editors offer an insert silence function, so creating a nice big file full of silence is easy. However, I would like to see Apple add a feature to VoiceOver that gives users the option of streaming silence when VO isn’t speaking. There’ll be battery drain as a result of this feature, but it’s a sacrifice I should be able to make whenever I wish.
Sometimes, perhaps in areas where there’s a lot of competing signals, I’ve found the connection on MFI aids drops out in one ear. This is usually solvable by letting the connection go to sleep and awakening it again. Failing that, opening and closing the battery door on the aids seems to do the trick. These aids are sophisticated computers, so when you open and close the battery door, you’re rebooting them. Toggling Bluetooth on and off may also work.
I have experienced a very frustrating issue with my Apple Magic Keyboard and both hearing aids I evaluated. This relates to the combination of using a Bluetooth keyboard, MFI hearing aids and VoiceOver. Sometimes, the keyboard will behave erratically and miss characters or insert many copies of the same character. At other times, VoiceOver becomes so choppy that it’s unusable.
Various strategies seem to help, including turning the aids off and on again, turning the keyboard off and on again, and simply letting the connection go to sleep and wake up again. With the Evoke aids, it was chronic and often too bad to use. The Oticon OPN S aids are not perfect, but more manageable in this regard.
Eventually, I found a previous generation Apple Wireless Keyboard we had lying around, and this does not exhibit the problem. It’s 100% reliable.
Made for iPhone hearing aids report their battery status to iOS, so you can see it in various places including the Battery Widget if you have it enabled. It’s still early days for me, but so far I’ve found this percentage reading hit and miss.
Within 12 hours of wearing my Oticon OPN S aids for the first time, the battery percentage was showing 80%, which was alarming to me as I am not using the rechargeable model and was expecting much longer battery life. But then the percentage went back up to 100%.
When MFI hearing aids are paired to your iPhone, your iPhone will take priority over everything else. If you’re listening to audio through some other streamer device, that device will be silenced while your iPhone talks to you. You’ll need to be aware of this when you don’t want to be interrupted by VoiceOver chattering away with a notification. Perhaps disable VoiceOver, or mute speech so you hear the notification tone over your phone’s speaker without what you’re listening to from another source being interrupted.
With that general background, let’s dive in and look at two specific hearing aid models.
Why I tested it
Evoke is the latest platform from Widex, a respected Danish hearing aid manufacturer whose aids I have worn before. I took the most powerful version of Evoke currently available for a spin in RIC (receiver in the canal) form.
It boasts natural sound and exceptional performance with music. The marketing types describe Evoke as “the first smart hearing aid experience”. Its signature feature is SoundSense Learn. The idea is that it gives you a more personalised hearing aid listening experience by learning your sound preferences in specific environments. The aids also take advantage of some of today’s tech trends including crowd sourcing and big data. If you visit somewhere that another SoundSense Learn user has been before, you may benefit from it because Widex has learned about the noise characteristics of that environment. My understanding is that while geolocation information is used to make this possible, data is anonymised. So, the theory is that the longer the product is on the market and the more that people use them, the smarter the hearing aid becomes.
The literature I read also praised the work Widex has done to make further progress in that most frustrating of situations for a hearing aid wearer, hearing speech in noise.
As is the case with the apps of several hearing aid manufacturers, Widex’s iOS app offers a demo mode. Before initiating the trial, I confirmed that accessibility with VoiceOver, the screen reader built into iOS, appeared excellent.
I was also impressed to read that a hearing care professional can add a lot of programs for many listening situations to Evoke, with voice prompts announcing the name of each program as you switch to it.
Speaking of voice prompts, a nice touch with Evoke is that you can have it set up to announce whether it is a left or right hearing aid when it comes on. This is easy to tell visually, but if you need to switch hearing aids while using the same moulds for each, it can sometimes be hard to tell left from right tactually. It’s an important thing to get correct, because each aid is programmed to compensate for the hearing loss in each ear.
