I purchased a Songbird Ultra Digital Hearing Aid over the internet recently and have been trying it out myself and with other users in different listening situations. The good news is that the inexpensive entry-level device is a true open-fit, behind-the-ear digital hearing aid that performs like other comparable low-end hearing-aids. That’s also the bad news: because it performs like other comparable low-end hearing-aids, it has many of the same drawbacks you find in many entry-level digital hearing aids.
But given the Songbird Ultra’s ultra-low $300 (USD) price compared to many other digital hearing aids with similar features, for me the net takeaway is that it’s a great first step for those who think they might need hearing assistance but aren’t yet ready to take the plunge with a visit to an audiologist that will most likely end up costing several thousand dollars or more. You can think of the Songbird Ultra in the same way a first-time home buyer thinks of a “starter home”: buy it at an affordable price, get used to the demands of owning it, and spend some time in a perfectly adequate situation until you get to know exactly what kinds of features you want when you can afford a more expensive one.
Songbird is a leader in the new class of “over-the-counter” (OTC) hearing aids that you can buy and use right away without a prescription from an audiologist (think of reading glasses purchased at the pharmacy versus prescription eyeglasses purchased from an optometrist), which I’ve written about before. If you are a Baby Boomer struggling with the early signs of high-frequency hearing loss — i.e., you can’t hear what they’re saying on TV or in the movies as well as you used to, understanding conversation in restaurants is more challenging, and your spouse and children are starting to complain you either don’t listen or can’t hear — it’s worth investigating OTC hearing aids. You can buy them online, try them out, and in the case of the Songbird Ultra, if you don’t like it, just return it within the 30-day no-questions-asked money-back guarantee period.
Buying a Songbird hearing aid is a snap: just go to the company’s web site, get out your credit card, and follow the directions. The hearing aid arrives in an attractive package with a carrying case, cleaning tools and a pack of standard 312 hearing-aid batteries. You get left-ear and right-ear tubes with sound tips so you can use the hearing aid with either ear. The soft, pliable open-ear tips are comfortable and easy to insert, and they solve the one-size-fits-all problem with a generous length of tubing to the processor that sits behind the ear, and a retention cord extending from the ear tip that is easy to grab when you want to remove the hearing aid but which also sits in the bowl of the ear and applies just enough pressure back on the tip to keep it snuggled deep within the ear canal. There is also a well-laid-out user instructional brochure that makes care, use and troubleshooting of the Songbird Ultra crystal clear.
The product itself is easy to use: it’s the high end of the Songbird product family, so it has a “sound-boost” button for four progressively louder volume settings, along with a feedback cancellation feature that enables extra amplification without as much annoying feedback whistling as you might otherwise have. Next to the sound-boost button is a tiny dial to further tune the volume. It’s a little difficult to manipulate, but that’s okay given the fact you will want to set the default volume at a comfortable level once and leave it there, using the sound-boost feature to amp things up when you need a little extra help. The processor unit is tiny and sits lightly behind the ear and, like other open-fit behind-the-ear hearing aids, the sound tubes are so skinny and the tip inserted so deeply in the ear canal that it’s difficult for people to see you are wearing a hearing aid unless they are looking closely for it. Finally, under the hood there is a sophisticated digital signal processor with circuitry originally developed at the famed Sarnoff Labs in New Jersey. So far, so good.
I first tried the device out on my 94-year-old father. He has been complaining about not being able to hear lunchtime conversations, at seminars, and in church. (I told him he’s got all the normal complaints of a healthy 60-year-old, which means he’s got very young ears!) It took him a few minutes to figure out how to get the device inserted in his ear properly and how to insert and remove the batteries, and he needed some help getting the default volume set. But he took to the sound-boost button quickly and found the device provided immediate improvement in his hearing. There was some initial feedback that was quite loud, but it dissipated quickly once he got the device settled in his ear. He also reported it was very comfortable, “like there’s nothing there.” Given that he had previously tried completely-in-the-canal (CIC) hearing aids, which he didn’t like at all and sat permanently in the drawer after his initial use, I took this as a very positive sign.
However, when he tried out the hearing aid for a week, he reported inconclusive results. He wasn’t sure how much help it was giving him, and he couldn’t tell much of a difference when he tried it in one ear, then the other. The biggest problem he experienced was that it appeared to turn off and on at different times, sometimes shutting down completely. At the end of two weeks, he reported it was simply not working and he’d stopped using it. When I picked it up and brought it home, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it: whenever I turned it on it was clearly working, because I’d get immediate feedback when I cupped my hands around it. So I plan to give it another try with him. In the meantime, I moved on to subject Number 2, my Baby-Boomer-aged wife Barbara.
Barbara tried out the Songbird Ultra and, like my father, noticed the amplification right away. Like a lot of first-time hearing-aid users, she reported that the amplified sound seemed a little unnatural or “tinny.” Plus she was distracted by environmental noises she hadn’t heard as much before, such as water dripping out of the faucet and dishes clanking in the sink. Neither of these issues concerned me too much, because the brain adjusts to and filters out the distracting noises after getting used to the hearing aids. The “unnatural” sound is also something you get used to, plus overall sound quality perception is very personal and subjective: different sound processing software and the receiver (speaker) components from different manufacturers can have an impact on the quality of the sound, so it’s important for buyers to assess for themselves how “tinny” or natural the sound reproduction seems to them with any hearing-aid product.
