Jan 2020 CNET

Phonak Wireless Wearing hearing aids carries a bit of a stigma. That's why in recent years hearing aid companies have done their best to make them as discreet as possible, with designs that wrap behind your ears and have thin tubes to deliver augmented audio. Some models can even be jammed deep into your ear canals and are almost completely invisible. But as Apple's AirPods and other true wireless earbuds have rapidly proliferated and become accepted as wearable accessories, Phonak, a Swiss company that's been in the hearing aid game for years, decided to create a custom-fit hearing aid that looks like a miniature true wireless earbud that you can wear with pride. It's called the Virto Black.

As we get older, all of us tend to have some hearing loss -- I can't, for instance, hear high frequencies as well as I once did. But with good hearing overall, I didn't really consider myself a candidate for hearing aids. In a crowded trade show like CES, however, I was interested to see how (or if) wearing a hearing aid would improve my hearing in environments where there's a lot of ambient noise to compete with people's voices.

Virto modelAnd the Virto Black models also come with a high-tech twist: In addition to being hearing aids, they're also capable true wireless headphones. These are "smart" earbuds with sophisticated digital signal processing that also connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and can be controlled with an app. As such, I was equally interested in their music sound quality and how they sounded when making calls. In short, I was hoping to get a taste of the true wireless earbuds of the future.

Before you pull out your credit card, though, be warned: Hearing aids, especially high-end models like this, generally cost thousands of dollars -- and, indeed, the Virto Black will cost around $6,000 for a pair when they're released in February.

This is a custom-fit hearing aid, which means the folks from Phonak came by our offices about a month ago and made a custom mold of my ear. They then had my personal hearing aids waiting for me when I arrived in Vegas. The good news is they fit pretty much perfectly. In fact, they fit so well -- and securely -- that they require some finesse to get out. They're water and sweat-resistant, so you can wear them while running, though they're not waterproof, so you need to take them out before getting in the shower or jumping in a pool.

These hearing aids are built on Phonak's relatively new Marvel platform, and the company makes a range of hearing aids, including ones with rechargeable batteries and those ones I mentioned that get jammed into your ears (and have to be replaced every few months). This first Virto Black uses standard hearing aid batteries, the tiny kind. You can get a week or so of battery life from them, so long as you disengage the battery before you go to sleep at night (the hearing aids do not turn off unless the battery is disengaged).

Phonak is working on a version that incorporates a rechargeable battery, but there are some challenges using a rechargeable lithium battery with a design this small. The upside of using replaceable batteries is that they're, well, replaceable. The downside is that disposable batteries -- even ones smaller than a pea -- is that they aren't environmentally friendly, and you have to keep buying them.

PhonakI mention all this because one of the impediments to making even smaller true wireless earbuds is battery technology. For example, Bose used an expensive silver-zinc battery to create its tiny noise-masking Sleepbuds -- and then ran into problems with that battery and had to discontinue the product. (Phonak says you can use the Virto Black similarly to the Sleepbuds, wearing them through the night and piping in white noise to mask ambient noise, but it will obviously shorten battery life if you do use them all night.)

The Virto Black is a little bigger than Sleepbuds but it's still remarkably small. Unlike the Sleepbuds, it can stream music from your smartphone and be used for making calls. One of the issues with hearings that use the filament-like tube to pipe music into your ears is that they don't create a tight seal, even with the little tip you put on to stabilise them in your ear canal. You lose a lot of bass and hearing aids tend to sound pretty tinny.

sleepbudsI was hoping that the more noise-isolating design of the Virto Black would improve bass performance and indeed it did, though not quite as much as I hoped. Phonak's audiologist slightly increased the buds noise-isolation level by partially plugging up a vent in the bud with a little tube. However, with hearing aids you apparently want some venting so you don't get too much isolation and end up hearing your footsteps. As a result, I left it at a sort of midrange noise-isolating setting with some venting.

As headphones, the Virto Black still doesn't sound great -- you can buy true wireless earbuds that cost less than $50 that sound as good or better. But for most people, the sound should be acceptable. And the aids certainly do well with more speech-oriented audio content like podcasts and audiobooks. In quieter environments, the Virto Black works well as a headset for making calls. It does run into some trouble in noisier environments -- I used it walking down the Las Vegas Strip and callers said they could hear lots of background noise -- but overall it works decently as a headset, though not as good as the AirPods and AirPods Pro.

Not surprisingly, the Virto Black excels as a hearing aid. I'm not going to talk too much about that, though, except to say that hearing better has some advantages you might not have considered. Working harder to hear can lead to increased fatigue and stress, with more severe cases of hearing loss potentially leading to social isolation and cognitive decline. By 2030, hearing loss is expected to affect 50 million baby boomers, some studies suggest, and it's often said that too many people who have hearing loss don't use hearing aids.

Some of the blame for that is on the high costs of hearing aids, which require a medical evaluation but aren't generally covered by health insurance. Phonak told me that about a third of the cost of the Virto Black is for the hardware itself (the custom fit only adds about $50 to $100 to the cost), with a nice chunk of change going to the licensed hearing aid dispenser or audiologist who then continues to help you with any adjustments to your hearing aids over time. Those high costs have made the hearing aid market ripe for disruption and new, more affordable over-the-counter solutions are coming soon thanks to a 2017 federal law that designated a new FDA-regulated category for over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. However, another emerging category of sub-$500 "hearing amplifier" devices that don't require FDA approval is where we're seeing a lot of action.

We're probably still several years away from super-discreet true wireless earbuds that do it all.

At CES, for instance, Olive Union showed off its Smart Ear, a $250 single bud solution that looks like a standard wireless earbud. And Nuheara announced its new $400 Nuheara IQbuds Max that have active noise-cancellation, as well as hearing amplification that allows you to reduce background noise and directionally focus on people's voices in noisy environments (say, a restaurant). Likewise, add-on devices like the OrCam Hear are essentially directional microphones that can pair with any Bluetooth headphone or hearing aid, too.

But neither approach the Virto Black's compact form factor that will hopefully be the future of mainstream true wireless earbuds. We're probably still several years away from super-discreet true wireless earbuds that do it all -- enhance your hearing, sound excellent for music listening and work great for making calls. But companies like Bose, Phonak and others are certainly working on it. The Virto Black isn't quite the end all be all at this point, but it's a glimpse of the future.

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