If you’re a critical listener and have tried various brands of hearing aids, you’ll know that each manufacturer has a distinctive sound. I think I would do well in a blind listening test (if you’ll pardon the phrase) and that I can tell which aid is from Phonak and which is from Widex. If you have a broadcasting background and are familiar with studio processing equipment, the best way I can describe the Widex sound is that everything sounds like it’s been put through an Optimod.
In recent times when I have tried Widex aids, I’ve been disheartened by how its magical fitting software that analyses my audiogram seems to come up with a set of characteristics that I can’t live with. In this case, I was unimpressed with the default configuration recommended for me. Speech in quiet environments sounded muffled and I was having a lot of difficulty understanding because I wasn’t catching consonants.
This muddy, mid-heavy sound also found its way to audio from my iPhone when the aids were connected as MFI hearing aids. I could mitigate this by tweaking the equaliser that appears in Apple’s standard and fully accessible user interface for MFI hearing aids. The features of that interface will vary depending on what the hearing aid manufacturer exposes to the API. In Widex’s case and to their credit, they offer a base and treble control, although in their own third-party app Widex offers a three-band EQ.
On the positive side, I definitely performed better in moderately noisy situations, and felt I could carry on a conversation more successfully than before, and with much less fatigue.
It’s not unusual for me to want substantial tweaks to the default fitting, so had everything else gone well, I would have persisted to see if I could have had the aids adjusted to help me function better.
If you want to make use of the most advanced features in these expensive aids, you must use the Widex Evoke app. It’s from here that you use the SoundSense Learn feature, where you’re given a series of A and B comparisons, and you keep going through the process of choosing one over the other until you feel you have an optimal listening program for your current environment. It’s super slick, unless it isn’t accessible. And right now, it is not. I was disappointed by this, since I tested the app extensively before beginning the trial.
But, the Evoke app as I write this in May 2019 is an accessibility disaster. Let me look at the most serious issues.
First, VoiceOver can’t scroll past the first page of icons in the app. To reproduce:
- Ensure VoiceOver is on
- Pair a set of Evokes with the device you’ll be using to test. Interestingly, if you try to perform these steps in Demo mode, all works as it should, which is why I had high confidence getting these hearing instruments in the first place
- Launch the Evoke app
- Swipe with one finger between icons, and their text labels are announced clearly by VoiceOver
- Perform the VoiceOver gesture to scroll to the next page of icons, which is a three-finger swipe to the left.
Expected behaviour: Focus should be on the second page of icons, allowing a VoiceOver user to swipe between them and make a choice if desired.
Actual results: The second page of icons is visible briefly, but then focus is returned to page 1 and the user is unable to choose anything from subsequent pages of icons.
The second issue of significance is that the Hamburger Menu is completely invisible to VoiceOver. If a sighted person doesn’t tell you it’s there, you wouldn’t even know it. No flicking or tapping will find it as a blind person. This menu is the place to invoke several important functions.
The impact of these accessibility bugs is that a blind person is severely restricted in the use of Evoke.
- If a TV Play is paired with the instruments, a blind person can’t select it. While it is sometimes visible in the native iOS UI, selecting it from there while VoiceOver is active has no effect.
- A blind person can’t choose all their available programs if they have more than a few, limiting their use of the instruments
- Directional focus isn’t accessible to a blind person, one of the most powerful features of the instruments that allows you to focus exclusively on people in front of you
- Sound Sense Learn isn’t accessible to a blind person.
- There may be more features inaccessible that I don’t know exist.
I found the MFI capabilities in these aids to work well with two exceptions. As I mentioned previously, the problem with Bluetooth keyboards, VoiceOver and the aids was more pronounced and more difficult to remedy.
Second, the latency with Live Listen was horrible to the point that I wouldn’t want to use the feature. When you talk, you can distinctly hear yourself echoing back with just enough delay that it starts messing with your own speech.
Connecting to other devices
Widex doesn’t offer Direct Audio Input for Evoke, not even in the BTE configuration. But the promise of SoundSense Learn, which I since discovered is totally inaccessible, was so intriguing that I agreed to try various Direct Audio Input alternatives. I knew from the beginning that none would be as convenient as Direct Audio Input, since they would have to be charged at best, plugged into the power at worst.