There were two bigger concerns, though. First, Barbara reported that if she didn’t insert the tip deeply enough in the ear, the sound seemed to turn off and on when she moved her head, much as my father reported intermittent outages. So I am assuming his problem was inability to keep the tip inserted in the ear properly, either because of the shape of his ear canal made it difficult to retain the tip, or because he had simple dexterity issues. The second concern was that there seemed to be a lot more feedback than I had expected at the higher sound-boost levels. When she had the sound-boost settings at three or four (the highest), I could hear intermittent whistling as she moved around the room or turned her head, as the hearing aid’s feedback system adjusted to the changing sound environment. Finally, she had a strong reaction to using only one hearing aid, saying she knew right away that if she purchased one and liked it, she would quickly acquire a second for the other ear. And, like my father, she reported that the open-fit hearing aid was extremely comfortable. Overall, Barbara said the test of the Songbird Ultra showed her that she could probably benefit from some entry-level hearing aids, but that she thought she would want a different quality of sound with more adjustment capability and less feedback.
Subject Number 3 for the test of the Songbird Ultra was me. I’ve got severe hearing loss so am not a candidate for entry-level, over-the-counter hearing aids. But I’ve used half a dozen different kinds of hearing aids over the past ten years and can get a sense pretty quickly about what a new digital hearing aid can and can’t do. When I tried the Songbird Ultra in my much-worse left ear, which can’t understand speech on its own, I found there was enough amplification to help me better understand speech with my right ear — so it performed the primary function I depend on my high-end left-ear hearing aid for, which is to assist my residual hearing in my poor ear enough to noticeably improve hearing using both ears. Then, when I used it in my right ear along with my high-end left-ear hearing aid, I was able to understand voices in a quiet room pretty well if I concentrated hard enough. This is actually pretty impressive, because without any aid in my right ear I’m deaf when it comes to hearing, let alone understanding, a conversation, even in a quiet setting. I found the sound quality to be adequate, though I saw what Barbara meant about it being a little less rich and complete than “normal” hearing or from the sound I get out of my multi-thousand-dollar high-end hearing aids. And like my father and Barbara, I found the open-fit device so light and comfortable that within several minutes I couldn’t even feel it in or on my ear. (I am really looking forward to the day when digital signal processors are so sophisticated and the feedback cancellation algorithms are so good that people with my severe level of hearing loss can use open-fit hearing aids).
The main drawback I encountered with the Songbird Ultra hearing aid was feedback. To get any benefit from the aid, I needed to set the base volume at the maximum and to keep the sound-boost at its highest Number 4 setting. Unfortunately that created way more feedback than I consider acceptable. However, the feedback cancellation algorithm itself is slick. Songbird Hearing promotes the fact that the feedback canceler adjusts to the sound environment you’ve entered to quickly eliminate feedback while providing you with the advantage of higher volume. And I found this to be true — when the device was settled in my ear, when I stayed still, and when the sound environment didn’t change much, the feedback quickly went away. But then just moving my head from side to side or walking around the room, or reacting to a sudden increase in noise in the room, would create an annoying whistle. I got used to the whistle because after a while I became confident it would be temporary and disappear as the feedback canceler kicked in. But after several hours of use I realized it’s the kind of annoyance I’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to avoid as I’ve upgraded to more expensive hearing aids over the years.
To be fair, feedback is one of the toughest issues for any hearing aid manufacturer, because simple laws of physics dictate that at higher amplification there will be a higher incidence of feedback, especially for comfortable open-fit aids versus the traditional hearing aids that block up your ear and thereby make it harder for the sound from the speaker to reach the microphone and re-amplify itself. So, for all I know, Songbird Hearing’s feedback cancellation algorithm may be just as good as or better than any other vendor’s. Songbird apparently is aware that feedback at higher volumes is an issue for its products, as its troubleshooting guide mentions the problem and says that when too much feedback occurs, you should: “Adjust the volume control to a lower setting. If you use the Sound Boost feature, return to the Standard volume setting.” In other words, to make the feedback go away, you have to eliminate one of the very things — amplification for better hearing — that you’ve bought the device for in the first place. But how big a problem is the feedback? I wouldn’t let it deter you from trying out the Songbird Ultra. If it gives you the amplification you need to hear well at the lower volume settings without any significant feedback, you are in great shape. If you need maximum volume and experience more feedback than you would want to live with, you probably won’t want the device. In that case, however, your need for the extra volume might mean you are a candidate for even more amplification from a pair of higher end hearing aids. That’s when it’s time to schedule your visit to the audiologist. When you have any degree of real hearing loss, especially at a range of frequencies beyond the normal degradation of high-frequency loss, there is simply no substitute for a good pair of programmable hearing aids tuned to your specific hearing profile by a professional audiologist.
Which gets me back to my original conclusion about the Songbird Ultra hearing aids. They are true digital hearing aids that provide real assistance to people with normal, mild, age-related hearing loss, especially anyone having trouble comprehending speech in difficult listening situations. And the price is right to start your journey toward better hearing. If you think you might need hearing assistance but don’t want to go through the hassle of that initial visit to the audiologist for an expensive pair of programmable hearing aids, trying out the basic amplification you get from an entry level over-the-counter hearing aid like the Songbird Ultra for one or even both ears is a great first step.