Do You Hear What iHear?

by Leah M. Abel

An elegant new device from Beltone stands to revolutionize hearing technologies.

Though it’s among the most common human conditions, people are often reluctant to admit to experiencing hearing loss. Fearing the stigmas associated with the crude, bulky hearing aids of the past, many settle into acceptance. But imagine a device so small it can hardly be seen, customized for your specific condition, sorting the information from the noise. Imagine a cutting-edge hearing aid that can be operated remotely using technology you already have—one that remembers your settings, is highly aware of its environment, and adjusts itself accordingly.

There’s no need to imagine anymore. In February, Beltone, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of hearing devices, unveiled a striking new partnership with Apple: a device with “Made for iPhone” capabilities, allowing users to receive clear, clean sound streamed directly from an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Indeed, the Beltone First is so sophisticated that even people without hearing loss may want to get their hands—and ears—on it. Most certainly, this is not your grandfather’s hearing aid.

Smart Phones, Smart Sound
While up to 360 million people worldwide experience some form of hearing loss, only about 10 percent actually seek help for the condition. “People don’t like to admit they have a hearing loss,” explains Laurie K. Chiou, president and owner of Harmony Hearing of Illinois, which operates five Beltone Hearing Aid Centers in the region. “That’s why this product is so exciting!”

Fusing the hearing assistance of traditional devices with the convenience of mobile technologies and user-friendly design for which Apple is well-known, the Beltone First can help alleviate 90 percent of all hearing losses, from mild to profound. With its sleek silhouette, customization options and array of built-in technologies, the First offers a “cool” factor never before seen in the industry, overcoming the outdated stigmas associated with hearing aids of the past. It also stimulates areas of the brain associated with hearing loss, helping to prevent the deterioration of neural pathways which some evidence suggests could lead to memory loss or even dementia.

Madeline Keane, Beltone regional sales director, describes the First as essentially a “mini-computer.” For the last three years, the firm’s hearing devices have featured a 2.4 GHz wireless connection, and now, thanks to its partnership with Apple, Beltone is taking its technology to a whole new level. Enabled with Bluetooth capabilities, the Beltone First can stream audio from iPhones, iPads and other mobile devices—as well as phone calls, videos, TV broadcasts, music… basically anything that can be streamed by a mobile device. Meanwhile, the Beltone HearPlus app offers remote-control capabilities to adjust its volume and settings, and locate the receiver—even if it’s turned off—via the “Find My Hearing Aid” feature.

Users of other mobile brands need not fear: the Beltone First is not exclusive to Apple devices. It’s compatible with other mobile technologies as well, and can operate autonomously—so there’s no need to worry if you lose your phone or your tablet’s batteries run out.

A New Generation
The convergence of the Beltone First with mobile devices has made physical adjustments a thing of the past. All the dial-turning and volume-adjusting of past generations can now be accomplished on a smartphone or tablet with a simple swipe or press of a button. “Usually, you would have to come in and have a hearing aid specialist make those types of adjustments,” Keane explains. “Now you’re enabled to make a lot of those adjustments yourself.”

The tiny, lightweight Beltone First rests behind the top of the ear, connected by a clear tube to one of the market’s smallest in-ear receivers. It uses the latest silicon-based microphones, allowing it to withstand temperature and humidity fluctuations without a need for bulky accessories. Every surface of the First features an HPF80 NanoBlock coating, protecting it from dirt, moisture and perspiration, and extending its durable life far beyond that of past hearing instruments. An extra bonus for the cosmetically conscious: it comes in eight colors that can blend with different hair and skin types.

Adaptive Design
Where older hearing aids simply amplified sounds, the spatial directionality built into the First is adaptive to its environment, providing users with focused targeting of specific sounds in noisy surroundings—useful for phone calls in loud offices or conversations across the table at crowded restaurants. Its omnidirectional microphones can determine which sounds are important and which to tune out; while driving, for example, users can easily hear conversations inside the vehicle and emergency sirens outside, while the persistent noise of the road is minimized. And no matter the location, the First will never buzz, squeal or generate painful feedback.

GPS tracking enables the Beltone First to record adjustments made at specific locations and automatically use those settings when those places are revisited—so users need not bother readjusting their settings. In addition, the highly-programmable First offers a wide range of frequency presets so everyone from musicians to machine-shop workers can use the same device—dialing in only the ranges of sound they wish to hear. Once it has been fine-tuned, the First monitors its environment at all times, smoothly transitioning between settings as users move around from home to work to the store… and anywhere else they might go.

A Giant Leap Forward
Because the brain requires about six months to fully adapt to a new hearing device—sometimes longer for those who have not been hearing properly for some time—most clients work with licensed dispensers throughout the adjustment period. Beltone’s support network, BelCare Services, is there to provide counseling and after-care guidance for those who are new to hearing devices, as well as offering regular communication and information about upgrades to all of its clients. “We’re here for them at all times,” Chiou asserts, “and we continue follow-up through the life of their hearing aid.”

Even as it rolls out this latest innovation, Beltone is already hard at work on the next generation of hearing devices. Soon, the customization options available through the Beltone First will become even more powerful, as the company has begun to use 3D printing technologies to create custom molds of individual ear canals for the perfect fit. And Keane reports that within the next year, Beltone hopes to begin providing devices that automatically translate languages to the user’s preferred linguistic settings, making communication across cultures that much easier—functionality that might have been considered science fiction just five or 10 years ago.

For now, the Beltone First is a giant leap forward in hearing technology, and Chiou and her staff are excited to begin distributing it. “It’s so much more than just a hearing aid,” she says. “It’s really a hearing care device—a lifestyle enhancer.” iBi

For more information, or to find the Beltone location nearest you, visit beltone.com.

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