The first solution I tried was the Widex Uni Dex. This is a neck loop with a 3.5mm headphone jack. I was delighted to note that there was 0 latency with this solution. However, it was mono. That disqualifies it for use in my studio or from listening to music anywhere. The sound was also very muddy, although had all other things been optimal, we may have been able to tweak that to my satisfaction.
Next, I tried a solution called TV Dex. This comprises a base unit containing a USB port for charging, and audio inputs. You can connect it to a range of audio devices including televisions and anything with a headphone jack. So you could use it with your computer, or in my case, the mixer in my studio.
The base unit is paired with a remote-control device which you wear on a lanyard around your neck. The device has an on-off control, a plus-minus control that determines how much input from the base unit is sent to your aids, and a button that can turn off the microphones on your aids so you get audio from the TV Dex only. That’s a particularly important feature for my studio work.
I’m pleased to report that this unit is indeed stereo, there is 0 latency, and if there is a time-out after audio inactivity, it’s very long and I didn’t discover it. Since you’re not physically tethered to the device you’re listening to, you can move some distance from the base unit and still get good audio.
Pairing the unit with your aids is easy. Just hold down the plus and minus keys for a prolonged period when you first get the device, until you hear a tone from your Widex Evoke hearing aids.
Now for some caveats. The range of the remote-control device is extremely short. I found that even when putting the TV Dex remote in a shirt pocket, I was getting a bit of signal break-up. So the only way to work with it appears to be to wear it using the lanyard.
Second, the power button and the button that controls whether the mics are on or off have no discernible states you can feel. It’s like the Phonak Roger Pen in this regard. Press the button to power it on, and you can’t physically tell whether the unit is powered on or not.
Finally, you get about 10 hours of battery life before needing to recharge the remote unit. The base needs to be getting power either from a USB port or a wall outlet.
I was left scratching my head thinking, “all this to replace a simple cable that did the job so much more elegantly”! (Yes I know, get off my lawn and all that.)
The optimal TV listening accessory for the Evokes is the Widex TV Play.
I was hit hard by accessibility problems in my testing, since TV appears on the second page of icons in the third-party app, and I therefore couldn’t activate it. Activating TV from the built-in iOS user interface had no effect when VoiceOver was running.
However, the pairing process was easy, and I found that if you unplugged the power from TV Play then plugged it back in again, the Evokes would switch to the TV program automatically. In this way I was able to take it for a test drive.
TV Play lets you get audio from your TV in various ways, including optical audio using a Toslink cable, or by standard analogue audio. I used the latter, because I plugged the TV Play into a Sonos CONNECT which can pick up TV audio by grouping itself with our Sonos PLAYBAR. This has the added benefit of turning my hearing aids effectively into a Sonos device, allowing me to pipe into my hearing aids anything Sonos can play.
The sound I got from TV Play was by far the most rich, full sound I have ever heard piped directly into any hearing aid. It was perhaps a little bottom-heavy, but again I suspect this was the nature of my fitting and that it could have been adjusted. But the distance that the signal was available was superb as was the sound I heard.
Choosing new hearing aids is a long-term commitment. Even if the sound had been perfect out of the box, and for me it most certainly wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to commit to a company that locked me out of some of the key features of their product due to inexcusably lazy coding.
Plus, having enjoyed the many benefits of Direct Audio Input, I didn’t want to give it up unless there were compelling reasons to put up with not having it. In the end, for me, the cons of Widex Evoke far outweighed the pros.
And so, it was on to my second candidate.
Oticon OPN S 1
Why I tested it
If hearing aid manufacturers had got a group of blind hearing aid wearers in a room and sought to design a product around our needs, I think the resulting product would be very close to the Oticon OPN (pronounced “open”) technology. I realise that’s a bold statement and it’s impossible for me to try every manufacturer out there, but let me have a shot at justifying it.
In days of yore, well, days of analogue anyway, hearing aids were fancy amplifiers, and then fancy amplifiers with equalisers. In the mid-1990s, hearing aids started to become computers sampling your audio environment many times per second, making decisions about what was relevant and what was distracting noise. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms sought to amplify the good stuff and filter out the bad stuff.
