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What’s That You Said About New Hearing Aids?

Apple and traditional devicemakers have teamed up

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata | September 9, 2014

Peggy Gerbeling knew her hearing loss had become a problem when she stopped taking calls from friends. “I’d see them on the caller ID, but I wouldn’t pick up,” said Gerbeling, 65, of Plymouth, Minn.  

That’s because she couldn’t make out what they were saying — it was all a dim muddle.

Then Gerbeling found out her daughter was pregnant. Knowing that she'd someday want to speak to her future grandchild by phone, the retired nurse was motivated to get help.

(MORE: How to Manage Hearing Loss)

She found it in a new generation of hearing aids, created when Apple partnered with traditional hearing aid companies to improve technologies. The new devices work much like high-end phone headsets, but with added features for the hard of hearing.

Waiting for Hearing Help

Gerbeling is hardly alone in hesitating to find help. More than 36 million Americans have a hearing loss, but only one out of five who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

(MORE: Need a Hearing Aid? Get the Best Advice and Fit for You)

Boomers, the post-WWII generation once associated with youth, are notorious for avoiding hearing aids. They often waiting seven years after the onset of hearing loss to seek technical assistance, according to Minnesota-based hearing aid makers ReSound and Starkey. About 12 million boomers suffer from some kind of hearing loss, Starkey estimates.

Companies like Starkey, ReSound and Beltone hope that as devices become increasingly inconspicuous, more people will turn to them before a problem is severe. And they tout the built-in Apple technology as more effective, easier to adjust and way more cool than your dad’s hearing aid.

This new breed of hearing aid links up wirelessly to Apple’s iOS devices, such as the iPhone and the iPad, much as cell phone headsets have done for years. This gives hearing aid owners control via their Apple-device screens. They can make and take calls, listen to music, engage in video chats and heed car-navigation prompts, with the sound from all such activities coming through the hearing aids. The audio quality is something the companies are proud of and that users say they appreciate.

(MORE: How to Overcome Fear of Technology)

Through their screens, users can fine-tune the hearing aids for different kinds of situations, such as loud concerts and restaurants. That would have been all but impossible in the past, when users needed clunky "relay" devices stuffed into their pockets or dangling from their necks to sync their phones with their medical devices.

A Range of Options

Starkey’s Apple-enhanced hearing aids are dubbed Halo, ReSound sells a product called LiNX and Beltone offers First.

The hearing aids don’t come cheap, running into thousands of dollars. But those on tighter budgets aren’t out of options.

Cutting-edge, but less-costly, products for the hard of hearing are available. They include the Bean, an in-ear device similar to a hearing aid but without requiring audiologist visits. It operates more simply — focusing on amplifying quiet sounds, such as conversations in restaurants, so they're easier to make out. These devices are $479 apiece or $858 a pair.

Also available: desktop phones, such as Amplicom’s PowerTel 7-Series devices, with a host of features for the hard of hearing. These include amplified earpiece volume which have sound “boosting” tone adjustments with an emphasis on harder-to-hear higher frequencies, extra-loud ringing accompanied by a visual indicator and “wrist shaker” accessories that vibrate when calls come in. These phones cost as little as $100 each.

Is It Worth The Cost?

For those able to afford one of the iPhone-compatible hearing aids, and wondering if they’re good investments, users insist they’re worth every penny.

Gerbeling, who tried Starkey’s Halo hearing aid, said her life has been transformed in sometimes surprising ways. One of the first things she noticed: She can again hear her car’s turn-signal clicking sounds.

She hadn’t been to the movies in years because it was “a big, terrible noise,” but caught two flicks after being fitted for her new hearing aid. When Gerbeling went out to eat, she no longer frantically scanned the restaurant for a location with the right kinds of acoustics.

In these and other locations, she could make a few adjustments on her iPhone screen to hear what she wanted without being overly distracted by other sounds in the area.

She has run into only one minor problem: Starkey couldn’t get the Halo to fit her ear properly, so she’s making do with a slightly older model while the problem is worked out.

That small issue aside, “I’m back in business,” Gerbeling said. “People who think a hearing aid makes them look old are completely wrong. It’s not being able to hear that makes them look old.”

Julio Ojeda Zapata is a technology journalist and occasional author. His latest book is The Mobile Writer. Find him at ojezap.com and follow him on Twitter @ojezap.