Say what? I’m stopped at a red light behind a “boomer-car” that is visibly twitching from the sheer sonic force emitted from its high decibel stereo. The light changes, and as the car pulls away I notice the rear license plate frame promoting Jensen car audio products that asks, “Whattayadeaf?”

Gennum’s Bluetooth-enabled HearPhone

It’s no mystery why “Say what?” is the typical response for a boomer-car kid. Early hearing loss is something today’s boomer-car generation shares with the older baby-boom generation. And the majority of both boomer generations with hearing loss will not make an appointment with a hearing care professional. In fact, surveys suggest that only 23.5% of the 31 million people with hearing loss actually obtain hearing instruments.1 These same figures suggest that, on average, a person will not seek professional help until they are 69.7 years old. Why?

Stigma plays a large role; many consumers think hearing aids are for “old folks.” Ask any baby boomer “What age do you consider ‘old’?” The most frequent answer: age 79. However, the average life expectancy of a US citizen is only 78! Conclusion: The only way many baby boomers will consider wearing a hearing aid is to be caught dead with it!

The hearing industry has noticed, responding with smaller hearing aids, open fittings, better pricing options, etc. But first-time hearing aid users continue to get older, not younger. According to MarkeTrak VII,1 the mean age of first-time hearing instrument users increased from 66.3 years old in 1997 to 69.7 years old in 2004.

Wireless Bluetooth Headsets
The future may bring better things. Those same hearing aid-loathing boomers might consider using assistive listening devices (ALDs). A product grouping traditionally reserved for amplified telephones and group hearing devices, ALDs have recently taken a new direction with the advent of specially configured Bluetooth-enabled wireless headsets.

Gennum’s Bluetooth-enabled HearPhone

Bluetooth is a short-range two-way wireless link featured with the newest mobile phones for transferring speech and data. Already popular in Europe, Bluetooth is spreading rapidly as the new standard in North America for connecting everything from wireless keyboards to digital cameras.

You’ve probably already seen Bluetooth headsets: A person walking down the street seemingly talking to him/herself, until you realize they’re “wearing a phone.” These small, rechargeable, battery-operated devices are worn on one ear, integrating both a microphone and an earpiece. They are typically used for “hands-free” conversations while driving and making calls with a mobile phone, and some models offer high-fidelity audio with a second earpiece for listening to stereo music while on the move.

Hybrid ALD/Wireless Headsets
The most technologically advanced models of Bluetooth headsets are crossing from consumer electronics into the functional realm of traditional hearing aids. These new wireless Bluetooth headsets are multifunctional hybrids, melding mobile phone features with sophisticated ALD capabilities. The Gennum HearPhone is a good example of this category, combining a unique dual-microphone design with an ultra-powerful digital signal processor (DSP). The HearPhone is designed to amplify sound with up to 45 dB gain for both mobile phone communications and face-to-face conversations, and includes special noise-reduction and voice-isolation processing. It also includes special software to enable dispensing professionals to customize its audio performance to match the user’s hearing preferences.

HearPhone-type wireless ALDs also address a problem that has been plaguing the hearing industry for years: How do you use a traditional hearing aid and a mobile phone at the same time without annoying electromagnetic interference? Answer: In many cases, you don’t; you are instead forced to use a wireless ALD.

A New Hearing Care Entry Point?
Wireless ALDs are designed to deliver a clear, amplified conversation over the phone, but they are also designed to enable amplified face-to-face conversations similar to a hearing aid. The HearPhone’s noise-cancelling and echo-suppression technology also helps boost acoustic separation, and suppresses background sound and wind noise. For a hearing-impaired user who struggles daily to use their mobile phone, the resulting solution is exceptional.

According to Bryon Nielsen, director of marketing and sales for Gennum’s Audio Wireless Systems Division, wireless ALDs are an excellent answer for hearing aid users seeking a better way to use their mobile phones. However, he also contends that they might be an interim solution for the vast majority of hearing-impaired people who refuse to consider using a hearing aid. He believes they may serve as “training wheels” for true hearing aids. Once you get people hooked on amplification, they might just discover that the hearing amplification is the most important feature of the device. They might even seek out a traditional hearing aid and get professional hearing help.

The “Significant Loss” Market
Possibly the biggest social benefit of this scenario is compressing the 7-8 year interval between discovering a hearing loss and actually doing something about it. According to Nielsen, one of the biggest problems facing the hearing care field stems from the obstinate refusal of hearing-impaired people to seek professional help.

The hearing industry has realized that many younger potential users have such a deep-rooted aversion to hearing aids that, in some cases, companies have decided to not even attempt to market to this demographic segment. Additionally, most experts in the industry agree that a person must first recognize that they have a significant hearing loss that impacts their communication (defined differently by each individual) before considering a visit to the “ear doctor” or the purchase of a hearing aid. Indeed, a prospective buyer may refuse to consider any product whose primary value is compensating for a hearing loss that, as defined by them, does not exist!

But a multifunctional wireless ALD is an altogether different proposition. Pitch a consumer who has a mild-to-moderate hearing loss on using a wireless headset with the combined value of improved mobile phone connectivity, music playback, and amplified hearing with noise reduction. This combination might be an ideal way for a person with any “significant” hearing loss to justify the purchase and thus enter the hearing care pipeline years earlier than age 70. It may also increase the likelihood of people entering the “hearing care pipeline” when they have a milder hearing loss and are “ideal” candidates for amplification (eg, better cognitive skills, fewer recruitment problems, etc). Needless to say, this would also improve the bottom-line of the hearing industry.

Hiding in Plain Sight
“I went shopping for some camouflaged pants, but I couldn’t find any,” quips deadpan comic Steven Wright. Buyers almost universally want an invisible hearing aid. Some ask, “Do you have something you can implant inside my head?” Perhaps the next best thing is an ALD camouflaged to look like anything but a hearing aid. There is no “old folks” stigma with wearing headphones, ear buds, or mobile phone headsets. Gennum’s Nielsen believes that wireless ALDs “hide in plain sight,” which may help to change an “invisibility obsessed” hearing industry. The devices don’t appear to be hearing aids, yet they all have the potential for fulfilling the functions of a hearing aid. In other words, we may need to look at the mild-to-moderate (eg, primarily younger) hearing loss market in a different way in order to focus on helping these people hear better.

This view has support within the industry. As BHI Executive Director Sergei Kochkin observed in a recent interview with HR, “It would be beneficial if we promoted less the product invisibility and hiding one’s hearing loss aspects in favor of convincing the consumer that hearing instruments can literally transform their lives.”2

The popular usage of wireless mobile phone headsets is a new phenomenon, and represents a new opportunity for both confirmed hearing aid users and the vast majority of hearing aid “refusniks.” Wearing a Bluetooth wireless headset denotes a youthful wireless-connected trendsetter—positive attitudes that fuel momentum toward overcoming a pervasive prejudice against hearing aids—and perhaps even overcoming the phrase, “Say what?”

This article was submitted to HR by David S. Jones, a technology consultant and freelance writer who works with Gennum Corp, Mississauga, Ontario. Correspondence can be addressed to HR or [email protected].

1. Kochkin S. MarkeTrak VII: Hearing loss population tops 31 million people. The Hearing Review. 2005;12(7):16-29.
2. Strom KE. HR Interviews…Sergei Kochkin, PhD. The Hearing Review. 2005;12(11):24-32,82.