As hearing aid wearers, we had to help the process along a bit by looking at the person we were talking too. Microphones at the front were used to capture sound we needed, while microphones at the back of the aids sought to filter things that we weren’t looking at and were therefore not deemed to be relevant.
For blind people who rely on sounds for navigation, orientation and awareness of what’s going on around us, this approach is a mixed blessing. Like everyone who wears hearing aids, we want to be able to carry out a conversation, to feel part of the group and not feel embarrassed or isolated by the cacophony.
But even if the technology worked its magic, and for many of us the promise has been much greater than the fulfilment, as a blind person it could leave you feeling like your very environment is being filtered through a straw. The world simply didn’t sound natural, and the processing severely constrained our interaction with our environment.
Additionally, as blind people, we may not know someone outside our electronically narrow field of hearing is trying to get our attention, something that’s usually obvious to someone who can see.
This poses an existential risk to us in traffic situations, so those of us who travel have asked our audiologist to create a program that is as linear as possible. That’s to say it disables a lot of the clever processing and just gives us the raw sound, with a little bit of limiting to protect the hearing we have left.
Oticon, yet another Danish hearing aid manufacturer, has completely thrown this 20-year-old paradigm out the window with the OPN family. They’ve produced many papers on their technology, but my simplistic explanation of it is that the open hearing concept doesn’t try to shield the wearer from background noise. It will apply limiting to make the background noise comfortable, and if you’re an audio geek you will notice that Oticon aids sound super limited. However, the latest in the OPN family, the OPN S series, samples your environment 56,000 times each second. It’s doing so without making assumptions that you’re only interested in sounds in front of you. This means that you don’t have to be looking at someone to hear them in noise. That’s a big deal for those of us who are blind. The moment someone stops talking to you, the background noise returns, and we can fully appreciate all that’s going on, with the resulting benefits of directionality and echo location.
I was interested in giving Oticon OPN S a try, but it wasn’t my first choice because I understand servicing can take some time in my part of the world. Nevertheless, with Widex Evoke not working out for me, I got a pair to try.
I’m using the BTE version of the OPN S 1 to accommodate Direct Audio Input, which it does support. HALLELUJAH! At the time of publication, I am still waiting for the battery doors with the Euro connector that will make testing of DAI possible. I have high hopes, but until they arrive, I need to swap back to my previous aids when working in the studio or using a computer for long periods.
If the above section sounds like I’m working for Oticon, it’s because this is the first set of hearing aids I’ve tried where I feel like my experience matches the marketing hype. When my audiologist switched the aids on for the first time, I was immediately and pleasantly surprised by how clear, natural and intelligible speech sounded. I’ve tried a couple of new programs, but the fitting itself has not been tweaked. That is remarkable for me and has never happened before.
When walking around, I can clearly hear my own clothes rustling, something I haven’t heard with such clarity for a long time. It was disconcerting at first.
Listening to music on our Sonos system in the living room, which comprises a Sonos SUB, Sonos PLAYBAR and two PLAY:1s acting as rear surrounds, or in the studio where I have a Sonos SUB and two play:5s, is a significant improvement over what I’ve heard before. I don’t want to overstate this. It’s not like suddenly having natural hearing back, but the richness and clarity is a massive leap forward. I have been listening to a lot of classical and acoustic recordings since being fitted with these aids and it’s quite emotional to hear this level of detail again. I never expected I would.
There are consequences of the open philosophy that take some getting used to if you’ve been wearing other manufacturers’ products in the past. Since OPN aids are about accentuating the positive but not eliminating the negative, you hear things like air conditioning units, ceiling fans, dishwashers and microwaves that other hearing aids may have tried to shield you from. As a blind person, I absolutely love this. To me, the sounds aren’t unpleasant, and as soon as someone talks to you, those sounds are accorded the low priority that is appropriate.
These aids are so fast at making their processing decisions that I think you’d need to be an audio geek listening closely to know that the decisions are being made. Oticon’s marketing people have come up with the term “brain hearing”, and I understand this term having worn the aids. The transitions are so seamless, it’s very close to the way your brain naturally focusses aurally on what you want to hear.
