Using a powerful wireless chip, these hearing aids can be programmed and adjusted with an iPhone, iPad or iPod. They can be speakers for music, TV and telephones. And if they're lost, an iPhone can help a user find them.
GN ReSound, whose North American headquarters is in Bloomington, has teamed up with Apple to unveil Linx, the first made-for-iPhone hearing system. The technology melds hearing aids with popular consumer products, with the hopes of lessening the stigma associated with wearing hearing devices.
"It's the world's smartest hearing aid," said Kim Herman, president of hearing device giant ReSound.
Discreetly controlling hearing aids through an iPhone not only reduces the stigma, but also the clumsiness that comes with fiddling with hearing aid controls, Herman said. The programming even saves settings, automatically geocoded for repeat locations, such as a favorite restaurant or an arena. Also, the ringing that happens when hearing aid patients use cellphones is a thing of the past because the iPhone sends its sound directly through the hearing aids.
No Apple device? No worries. Linx can address about 90 percent of all hearing loss, even without the Apple features, Herman said.
Expect to pay a premium for all those features. The hearing aids are priced between $2,900 and $3,500, depending on features and where the devices are sold. ReSound declined to provide financial details of its exclusive partnership with Apple.
Linx was released commercially in the United States last week after a December trial period. It will be rolled out in other markets worldwide over the coming months, officials said.
Beth Erlich, a doctor of audiology in the San Francisco Bay Area, was part of that early trial. In fact, she wears the Linx hearing aids.
"It has been wonderful and our patients' response has been fantastic," she said. "It's fun to have patients come in and say 'I want this.' instead of 'Do I have to have hearing aids?' "
Patients tell her that "it is one of the most natural sounding hearing instruments they have ever heard," she said. "A person who enjoys bird-watching and could not hear the birds before now can discriminate between the different warbles."
Erlich's practice, the Hearing Center of Castro Valley, has about 4,000 patients. She estimates that 80 percent of them would benefit from the new technology.
Thom Gunderson, a senior analyst for Piper Jaffray & Co., said efforts by hearing aid makers to differentiate themselves based on technology is not new. In fact, such efforts are increasing, he said.
"This new age of consumer technology is coming to hearing aids and they are trying to differentiate themselves among 20 different brands out there," he said. "If one wants to link to a popular cellphone like an iPhone and have an app that can be downloaded by millions around the world — that is instant access to people who heretofore have not been accessed by the companies."
More new technologies
He added that new hearing aid technologies include a device that translates sound into infrared light waves beamed directly to the eardrum and a hearing device that produces the perception of sound by allowing sound to travel via the teeth, through the bones, to the ear. Another company basically makes disposable hearing aids that patients wear for several months until the battery wears out.
Siemens, one of the world's largest hearing aid manufacturers, makes the MiniTek Remote App that transforms Android smartphones into a control for its wireless hearing aid technology.
"The [baby] boomers and those who are following them are looking for technology," Gunderson said. "They are looking for something other than their father's hearing aid. They are looking for ease of use."
The $6 billion worldwide hearing aid market is dominated by a handful of large companies. Estimates put GN Nord, parent company of GN ReSound, at a market share of 16 percent. According to the company's 2013 annual report, ReSound has recorded 14 consecutive quarters of market share growth — and it is counting on Linx and its Apple partnership to continue that trend.
Dick Loizeaux, a consultant who lives in suburban Chicago, does a lot of work on the phone and in public places. He said the Linx system, which he has had for about two months, is nearly invisible and helps him avoid the whistling and background noise that used to hamper his work.
The 65-year-old has had hearing aids for about 10 years. "I probably should have gotten them earlier, but I didn't want a big hunk of plastic in my ears that just screamed 'You're an old person,' " he said.
There are no such problems with his new set. "It's behind the ear," he said. "But the tubes are so thin and the hearing aids so small, people cannot see it unless they are looking for it."
The interface with his iPhone, he said, "makes all the difference in the world. Because my phone is essentially always in my ear, there is no longer all the distortion and the deterioration between the person who is speaking and when it hits your ear."
He added: "If they had had this technology before, I would have gotten hearing aids when I was 40."