One of the few down sides to wearing most hearing aid styles is that you can't put anything ELSE in your ears at the same time. This means no ear-level Bluetooth pieces, no iPod or MP3 player earbuds, and often no headsets for listening to TV. Consumers have been asking for a solution, and finally manufacturers are listening. Now there are ways to connect to the audio gadget of your choice without first having to remove your hearing help. Most use Bluetooth® technology or in some way connect via Bluetooth.
What is Bluetooth? Put simply, Bluetooth technology is a short-range wireless radio technology that allows electronic devices to securely connect to one another without wires.
How Does Bluetooth Work With Hearing Aids? Bluetooth allows hearing assist to communicate with hands-free devices, such as a music player and cell phone. It can also be used with accessories that act as transmitters to take information from non-Bluetooth audio devices, such as a TV or stereo system, and send it to the hearing assists using the same Bluetooth technology. These accessories are manufacturer-specific and are an optional extra accompanying the hearing assist purchase. Accessories range in price from $100 to $400 each. In addition, Bluetooth allows the audio signal to be altered through the hearing support programming to better suit the listeners hearing needs, while also allowing the two hearing serve supports to communicate with one another, permitting a more “hands free” hearing experience.
What Are Some Examples? The hearing support manufacturer Oticon uses Bluetooth in their Streamer device. The Streamer, worn around the neck, is paired with the hearing supports and then the audio devices you want to use. The Streamer is not a true Bluetooth system in that it uses the hearing relief's internal T-coil to communicate with the hearing reliefs. This requires that the Streamer be worn around the neck to pick up the audio signal. Although this means the wearer is essentially tied to the accessory device, the Streamer allows for direct streaming of a Bluetooth audio signal to the hearing reliefs without first removing the hearing reliefs. Oticon also sells a line of products under their ConnectLine brand, which includes an adapter for non-Bluetooth audio signals from televisions and landline phones.
Phonak uses a device called the iCom, which operates similarly to the Streamer. It also uses induction to the hearing help T-coil with a device that is worn around the neck. The iCom allows for connection of up to five different audio devices. This allows the listener to listen to the TV, using the Phonak TV accessory, switch easily to an incoming cell phone call, then resume with the TV audio after the call is finished. Seimens uses Tek Connect, which is similar to the Streamer and iCom accessories.
The next generation of truly wireless connectivity is now available in several hearing help. ReSound's Alera hearing help can use the Unite accessories to connect to TV and cell phone without the use of a neck-worn accessory. The Alera and Unite accessories are the first truly hands-free Bluetooth hearing help devices.
Starkey also has a hands-free Bluetooth device in its Wi line. At the moment, the Bluetooth technology is only available for streaming TV audio through its SurfLink accessory. The streaming rate, however, is extremely fast which means there is no lag-time between what the viewer sees on screen and what is heard at ear-level, which is often noticeable in some of the other products.
The newest wireless hearing abet on the market is the Widex Clear. Currently it is only available in the standard Behind-The-Ear and Receiver-In-The-Canal styles. WidexLink is used to transmit sound from external devices to the hearing abets when watching TV, talking on the mobile phone or listening to music. This is done by way of an external transmitting device. The TV-DEX is used for TV streaming and the M-DEX is used for streaming cell phone audio to the hearing abets.
Other companies are getting into the Bluetooth accessory race, as well. For example, Nokia has introduced a wireless loopset that allows users with T-coil equipped hearing abet to have a connection to their cell phones. The loopset allows for a wide range of control from control of volume and also volume range and frequency. Many cell phone carriers are now offering Bluetooth accessories for hands-free cell phone use. Check with your carrier's website for availability.
What Should I Think About Before I Buy? First, talk things over with your audiologist. By working together, you can determine whether or not new hearing aids would be a good fit for you.
Also, consider your lifestyle. Are you a gadget person? Is music a big part of your life or would you like to enjoy music more often? Does your state require hands-free cell phone use? Is the TV volume too loud for others? If so, Bluetooth accessories are a great way to combat these listening issues.
Be aware that there are a few downsides to Bluetooth accessories: You'll need to keep track of not only the hearing aids, but also another accessory in most cases. You'll also need to remember to keep the accessory charged. In addition, you may need to upgrade your gadgets (cell phone and music player) for Bluetooth compatibility. Remember that your audiologist is your best ally. You may need to make a few extra visits to ensure everything is properly paired and that you understand how everything works, but ultimately, a hands-free experience can give you a new-found freedom for listening to the sounds of life that you may have been missing.