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Hearables just keep getting better and better
Hearing aids connect me to my family and to the world.
Spouse Kelly and I enjoyed my birthday dinner last night at Cano, a lovely local Italian restaurant. I was wearing my new Starkey Genesis AI hearing aids, or hearables, as I prefer to call them, and hit the “restaurant mode” button, which focused the mics on Kelly and tuned out the rest of the joint. They worked wonderfully, adapting my hearing to the restaurant.
When we dined in the same space four years ago, then all hard surfaces and exposed brick, I was a grumpy old man complaining about the noise. I was wearing hearing aids, but they were not up to the job. I wondered the next day: Are Restaurants Getting Too Loud? Or Are Their Customers Getting Too Old? and questioned whether restaurants should adapt to their customers’ hearing. Cano has made some changes, but it is a moot question now; the problem was solved by these marvellous new little computers in my ears that somehow pick words out of the din.
This is why I don’t call them “hearing aids.” My mom had those primitive squeaky things that never worked very well. The term “hearables” was coined by analyst Nick Hunn when “wearables” were a thing, noting that the ear was much more interesting than the wrist, where all the smart wearables were. Hunn noted that "The challenge that any wrist-worn device has is to provide the user with a stream of new and interesting information. If we turn our attention to the ear, that limitation disappears." It’s true; I get books, music, podcasts, news, and Google Maps. They also have health monitoring functions similar to an Apple Watch and can detect falls.
One of the reasons old men get grumpy is that they don’t hear very well, and too few do anything about it. According to the National Institute on Deafness, “Among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30 percent) has ever used them. Even fewer adults aged 20 to 69 (approximately 16 percent) who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them.”
This is a serious problem because people with poor hearing are more susceptible to depression, dementia, and falling. They suffer from significant social isolation, even within families. There were many reasons to avoid buying or wearing them, including cost, discomfort, lack of insurance, vanity, or the stigma attached. And they often just weren’t very good and were hard to get used to; I have friends who have tried them and then leave them in a drawer.
Fortunately, this is changing; boomers are less tech-adverse than their parents were. Over-the-counter hearing aids have been legalized, so the price has dropped significantly. There is less of a stigma because everyone is used to seeing AirPods hanging out of ears. According to the New York Times,
Data collected in 1989 by MarkeTrak, a consumer research organization that is part of the Hearing Industries of America, suggested that people who wore hearing aids “were perceived to be less competent, less attractive, less youthful and more disabled.” Today, though, the organization said in a recent report, hearing aid users “rarely or never feel embarrassed or rejected.”
But the main thing is that they are just so damn good now.
The Starkey Genesis AI behind-the-ear units run 50 hours on rechargeable batteries, are waterproof, and are much smaller than my last rechargeable units; my ears don’t stick out at all, even when wearing glasses.
But they are not hearing aids as much as computers with a “unique on-board Deep Neural Network (DNN) accelerator engine that mimics the cerebral cortex of the human brain to help fix what years of hearing loss have broken.” They make 80 million adjustments per hour and really do allow “wearers to hear soft sounds without noise, distinguish words and speech more naturally, and significantly reduce their listening effort.”
You don’t often think of “listening effort,” but it can be hard work. At a recent conference in Ottawa, I was at a round table with about six other people in a room with conversations going on at many other tables, and I thought, WOW, I can hear everything everyone here is saying without even trying, leaning in, it was all perfectly natural. Again, these things just picked words out of the air. That evening, I had dinner in a loud, crowded noodle joint that I was certain would be trouble. I hit restaurant mode, and I could hear my fellow diners perfectly.
But the biggest challenge has always been in the lecture halls of Toronto Metropolitan University. To deal with COVID-19, they have cranked up the ventilation to levels where it sounds like I am in a wind tunnel, not a classroom. Last year, if a student asked a question, I had to go right up to where they were sitting and ask them to repeat it.
Now, with “edge mode+,” I press a button on my iPhone telling them to enhance speech, the units do a scan of the room and bingo- the wind noise drops, and I can pick voices out from the back of the classroom. It’s magic.
The connection to the iPhone is perfect; they used to just deliver the sound but now work two-way and act as the microphone, too. Audiobooks and podcasts are also crystal clear.
It’s not so easy with my other Apple devices; they don’t connect to my Apple Watch, so I have to carry the phone when I run, and I couldn’t use them for Zoom calls on my computer without buying another bridging device that I could never get to work properly; I wish Apple would put the hearing aid chip into everything they make. But I now have a box connected to the TV that lets me hear the ballgame or movie through the hearables while Kelly hears it through the speakers, and it is a revolution after years of us fighting over the volume control. I used to often give up on films that I had trouble understanding; now I find that hearables improve what I see as well as what I hear.
Perhaps my favourite thing is the control I have over my hearing environment. I have a volume control in my head; if surroundings or people are loud and annoying, I can turn them down. It’s counterintuitive; you get these to hear more, but one of the great pleasures is when you decide to hear less. An equalizer lets me tune out things that ping or ring. I even have a car mode where it detects motion and then cuts out wind noise.
At a reception earlier this week, a woman I had not seen since before the pandemic asked, “How are the hearables? I often share your articles about them.” Those posts are old and are disappearing, but the hearing aid world has changed even since then. They are better, longer lasting, more connected and cheaper than they have ever been. And they are not just being bought by boomers; According to the New York Times, young people are snapping them up, using them like higher-quality AirPods that run all day.
Hearables are transformative; they connect me to my family and to the world. These Starkey Genesis AIs are the best I have ever tried, but there are many brands producing wonderful and affordable units now. If you have been dawdling, now is the time to try them.
Coincidently, a similar article was published in the Guardian this morning with a much better title: ‘Any embarrassment is in your head!’: How hearing aids boost your health and happiness