I find that except for listening to music, where my program is a little wider in frequency response and somewhat more linear, I seldom want or need to try changing to other programs. I was a little concerned when comparing the number of possible programs on OPN with Evoke to notice that the former had far fewer available at any one time. But the reality is these things are so smart that I don’t think you need to be worrying as much about changing programs. I occasionally alter the volume, or switch to the speech in noise program in a very difficult environment, but that’s about it.
Speaking of changing programs, doing so via the aids is laggy. Since I have the BTE model, I have a rocker switch on both aids that lets me change the volume, mute the mics in any program, and cycle both forward and backward through programs. It’s a good system, although when you change programs on one aid, there’s a noticeable delay before the other aid gets the message and follows suit. You can of course use the app or the Connect Clip to change programs, and once you get used to the timing, you can change programs fairly quickly without waiting for the beeps to catch up. Optionally, you can turn on voice prompts announcing the name of each program. At least here in New Zealand, it’s using the Nuance Karen voice. Karen, you’re simply everywhere and are quite ubiquitous!
Because of the open philosophy, I was apprehensive about taking these out in crowds. Sure, I was hearing quiet conversations with unprecedented clarity, but could it really maintain that clarity and give me openness in noise? Bonnie, who is so incredibly patient with me when I go on these stressful hearing aid journeys, accompanied me first on a moderately trying test, then on a big one.
I was absolutely stunned by what happened when Bonnie and I went to our local shopping mall. We went to a moderately noisy cafe where I would have used my Roger Pen to have a conversation with her before. Instead, I heard every word of the transaction as she placed our order. To avoid embarrassment with me not being able to hear well, it’s just accepted that in an environment like that, she’s kind enough to take the stress off me by placing the order. But in this case, I heard every word of the transaction from both parties. When the food arrived, I was able to clearly hear the waitress and had the confidence to engage in some conversation without fear of not being able to hear her. Bonnie sat across the table from me and we had an easy conversation without the aid of any accessory.
Emboldened by this experience, Bonnie and I went to a restaurant that would once have been very stressful. It’s the kind of place which, when suggested as a potential dinner option, I would have said, “do we really have to”? You know the sort, music playing, wooden floors, high ceilings, echo everywhere. One thing I have noticed with these aids is how much good echo cancellation they offer. Rooms that sounded cavernous to me before simply don’t anymore. At the restaurant, once again I needed no remote mic. For the first time in a long while, I could even hear the people at adjacent tables talking when Bonnie wasn’t speaking. All of this, my friends, is huge for me. I am now looking forward to going places again, not dreading the possibility of feeling isolated. I know I will struggle sometimes, but I also know those struggles will now be far fewer.
With the new OPN S range, there’s a new Open Sound Booster feature you can enable within the app or ask your audiologist to add to a program. I’m still experimenting with when this helps. It appears to turn them into more traditional beam-based aids, accentuating the sounds in front of you. So, if you have trouble in a crowded situation, or you are being irritated by too much fan noise, it would be worth enabling this to see if it helps.
For long-term hearing aid wearers, the sound of wind blowing into our hearing aid microphones is an evil enemy. With these aids, I simply don’t hear any wind blowing into the mics, it’s being digitally processed away with no discernible impact on other sounds. Wellington, the capital of New Zealand where I live, is a really windy city, so I’ve given the wind filtering a major workout. It’s remarkable.
So far, the one area where I still seem to be having some difficulty is in the back seat of an Uber, hearing the driver. With the driver facing away from you and a potentially noisy environment once you get on a motorway, fully hearing people may sometimes struggle here too. In a situation like this, I think I am still best to hand over a remote microphone if I want to have a conversation. The trick, of course, is to make sure you get that mic off the driver before you get out of the vehicle. Otherwise, your people will have to be in touch with their people.
Oticon’s iOS app is called Oticon On. It’s not ideal from an accessibility perspective. It’s a little quirky, but it is useable for the most part. The volume controls in the app don’t appear as sliders to VoiceOver, so you need to double-tap and hold then slide your finger up and down to engage with them. It’s much easier to do this from the aids themselves or the built-in iOS UI.
