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AudiologyNOW! 2014: A tour of the hearing instrument manufacturers

Whilst still the largest gathering of hearing care professionals and industry representatives, AudiologyNOW! 2014 had fewer exhibitors than previous years, and those that were exhibiting had smaller booths. Connectivity was this year’s buzz; some manufacturers were talking about ‘Made for iPhone’ (MFi), others were interested in ‘made for all phones’! There were several different approaches on display.

Audifon

Following the launch of the Libra and Miro product families at the German congress in October 2013, audifon added new Receiver-In-Canal (RIC) products to these ranges, in both price points. Jane Perrone, Vice President of US Operations said, “The new RICs have ear-changeable receiver units with are much smaller, so will fit more ears.” With two different speaker units, the R-housing is suitable for a broad fitting range. The top-end Libra has adaptive directional microphones, uses a 312 battery and has a choice of 42dB or 55dB receiver, “In a few months we will have a higher receiver of 72dB, but we are still testing,” Perrone explained. Miro is slightly different with a fixed directional microphone. Perrone expects these new RICs to be available globally from June onwards.

Across the three families (Libra, Miro and Vico), audifon has also released Power BTEs. They have the same feature sets as their respective families, and although they have a small housing they still provide 78dB gain and 136dB SPL output. Perrone said this was possible as “We have encased the receiver which gives more useable gain.” Audifit5 is the new fitting solution required to programme the new products. Peronne said that audifon has been in the US for eight years now and things are going well. When asked about Made for iPhone she said they plan for wireless in the future in 2015.

Beltone

This was an exciting show for Beltone. After months of preview and testing, they have now announced the availability of Beltone First, their ‘Made for iPhone’ hearing aid. The company describe the product as “A genuine breakthrough in hearing technology.” Firstly, the hearing aid has been redesigned to offer a sleek new shape, and then Ear-to-Ear synchronization provides wireless communication between the hearing aids that prioritise speech. CrossLink Directionality analyses the changing environment to focus on speech and conversations. Noise is removed from these signals through Smart Gain Pro and Sound Cleaner Pro and Sound Shifter moves sounds from the higher ranges to more audible regions and finally Feedback Eraser with WhistleStop prevents whistling when using a telephone, and other actions that can cause problems with feedback.

Providing the biggest wow for audiologists was the ‘Made for iPhone’ capability of Beltone First. The hearing aids receive clear, clean sound streamed from an Apple product at the tap of a finger. “Like tiny wireless headphones”, the Beltone First enables end users to wireless stream phone calls, music, movies, audio from games, GPS directions, facetime calls…, essentially any signal that the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad transmits. The iPhone can also be used to control the hearing aids. The HearPlus app allows wearers to personalise their listening experience. It remembers the places you have visited and if re-visited the hearing aids will automatically change to the setting the wearer preferred in that environment. As well as fine-tuning the instruments, the HearPlus app will also ‘Find my hearing aids’ if they are ever lost.

Bernafon

Previously launched at the EUHA German congress, this was the first American outing for the Carista 5 and 3 product families, along with the new SoundGate 2, Phone Adapter 2 and TV Adapter 2, the wireless connectivity devices. Many of the features of the Acriva high-end products have cascaded down into the Carista 5 and 3. Carista uses the Audio Efficiency™ technology developed in Switzerland, which includes features such as Adaptive Noise Reduction Plus, for efficient and impressive noise suppression technology, and REMfit, for a rapid, precise, and individual hearing instrument fitting.

Bernafon’s wireless connectivity devices connect the hearing impaired to mobile and landline telephones, TVs, computers, GPS systems and MP3 players. Audio signals are transmitted wirelessly to the Carista hearing aids, using SoundGate 2 as a wireless bridge. Benefits for customers using Soundgate 2 include an improved SNR which ensures greater audibility; an integrated telecoil for use in theatres and other public places and an extended rechargeable battery life in the Soundgate 2.

Hansaton

This was the first American outing for the new, 4th generation, XearA chip set that was launched at the German congress in 2013. Since launch, Hansaton has also added the XearA ITE, “The latest ITE custom instrument represents a major step forward for hearing instruments in terms of both form and function. It is almost invisible and extremely comfortable, with the best of 21st century technology inside.” said Robert Eastman, Hansaton USA President.

