Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bluetooth Hearing Aids Report

Bluetooth Logo used by permission In the recent two or three years, high-end hearing aids have been available with Bluetooth wireless technology, which means that they use radio waves to connect to a cell phone, wired phone, TV, stereo music player, or computer, providing high-quality audio in both ears.

I'm definitely a fan of Bluetooth in my hearing aids. I'm hooked. What's so good about it?:
  • The sound quality can be exceptionally high, much more crisp than sound coming through the air into the hearing aids' microphones;
  • The sound from a telephone comes into both ears, making callers easier to hear (some new aids do this without Bluetooth);
  • It's cordless. I can go get myself a sandwich in the kitchen, visit the bathroom, or start a load of laundry in the basement while still listening to TV or stereo music;
  • I can listen to the TV while the sound is muted for everyone else, or mute it while others in the room are listening, or change the volume to please myself; and
  • If it's cool to be on the phone with a Bluetooth gizmo sticking out of the ear (some people think it is), then it's really cool to do it with no visible gizmo.
What are the arguments against Bluetooth?:
  • It requires the use of a separate Bluetooth control unit, hung around the neck or clipped on clothing.
  • The control has to be shirt-pocket high or so, because it communicates wirelessly to the hearing aids and because it contains the microphone that picks up the wearer's voice during a phone call;
  • It adds cost to the hearing aids, typically $300 to $400 for the Bluetooth control unit and a TV/stereo adapter;
  • Some of the less-expensive but otherwise good aids, like those from Sam's Club, do not yet offer Bluetooth;
  • It's more complex, so some hearing instrument dispensers are not experienced in fitting these aids; and
  • The user will want to figure out how to connect the TV adapter to a TV or stereo, and to "pair" the Bluetooth control unit to a TV adapter, cell phone, music player, or other device.
Of course, a person can use the TV feature of Bluetooth but not the telephone feature, or vice versa. The Bluetooth control unit can be "paired" to multiple devices, although it is able to receive audio from only one of those paired devices at a time.

As far as I know, hearing aids with Bluetooth are the same physical size as those without - the difference is in the auxiliary Bluetooth control unit.


So far, we three have tested Bluetooth hearing aids from Bernafon, Phonak, and Unitron. In all cases, the aids switched automatically to special programs when Bluetooth was turned on to provide the sound source. The resulting frequency response was preset to provide good speech recognition, which did not necessarily yield the best music quality. However, in all of those aids, the preset frequency response can be changed by the hearing instrument dispenser to provide high-quality music. The newest aids have two different Bluetooth programs, one for one-way audio such as TV sound, and another for two-way telephone conversations.

Bluetooth Sound versus Conversation:

The hearing aids can still provide sound from people in the room through their normal microphones, even while actively connected by Bluetooth to a TV, telephone, or other device, so you hear both. The level of room sound can be adjusted by the technician, and I did have mine changed from the factory settings to provide more room sound in TV mode and less in telephone mode. In this way, we can listen to high-quality sound from the TV, each at our own chosen volume, and still have a conversation. This is an issue - we don't want to sit side-by-side, each inside our own sound bubble, unable to talk. With the hearing-aid microphones turned up just right, it seems to be working for us.

TV Setup and Use:

The TV adapter must be wired to the TV (there are jacks for this on most digital TV's) and "paired" to the Bluetooth control unit, but only once. From then on, a push button on the Bluetooth control unit will pipe in the TV sound, and the same button will turn it off. That's it. Volume is controlled the same way that microphone volume is controlled. All three of us can sit side-by-side-by-side watching TV with all three Blueteeth turned on, and with no interference between them. Except: When we walk around, to get a snack in the kitchen for example, the sound does go quiet if we get too close to each other. So far, this has not been a significant problem.

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