When you double-tap the Menu button, the menu disappears after a few seconds, so you need to scroll quickly to the option you want, then double-tap, before the option disappears.
Most of the essential tasks can be controlled via iOS, but there are some cool features tucked away in the app, including the Open Sound Booster I talked about earlier, plus IFTTT support.
IFTTT, (if this, then that), is a way of linking different services and devices together. I’ve been using IFTTT for various tasks for about 7 years now, so I already had an account with them. If you don’t and want to try this capability of the Oticon OPN range, you’ll need to create an IFTTT account.
You will also need to create an Oticon account, then log into IFTTT and link the two accounts together.
You can then link compatible services through IFTTT applets.
One thing I’ve achieved that’s by no means essential, but super geeky and cool, is to link Alexa to my hearing aids to switch to the TV program. So when Bonnie and I are about to watch something together, I just say, “Alexa, trigger Oticon program TV”. And voila! My hearing aids just change to the TV program and I’m ready to watch. Way cool!
There is a range of IFTTT functions you can set up for these aids, including getting texts or emails when your batteries are starting to run low, compatibility with doorbells so you get ringing in your ears that’s actually useful, alerts when it starts to rain, weather forecasts and much more.
IFTTT isn’t a reason I’d pick these aids over any other, but it’s fun to play with and a nice bonus.
MFI support on the Oticon OPN S 1 is pretty good. The Bluetooth keyboard issue is my greatest annoyance by far. Since I’ve experienced this with two manufacturers, I’m going to call this one as an issue with the MFI spec itself. I hope Apple will address this in iOS 13. (Thanks Tim.) Occasionally, I still get sound from my iPhone doing weird things like dropping out in one ear. It’s just another example of the fact that we’re not yet there when it comes to wireless solutions replacing the simplicity and reliability of wired.
But I do enjoy not worrying about being entangled in a cable when I get out of an Uber, or when playing with Bonnie’s Seeing Eye dog.
The latency of Live Listen on the OPN S 1 is vastly superior to Widex Evoke. I can see myself using Live Listen in meetings.
This seems a good time to mention that a user interface feature of Oticon that I really appreciate is the ability to mute the hearing aids’ microphones in any program, just by holding down one of the volume controls for three seconds. It’s useful for example when you want to hear TV clearly from the TV adapter without having to hear everyone else rabbiting on in the background, but it also has a specific use case for blind people.
When in a meeting, you may benefit from Live Listen by putting your iPhone in the middle of the table and having it act as a good quality, omni-directional mic. The trouble is, it’s not stereo. That means you lose the ability to work out where in the room someone is speaking from so you can face in their direction. Stereo is another feature I’d love to see added to the MFI spec in iOS 13. Presently, newer iPhones can record video in stereo using the built-in microphones. I want the option to turn stereo on for Live Listen, so as a blind person I can tell the direction people are speaking from while using the feature.
Meanwhile, it’s so easy to toggle the mics on and off with Oticon that you can quickly toggle them on if you forget where someone is located, hear where they’re speaking from, turn to face them, then toggle the mics off again for clarity.
Connecting to other devices
Oticon offers a device called a Connect Clip. It serves several purposes:
- Use it with Android phones for making and receiving calls or listening to music, the pairing is via Bluetooth
- Pair with any other Bluetooth device although Oticon doesn’t promise results with unsupported Bluetooth stacks
- Use it as a remote microphone.
I was surprised that Connect Clip doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack. Other than Direct Audio Input, which is only supported on certain models, I’m still unclear about whether there’s a way to connect to a 3.5mm jack outside the TV Adapter.
While I am still waiting for my DAI battery doors to arrive, I have been using Connect Clip to pair with my Toshiba laptop. Latency is OK. It’s certainly not as good as the MFI capabilities. There is definite lag when using my laptop this way, but it’s not as bad as Com Pilot, which was unacceptable to me. Music is stereo.
