The Starkey Group is jumping into the invisible hearing aid market, with five of its brand names selling a tiny new device that fits deep within the ear canal. It also set up a web site, Invisible Hearing Aid.com, to promote what appears to be a common platform product that is being shared by all five Starkey Group companies — Starkey Laboratories, NuEar, MicroTech, AudioSync, and Audibel. Each brand is selling the digital device under its own name, but all the hearing aids feature similar technology and features, including: a design enabling deep insertion within the “second bend” of the ear canal, making it nearly impossible to see; a 16-channel digital signal processor; processing software with noise reduction and “speech preservation;” feedback cancellation; and an innovative “T2″ controller enabling you to adjust volume and memory settings from your cell phone or touch-tone phone.
Using a common technology platform for products sold under multiple brands is a tried-and-true marketing strategy (think of the Buick, Chevy, Cadillac, and Pontiac automobiles that all share the same chassis and many of the same components). But we haven’t seen as much of it in the hearing aid business. I’m not sure if Starkey Group’s plan is to provide different brands for different market segments — providing everything from entry-level to premium products — or if it’s merely been slow or reluctant to migrate the brands of companies it has acquired into the Starkey Laboratories family.
Anyone shopping for invisible hearing aids should be aware of the common technology behind the five products but should also investigate any specific differences in price or minor features. Here are the five brands and brand names:
- Soundlens, from Starkey Laboratories.
- Invisibel, from Audibel hearing products.
- iSync, from AudioSync Hearing Technologies.
- MicroLens, from MicroTech hearing products.
- MiniScopic, from NuEar hearing products.
The Starkey Group products are the latest entry in the invisible in-the-canal (IIC) category of super-small hearing aids. One of the first and best-known IIC products is the Lyric Hearing Aid, an extended-wear device which fits more deeply in the ear canal than other entries in the category, but which requires the assistance of an audiologist for insertion and removal when batteries expire after several months of continuous wear. The Starkey Group invisible hearing aids aren’t inserted quite as deeply as the Lyric Hearing Aids, but they have the benefit of easy removal by grabbing an invisible plastic filament extending to the outer ear. At the same time, like the Lyric hearing aids, they are secured within the bony portion at the “second bend” of the ear canal, so they enjoy a better fit than in-the-canal devices that sit further out in the soft-cartilage portion of the ear canal, where there is more movement and a less secure seal resulting in more feedback.
The benefits of tiny invisible hearing aids are many: because they sit so close to the ear drum, they need less power and amplification and cause less annoying feedback. The snug fit also makes them more comfortable. And users say there is a more natural sound with less “occlusion,” the stopped up feeling and echoing that happens when sound bounces too great a distance between the hearing aid’s receiver (speaker) and the ear drum. There are also drawbacks: the invisible hearing aids aren’t as helpful for people with severe hearing loss as for mild hearing loss in high frequencies. And bells and whistles such as T-coils that make it easier to hear on the phone may have to wait a while as well, until the next generation of miniature digital components comes along.
In the meantime, however, it’s gratifying to see the big manufacturers like Starkey jumping into the market with both feet.