The XearA ITE has many of the features of the BTE model, including Conversation Lift to improve speech intelligibility in noise. The feature works by using an adaptive directional microphone system with a noise suppression algorithm. Sound Restore is a frequency compression algorithm that remaps high-frequency sounds into an audible range to enhance speech intelligibility for severe-to-profound wearers. Amongst many other features the XearA also has Bi-Com wireless which provides Bluetooth to many sound sources. “The device has remarkable signal processing capability, which restores a level of speech clarity that many people feel they‘ve lost forever,” said Jerry Yanz, Director of Audiology, Hansaton USA. “Whether you’re having a quiet conversation, driving or eating in a noisy restaurant, the custom ITE or AQ rechargeable with XearA technology provides a hassle-free, pleasurable hearing experience.”

Oticon

The last 12 months have been good for Oticon. They have completed the launch of all technology levels on the Inium platform (Alta, Nera and Ria) and have ensured that their ConnectLine accessories can now be used with iPhones. “It has been good,” said Soren Nielsen, President of Oticon, “The world is having ups and downs and we are having our ups and downs in markets that are changing rapidly with reimbursement. But in general we are fine and focused on serving independent dispensers.”

Talking about the show, Nielsen said, “We have two major themes at the convention this year. First of all we gave added to our connectivity world, a ‘Made for iPhone’ solution. This means that our connectivity solution – ConnectLine – is now fully integrated with Apple’s product range. We have managed to make it in a way that we have it for all wireless hearing aids. Any person that has an Oticon wireless device over the last 7 years can upgrade to these accessories. It also makes it possible to apply any style and any price point.” Nielsen concluded, “It is widely available for any kind of user, independent of price and style preference.”

Phonak

AudiologyNOW! witnessed the launch of the new Lyric3 from Phonak. Available in nine countries, the third generation of Lyric will roll out in the US first before making its way to the UK, Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and Australia. As Lyric becomes incorporated in the overall Phonak product portfolio, rather than being treated as a separate product, the Swiss manufacturer will “start to evaluate” increasing the countries where Lyric is available. “Right now we have plenty of room to grow in the existing countries we are in,” explains Bryan Holmes, Managing Director for Phonak Lyric.

This is the second enhancement Phonak has made to the Lyric product since purchasing InSound Medical and the Lyric concept. The latest improvements, “address some of the input we got from providers to improve the sound quality and audiological fit,” said Holmes. Even before these changes, Lyric had some impressive customer statistics. In a US survey, 86% of Lyric patients agreed that the Lyric sound quality is very natural, 93% say they hear more clearly with Lyric than with previous hearing instruments and 94% would specifically recommend Lyric to family and friends.

ReSound

The biggest buzz at AudiologyNOW! was created by ReSound. The company has been leading up to this launch day for 12 months now; previewed one year ago at AudiologyNOW! in San Diego, then at EUHA, in Germany, and finally they started shipping LiNX products in late February 2014. For those that might not have heard, LiNX streams stereo sound from an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch without the need for an additional pendant-like device. The ReSound Smart App customises the hearing instrument, allowing users to set volume, change treble/bass and use geo-tagging to assign and adjust the acoustics of frequently visited places. The app will also ‘Find my hearing aids’ if they are misplaced. Behind the MFi function, the hearing aid has the latest version of Surround Sound by ReSound, ReSound’s proprietary sound processing technology using 3rd generation 2.4 GHz wireless technology.

Lars Viksmoen, CEO of ReSound was in a particularly buoyant mood about LiNX, “I think it will be special and I think the most important thing is that it is a very good hearing aid – the best hearing aid that money can buy!” He continued, “As a hearing aid the sound quality is just fabulous and we get that comment from patients when they are trying it. There are obviously some benefits that go beyond the hearing aid itself, which are the connectivity and the app.”

Siemens

Siemens launched ProSuite, a new consultation concept. Roland Heichel, Head of Product Marketing for Siemens explained, “We focus on tools that we offer to the hearing care professional to make their daily work with their customers easier. On the basis of already existing counselling and fitting tools we developed further new ones and bundled them to a comprehensive service package under the ProSuite umbrella.”

