Wearing a hearing aid is rarely considered cool — one of the reasons many hearing-impaired people delay the inevitable or live without hearing much of the world around them. But align the iconic Apple name with hearing aids and that device may just become hip.
At least that's what hearing aid manufacturers are banking on. Thanks to a partnership between Apple and two Minnesota manufacturers, people can use some Apple devices for improving their hearing. New wireless technology essentially turns newer models of the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into remote controls, enabling phone calls, music, movies, and more to stream directly to digital hearing aids.
"These hearing aids are not just cool. They will help people function in environments where they haven't been able to function before," says Laurel Christensen, Ph.D., chief audiology officer for GN ReSound, which was first to market this winter with its LiNX hearing aid. "It's really fun to watch people use these. We fit hundreds of people in clinical trials, and they really want these hearing aids and want to wear them. And they aren't always something that people want to wear."
Both Starkey Hearing Technologies in Eden Prairie and GN ReSound in Bloomington offer products that utilize Bluetooth 4.0 and Apple apps to stream and control sound to hearing aids. Starkey's version uses the free TruLink app to make its Halo hearing aids operate like a set of wireless headphones. The ReSound LiNX hearing aid pairs with the free ReSound Smart app to offer similar functionality.
With these hearing aids, users operate their Apple device like a control pad to set customized sound levels that fit their environment — from a noisy restaurant to a grandchild's birthday party. Employing GPS, the device can recall those settings when users return to that location. They can hear Siri's directions right in their ears or use their iPhone like a microphone, allowing a companion to talk without shouting in a noisy venue.
It's novel features like these, and the Apple cachet, that might entice hard-of-hearing people to get hearing aids, says Dave Fabry, Ph.D., vice president of audiology and professional relations for Starkey. "There is some stigma associated with using hearing aids, unfortunately. Apple helps us make hearing aids cool by providing access to apps and connectivity to cellphones — all the things hearing people can do with an iPhone."
Both companies have a huge potential market with only 6 million of the 32 million hearing-impaired Americans currently wearing hearing aids. Baby boomers alone number 78 million people, and about half of them will have some measurable hearing loss, Fabry notes.
Halo and LiNX each offer three tiers of features, ranging in price from about $2,000 to $3,500 per hearing aid. Digital hearing aids in the U.S. cost an average of $1,500 each, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The functionality of iPhone-enabled hearing aids — and the sound quality — are enough to convince Dave Brahee to upgrade his traditional hearing aids. A tester for Starkey, Brahee says there is a night-and-day difference between Halo and his regular pair.
He enjoys streaming music to his ears without having to use headphones during workouts, and he also likes how the app automatically adjusts sound levels when he's in a car. "This has been a real joy for me," says Brahee, 65, of Waconia Township, who has worn hearing aids for about four years. "They are just remarkable hearing aids with so many little features that are really, really neat. They are leaps and bounds better than my other hearing aids."
Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.