Impressions on New Hearing Aids

As promised, here are my impressions of the Bolero hearing aids I’m currently trying out (hoping I don’t get any of the technical stuff wrong here, do tell me if I did!). They have open tips, like my Widex ones have, but are BTE (entirely behind-the-ear) rather than RIC (with the receiver, the part that produces sounds, directly in the ear canal — this would be the Phonak Audéo model, which I might try in future). My Phonak audiologist Jennifer tells me it doesn’t change much, acoustically: a RIC just moves some of the technology away from behind the ear, allowing the part that sits there to be smaller — important for those, who, like Steve, appreciate when their hearing aids are invisible.

Phonak Bolero Q90

The first thing that struck me with these aids was that there was less ambiant noise. Or less operating noise. Or different. I had the strange feeling I wasn’t really wearing hearing aids. There was probably a little less amplification than what I was used to, but clearly something in the sound texture too.

Voices felt a little tinny/reverb-y at first. Mine, Jennifer’s. Not unpleasant, but a little bit weird. Jennifer told me it was probably due to SoundRecover, which compresses high frequencies into a lower frequency region so we can hear them better. She warned me it would take some time getting used to. I don’t notice anything strange with voices nowadays, so I guess I did indeed get used to it!

I discovered that with Phonak there is a whole list of programmes the hearing aids can switch back and forth from, and which can also be set manually. I left my “main” channel in automatic mode to see how that worked, and for the other ones picked StereoZoom, which is optimised for speech in noisy environments, with a lot of noise reduction and a very narrow beam for amplification, speech in wind (for sailing), and a phone programme (right ear). The last position is a “mute” mode (indispensable for me).

The buttons on both aids have different roles: they can either be used to turn volume up or down, or switch programmes. The catch is that the left button is the “volume down” one, and the right button “volume up”. So as I wanted a “volume up” button, I had to have my programme switch one on the left — whereas it would have made more sense for me to have it on the right. I’m right-handed, and switch programmes more often than I increase volume. Oh well.

I can’t say I’ve used the phone programme much. I tried it, and it works, taking the sound from the right ear (the phone one) and channeling it into the left ear too. It’s pretty neat. But it requires positioning the phone in such a way that the hearing aid catches the phone sound (takes some getting used to) and pressing the phone against my ear with the hearing aid in it ended up being a bit too uncomfortable. So, for long planned calls I’ve reverted to my trusty earbuds. For impromptu calls I still tend to switch to mute, because background noise sometimes interferes with the phone mode (i.e., gets amplified too) and I don’t really feel like experimenting with acoustics when I’m on a call. I guess I should probably run some test calls to really try that mode out.

Given the lousy weather this summer, “speech in wind” has also been largely left aside, as it’s the programme I was planning to use when sailing. I like StereoZoom, though I sometimes have trouble determining if I should use it or leave the hearing aid in automatic mode, specially as automatic mode has a whole bunch of different programmes it can switch to and even blend.

While it’s nice to have a hearing aid that recognises the acoustic environment and chooses the best programme suited to it, it’s sometimes frustrating in practice. I’ll be in my car talking to a friend, and suddenly the quality of the sound changes and I have more trouble understanding speech. And then it changes back. Or I’ll be listening to music in the car, and one ear seems to be treating sound differently from the other. I find the whole concept of a hearing aid intelligent enough to know what it’s listening to fascinating, and would love to know more about how to the tech/programme works, but the control-geek in me would like to be able to have some kind of indication telling me which mode I’m in, and an easy way to override it.

I haven’t yet put my Widex aids back in my ears, which in my opinion points to how comfortable I am with the Phonaks. There’ll be a little tweaking to do next time I go to headquarters and see Jennifer (one ear is slightly less-amplified, and maybe I need a smaller size tip in one ear, we’ll see), and I’ll probably change my selection of programmes, including at least the music one.

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