As is typical with streamer connections like this, the connection hibernates after a short period of inactivity. To get around this, I simply played music from a media player app on my laptop and turned it all the way down. You could also install and use Silenzio, which I’ve blogged about previously. This simple but useful app simply streams constant silence to keep these connections awake.
I’m impressed with the clarity of the remote mic feature of Connect Clip, but it is no Roger Pen. Roger Pen can be both omnidirectional and unidirectional. Omnidirectionality makes Roger a useful tool when in a meeting or any environment where you want to hear several speakers at once. Unidirectionality makes it useful for hearing one speaker in a crowd or in a lecture situation if the speaker wears the pen.
Connect Clip is unidirectional, so it will be useful for hearing a lecturer, a single person in a crowd or when in a car when you want to clearly hear the driver.
Roger Pen and Connect Clip possess a common characteristic that can be frustrating to blind people. Their functions are controlled by push buttons where you can’t tell their state. For example, turning the unit on, enabling the remote microphone, answering and hanging up if applicable, it’s all controlled via a multifunction button. Sometimes, you must hold this button down for various lengths of time to get the function you want. If you can see, you can tell when you’re in the correct mode by the lights on the device. You can learn to work with it, but it’s not particularly friendly.
Oticon’s solution to TV listening is the TV Adapter. Like its Widex competitor, you can use optical or analogue audio.
There’s not much between the two solutions, except for the very important fact that Oticon’s was fully accessible and Widex’s was not.
With both solutions, multiple people can connect to the same TV streamer. This is nice if you have multiple family members with compatible aids, or people visiting you who do. Pairing is straightforward and the coverage is excellent.
I’m a finicky person when it comes to assistive technology and audio. Since hearing aids are both assistive technology and audio-related, I am very hard to please and make no apology for it. The ability to do my job and travel safely is resting on all this. I’ll never call any hearing aid perfect, but I am much happier with the Oticon OPN S 1 than I have ever been with any other set of aids I’ve worn, or than I ever expected to be. And astoundingly, they just worked this way when switched on for the first time, configured for my hearing loss. My quality of life and confidence has definitely improved significantly.
The philosophy behind the way these aids handle sound means that I think they are worth serious consideration by any blind person who lives an active lifestyle and uses sound for environmental clues, but who also needs to function well in noisy environments. They may not work for you as well as they do for me, and that’s the nature of hearing loss. But the paradigm is so ideal for blind people that it’s worth a listen.
A call to action on accessibility considerations
Some of the factors influencing my decision about which products to try have related to how much support I can expect to get for them here in New Zealand, and the features available. But I’ve been frustrated and disappointed by the fact that another significant consideration has been the accessibility of the iOS apps that support the aids. Would I have kept the Evokes if the Widex Evoke app hadn’t been so inaccessible? Probably not due to the lack of Direct Audio Input and a sound that I wasn’t getting along with, but I would at least have persisted wit them longer than I did. These devices are very expensive. We should not accept being given anything less than full access to all the capabilities these aids have to offer. Blind people have it tough enough in society without hearing aid manufacturers imposing barriers that are so easily fixable.
This issue goes beyond the apps. Many hearing aid accessories are unnecessarily difficult for blind people to operate, because there’s no tactual way of telling when something is on, off, or in a specific state. This information is all conveyed via inaccessible lights on the devices.
I’ve therefore been in touch with the World Blind Union and hope to assist them in initiating dialogue with the hearing aid industry. The objective is that you can make a choice of hearing aids based on your lifestyle and your hearing loss, not on the accessibility of an app.
Where to go for more help
I hope this post has been helpful, and look forward to you sharing your own experiences in the comments.
If you’d like more support on your hearing loss journey, you should always consult a hearing care professional. If at first you don’t find someone who wants to understand the complexities of the issues we as blind people face, don’t be afraid to find someone more willing to learn.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am to my own audiologist for her endless patience and good advice, even when I am at my most annoying.
Finally, you can’t beat peer support. If you’d like to discuss these issues with other blind people who wear hearing aids, you can join the Blind Hearing Aid users’ list. To subscribe, send a blank message to firstname.lastname@example.org