Phonak’s Wireless Hearing Aid Peripherals Aid Comprehension

Phonak’s new “Roger” wireless hearing aid peripherals make it easier to understand conversations in noisy environments, hear the TV and stereo, and communicate more effectively on both mobile and landline phones. Taken together, the new products comprise a wireless ecosystem for Phonak hearing aid users. By transforming hearing aids into connected, multi-function communications devices, they enable users to hear well in a range of challenging listening environments where hearing and comprehension previously were impossible.

Phonak Roger Wireless Hearing Aid Peripherals

Phonak’s new Roger wireless hearing aid peripherals (top row), improve substantially upon Phonak’s first-generation peripherals (bottom row). (Source: Phonak EUHA Analyst Presentation, October 2013)

Based on a new digital signal processing chip set and proprietary 2.4 GHz digital transmission technology, the Phonak wireless devices promise substantial new benefits for hearing-aid users, especially those with severe hearing loss.

Introduced at the EUHA hearing industry conference this past week in Nuremberg, Germany, the Roger wireless devices include:

  • Roger Pen, a remote microphone and mobile-phone Bluetooth transmitter that streams audio directly into Phonak hearing aids;
  • Roger Clip-On Mic, a microphone that can be placed on a table or clipped unobtrusively onto your conversation partner’s lapel to stream his or her voice directly into your hearing aids from across the room;
  • Phonak DECT CP1 Cordless Phone, which transmits landline phone signals directly into both of the user’s hearing aids, providing far more clarity than a signal picked up from the speaker on the telephone’s earpiece and re-amplified by the hearing aids;
  • A TV audio streamer, which doubles as a battery-charging docking station for the Roger Pen and Clip-On Mic — when plugged into the television or stereo system, it transmits clear audio directly into the user’s hearing aids.

Phonak has offered all these capabilities before, but the Roger devices are significant for two reasons.

First, there is new technology throughout:  the 2.4 GHz digital adaptive wireless technology provides clearer transmission with less delay than the Bluetooth technology in its previous remote mic and TV streamer, and the receivers in the hearing aids utilize a powerful new Phonak chipset featuring a digital signal processor with more transistors than a Pentium Pro microprocessor.

The Roger Pen also incorporates context-sensing software that automatically adjusts the dual directional microphones to compensate for environments with a lot of background noise or to zoom in on the direction of a speaker’s voice. Plus an “accelerometer” — the same technology that a smartphone uses to sense whether you’re holding it horizontally and vertically to automatically adjust the orientation of the display — knows whether the pen is being held upright or laying horizontally on the table, and automatically orients the directional microphones even before they react to environmental sounds.

Phonak's Roger Pen

Phonak’s multifunction Roger Pen is a wireless microphone and Bluetooth mobile phone transmitter. (Source: Phonak EUHA Analyst Presentation, Oct. 2013)

The second reason the Roger products are significant is equally important — their form factors. The old Bluetooth mobile phone streamer that also received TV audio for retransmission to the hearing aids had to be worn around your neck like an ugly pendant. It was a little cumbersome and awkward.

The new Roger Pen can be hung from the neck by a lanyard if you want, but it can also be tucked into your pocket or put on the desk or armrest. And when it’s in microphone mode, you hold it in front of your mouth just like any other handheld mic. The earlier clip-on remote mic, while easy enough to use and not unattractive, was less powerful and about twice as large as the new Clip-On Mic.

Attractive and easy-to-use products in well designed form factors, versus functional but more cumbersome products, can often be the most important difference between products that are used all the time and those that are bought, used once, and then sit in the drawer.

The same goes for the new digital wireless landline phone. It’s attractive and doesn’t call attention to itself with huge buttons like many other phones for hard-of-hearing consumers. (That one’s always bothered me. Just because I can’t hear, doesn’t mean I can’t see and can’t find the buttons on the phone. I understand the product-design logic that many hard-of-hearing consumers are also elderly, with worse eyes and less nimble fingers than they used to have. But still….)

More important, by transmitting the phone signal directly into both hearing aids, users get an optimal listening experience. Users with severe hearing loss (myself included), often can’t hear on the phone using only one ear but can with both ears. In the past I used a neck loop or two induction silhouettes that got the phone signal in through both hearing aids, and it made a world of difference. Getting the signal in stereo without extra wires, using the phone the way any normal person would use it, is a huge improvement.

Phonak isn’t the only hearing aid manufacturer to make a big investment in a wireless ecosystem for its hearing aid users. ReSound has already started shipping its third generation 2.4 GHz wireless technology for its peripherals, and it just introduced the world’s first Made for iPhone hearing aids that enable the phone to transmit directly into the hearing aids without an intermediary streaming device. Widex has a complete line of wireless peripherals for phone, TV and remote microphone streaming as well, and Starkey and Oticon have shipped wireless peripherals as well.

The leaders’ commitment to developing the latest wireless technologies for their premium products (the peripherals can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the $4-to-$6,000 one must pay for a pair of top-shelf hearing aids) will get the industry up the volume and learning curve and down the price curve, paving the way for other hearing aid companies that will be able to develop and introduce more affordable wireless products for the larger market of consumers with mild or moderate hearing loss.

Best of all, as wireless connectivity of hearing aids goes mainstream, and as additional communication applications come into play, we will start to see hearing aids morph from singular devices used only to correct a hearing deficiency to multi-purpose communication platforms that anyone will want to use. Stay tuned.

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