Bluetooth connectivity is a must-have feature in today’s cell phones. Why hasn’t it shown up in hearing aids sooner? The new Phonak Audéo B-Direct breaks new ground with industry-standard Bluetooth technology and direct connection to virtually any modern phone. Made For All is great news for the 55% of smartphone users in the US not on Apple devices, and seniors carrying simpler classic cell phones.
There are two modes of Bluetooth operation: “classic”, and Low Energy (BLE). Currently, streaming quality audio is only supported in classic mode. It consumes power more quickly and limits the battery life of a device. (That’s why a Bluetooth wireless headset specifies “standby time” and a much lower “talk time”.) Work is progressing in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group on protocols for Low Energy streaming. The challenges are not sacrificing audio quality or device compatibility.
Hearing aid manufacturers are way ahead in research on low power audio streaming protocols. Most use proprietary implementations that only work with their devices. Advanced digital hearing aids all have some flavor of personal area network (PAN) technology optimized for low power and audio quality. These PANs connect a pair of hearing aids together, and to external gateways for Bluetooth programming and audio streaming. For instance, Phonak listeners may know about the ComPilot II body-worn Bluetooth streamer. It offers up to 24 hours of listening capability on a charge.
Apple tweaked Bluetooth Low Energy in their “made for iPhone” (MFi) push. The MFi Hearing Aid program licensed this proprietary technology to hearing device manufacturers. The iPhone fully supports the Bluetooth specification for other connectivity, but what streams audio is not industry-standard Bluetooth. Basically, the iPhone itself serves as the external gateway for audio streaming to hearing aids.
Sonova, the parent company of Phonak, has taken a different route. They have invested heavily in R&D to bring Made For All (MFA) direct connectivity technology to market. The key is designing a unified 2.4 GHz digital radio with a single antenna.
42 million transistors in 40nm CMOS make up the SWORD (Sonova Wireless One Radio Digital), the most advanced hearing aid chip to date. One ultra-low power radio supports Bluetooth 4.2 in both classic and Low Energy modes, ear-to-ear PAN connectivity, and the AirStream protocol for TV audio streaming. Hearing aids built on SWORD connect to virtually any Bluetooth-enabled phone without excessive battery drain.
The first hearing aid with the SWORD chip inside is the Phonak Audéo B-Direct. It brings three new capabilities for listeners:
- Hands-free: Listeners don’t need to worry what phone they have – if it supports Bluetooth 2.1 or newer. Once paired with the phone, calls ring in the Audéo B-Direct, and can be answered or rejected by pushing a button on the hearing aid. Microphones in the hearing aid pick up the listener’s voice for conversation. The Audéo B-Direct can also pair with tablets or computers with Bluetooth, for FaceTime, Skype, or other video calling applications.
- TV Connector: For full stereo sound quality without annoying delays, the TV Connector shares audio with the AirStream 2.4 GHz streaming protocol. Any number of Audéo B-Direct hearing aids are detected and paired automatically, and can listen in up to 15 meters away.
- Phonak Remote: For Android and iOS users, the new Phonak Remote app enables more control of the Audéo B-Direct. From the app, volume on each hearing aid can be controlled, or muted and unmuted. Programs can be selected and adjusted, including control over audio sources such as the TV Connector. Tinnitus noise generation can also be modified from the app.
SWORD is the platform for the next generation of Phonak hearing aids – the Audéo B-Direct is just the first product available. With a programmable radio, future Phonak hearing aids are likely to gain support for new connectivity features as software advances.
Hearing aids and smartphones share much of the same technology. For tech savvy listeners, pairing their phone with their hearing aids is a highly coveted feature. Made For All is a breakthrough technology that brings more listeners the benefits of Bluetooth connectivity.
Estes Audiology has 5 convenient locations in Austin, New Braunfels, Marble Falls, Seguin, and Boerne. Call us for questions on the Phonak Audéo B-Direct, or to schedule an appointment for a hearing evaluation.