New gadget for impaired hearing: Between hearing aid and earphones

20. september 2022 kl. 15:04
New gadget for impaired hearing: Between hearing aid and earphones
GN has launched a hybrid model that is something between a hearing aid and earphones for people with mild hearing loss. Illustration: GN Store Nord.
Danish company GN’s hybrid model, which combines a hearing aid and Bluetooth earphones, is already available on the US market.
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A favourite topic of conversation for many people in their early 50s is the acoustics in restaurants.

Many notice an increase in the noise level and experience difficulties trying to have a normal conversation with the person next to them over a glass of good red wine.

But in most cases it is not because the ceiling has been raised and the floor has been changed from wood to stone. Instead, it is due to the mild hearing loss that affects us all, regardless of how healthy we otherwise are.

“For most people, it starts in their early 50s, when many suddenly experience poorer acoustics in restaurants with plaster ceilings and stone floors. But it’s actually just their hearing that’s a problem,” says Brian Dam Pedersen, chief technology officer at GN Hearing.

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Although they find hearing loss to be bothersome, many are reluctant to go to an audiologist and get a hearing aid.

Over-the-counter sales in the US

Back in 2017, political discussion arose about deregulation of the American hearing aid market. The goal was to secure cheaper hearing aids for the millions of Americans who suffer from mild to moderate hearing loss, but who cannot afford the DKK 30-35,000 out-of-pocket expense that hearing aids represent. At the same time, US authorities wanted to clean up the creative jungle of products known as Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAP). Devices that promise better hearing but are not approved as medical devices. This autumn, over-the-counter sales of hearing aids without a consultation with an audiologist will begin in the US. In Denmark, the market for PSAP does not really exist, as hearing aids are subsidized by the state.

New deregulation of the American market for hearing aids now opens up space for a new type of hybrid that combines improved speech clarity with all the known functions of earphones—for example echo cancellation and active noise reduction.

GN already has a hybrid device ready

Denmark has a long tradition in the development and production of hearing aids, with Oticon, WS Audiology, and GN forming the big three companies.

The Demant group also has a combination of hearing aids and consumer electronics within its group, with Oticon producing hearing aids and Epos making headsets and other consumer electronics.

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“Everyone said at the time: If someone is going to succeed in moving the development of hearing aids towards consumer electronics, then it must be GN, because we have both types of products in our group,” Brian Dam Pedersen from GN Hearing says.

The result is Jabra Enhance Plus, which was launched on the American market in the spring of 2022.

Before product development started, Brian Dam Pedersen and his colleagues searched for users who would be interested in the new hybrid product.

It turned out to be the people who have recognized that they have a hearing loss and who would like to have improved speech clarity in restaurants, for example. But they do not want to buy a hearing aid because it is perceived as a very invasive medical device.

“Conversely, many were also reluctant to use the small headsets that sit inside the ear (earbuds, ed.), because it may seem as if they’re not present in the conversation. The solution was miniaturization, which means that they cannot be seen when you’re sitting across from the person you’re talking to,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

Jabra Enhance Plus is about 40 percent smaller than GN’s smallest Jabra earbuds.

So far, Jabra Enhance Plus is only available for purchase in the USA and Japan, where legislation regarding the OTC products is in place. Illustration: GN .

“One of the most difficult development tasks in the project has been to design a product that is intuitively easy to place in the ear. Hearing aids are actually quite difficult to use and it often requires practice and instruction. But we don’t have room for that here, because professional service is out of the picture,” Brian Dam says.

When the American OTC regulations come into force later this autumn, the hearing aid will be sold in electronics chains such as Best Buy.

“We have ended up somewhere between a Bluetooth headset and a hearing aid. The development itself is rooted in our hearing division, as the product is regulated as medical equipment, and we have obtained knowledge about user interfaces and headsets from our audio division,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

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One of the most obvious examples of the new OTC solution being a hybrid is the compromise between size and battery life.

“Size is king, and if we were to build on a more traditional Bluetooth platform, which we use for headsets, the power consumption would increase and the dimensions would be larger. Even if you’re not meant to have the product in your ears 24/7, the battery still needs to be able to last 10 hours, so that you can, for example, use it during an entire wedding,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

The miniaturization also comes at the expense of sound quality when listening to music.

“It has less bass than our regular headsets because the speaker is smaller. It’s a constant battle to move more air in less space, so it’s pure physics. Especially for bass, which requires a good amount of air to be moved,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

Although Bluetooth is traditionally known as a power guzzler, it is regarded by most as the future standard for wireless connections between hearing aids, headsets and external devices, e.g. smartphones.

“Low energy modes have been included in the new BT standards, and this means that most manufacturers today can stream sound to hearing aids without draining the battery,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

In fact, the Bluetooth connection in the new hearing aid has been turned up to a higher level.

“We made the Bluetooth connection to the phone much more powerful than we normally have in hearing aids. Partly because they sit a little further inside the ear, and partly because you would expect a Bluetooth performance that matches headsets. This is one of the reasons why the battery life is lower than in hearing aids,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

Talking to the wife while listening to a podcast

Brian Dam Pedersen himself uses the new hybrid headset at home and in restaurants.

“I listen to podcasts a lot when I’m cooking at home. It annoys my wife that she can’t talk to me because I have a headset on. The new solution has a really good hear-through function, which can otherwise be a bit muddy in ordinary headsets,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

In each ear are two microphones that send sound to each other in real time, so it is a system that collects sound from four microphones.

The ear canal is closed off with the headset, so that the sound in the ear canal only comes in from the microphones.

“This means that we can prioritize noise cancellation, while we don’t focus so much on speech amplification,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

GN is not the only company with its eyes on the new OTC product category.

Apple has already launched enhancement functions for Airpods, just as Sony, Samsung, Bose and a number of hearing aid manufacturers have solutions in the fledgling market for a hybrid between a hearing aid and earphones.

“We can see that they lack a number of years of know-how around hearing loss, where we are further ahead in terms of miniaturization, i.e. stacking the electronic parts better,” Brian Dam Pedersen says.

So far, Jabra Enhance Plus is only available for purchase in the USA and Japan, where legislation regarding the OTC products is in place.

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