The range of hearing instruments has become more and more diverse over the years, in a variety of sizes and designs. The Siemens portfolio goes from tiny CICs to classic BTEs and they can also include tinnitus programmes, have wireless capability, are rechargeable and have up to six programmes. With the wealth of accessories that are also available, Siemens believe that ProSuite will now enable both hearing care professional and hearing impaired the best possible way to select the right hearing aid and fitting. Counselling Suite 3.0 is a programme which can be used on Windows and Apple computers, as well as on iOS and Android based tablets. “It is an interactive tool that helps the dispenser to explain where the hearing loss comes from, the hearing loss itself and the kind of hearing solutions that are available. All the counselling tasks are made easier during the whole process,” Roland Heichel said.

Sonic

Sonic introduced Flip40 and Flip60 at the show, the newest additions to the Flip family. Flip60 is the wireless version and Flip40 is without wireless capability. Designed to deliver just the features listeners need, Flip40 rounds out the Flip family which now includes product options from Premium to Basic. Flip40 is built on Sonic’s Speech Variable Processing platform and provides exceptional sound quality along with benefits like Speech Priority Noise Reduction and easy-to-use controls. Audiologists could also see the next generation of Sonic wireless accessories.

“Last year we outperformed the market by far; we were far in the double-digit growth. In a market that only grows 2-3% that is good,” said Marcel Vennik. “By next year’s AAA we will have enlarged our portfolio. We are missing a power product, a mini RIC, so you will see all of that. We will update the wireless. MFi that everyone is talking about, we will have that added in the next year,” Vennik concluded.

Unitron

Two years ago, Unitron set a different strategy to address the barriers to hearing aid acceptance. The Canadian manufacturer wanted to create a wow when the hearing aid was put in the hand and a wow when the hearing aid was put on the ear. The sound quality is key to getting acceptance when a hearing aid is first worn and Jan Metzdorff believes that they have achieved this with the features such as SpeechZone 2, “SpeechZone 2 can pinpoint speech within 360 degrees and respond intelligently to provide superior results for speech in noise. Speech has nowhere to hide!” Bruce Brown, Vice President Marketing, added, “One of the things that make this SpeechZone unique and an advancement on the previous version is that the hearing aids work binaurally as a system.”

Unitron were also looking for wow when the hearing aid was placed in the hand of the end-user for the first time. Two years of design work has resulted in the Unitron products winning two awards in two months. First came the Red Dot Award, closely followed by the IF Award which both look at the cosmetics of the product. “We put a lot of focus in our design, coming up with a contemporary, attractive design. These design awards underline all of this – we are happy with them,” Metzdorff said.

Widex

“This time we mainly focus on accessories,” said Soren Ernstsen, Vice President of Marketing. EASYWEAR is a new wire and receiver ear-tip solution that will be used for all Widex RIC/RITE solutions. “What has typically been the problem throughout the industry is that they are not cosmetically appealing, size and fit can be a problem, they can break easily and they need to be manipulated a lot,” said Ernstsen. “This family of EASYWEAR products addressed all of these issues.”

Widex also launched UNI-DEX. “UNI-DEX is our solution to communicate and stream sound from the telephone to your ears. It’s a solution that works hands-free, works for all phones, for all hearing losses, for all form factors, for all price points. We have chosen to go down that route instead of choosing the ‘Made for iPhone’ route. Not because that is not a good idea, but because our customers are 70+. The most important thing for them is not apps or being able to change programmes; it is to talk, to be able to have a conversation on the phone, that’s it.”

It has been an interesting 12 months for the Danish manufacturer, according to Ernstsen, the DREAM product introduction was the most successful they have ever made and a new CEO has been appointed. Jorgen Jensen, President and CEO, is the first person from outside the family who has taken over.

Whilst Ernstsen would not be drawn on whether Widex would come to market with a MFi, he did say, “Connectivity is a trend, but at the end of the day it is about the hearing aid. You should never forget the core here. I think we will all try to do everything we can to look for comfort, ease-of-use, convenience, without sacrificing the core sound.”

AudiologyNOW! numbers:

  • Total Attendees: 6,263 (4,118 attendees, 2,145 exhibitors)
  • International attendees: 700
  • International exhibitors: 366

Victoria Adshead, editor in chief of Audio infos UK


Photos: American Academy of Audiology, V.A.
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