New Hearables Sound Better Than Headphones

Who needs a watch when you have Hearables and apps to connect them. Starkey

Other people are playing with wearables, those new tiny electronic thingies that are connecting various parts of our bodies to the Internet. I have been playing with hearables, these wild and crazy expensive tiny little things that others call hearing aids, and the more I do, the more sorry I feel for people who don’t have these electronic wonders stuck in their ears.

Because really, for all of hype over wearables, they are not life-changing, reconnecting you with people and things and the rest of the world like these hearables do. I have been enjoying one brand, but a big American vendor, Starkey, asked me to try the Starkey Halo version, and loaned me an Apple Watch as well to see how it worked to make the experience even better.

My first reaction to the Starkey Halo units was, frankly, horror. They are much thicker than the Resound Linx I have been using, accommodating a bigger battery. I was certain that I would look like Alfred E. Neuman with my ears sticking out, particularly when I put on my glasses. However I checked with friends and family and they did not notice anything amiss — and I don’t think they were just being polite. In fact with one friend, I had to point out that yes, I am in fact wearing something and there are tiny tubes going to my ears that you can see if you look closely.

My, how big those new batteries are compared to the standard ones. Lloyd Alter

It’s true that I was going through a lot of batteries and have always wondered why they are disposable zinc-air instead of rechargeable lithium ion batteries. According to Starkey VP Dave Fabry, it turns out that LI batteries do occasionally catch fire, as we know from Boeing 787s, cars and computers, and they decided that this was not a good thing to happen behind one’s ears. But it takes a lot of juice, even with Bluetooth LE, to connect to the phone; so they stuck with the disposables and specified bigger ones that would last longer. And they do seem to go forever. I have not yet decided if the trade-off of unit size vs battery life is worth it.

I am waiting for rechargeable units with induction coils so that every night you just toss them in the box and they take care of everything, no more fiddling with the batteries. People are used to that with their phones and wearables, and I don’t think it would bother anyone.

hearing aid screens
OK I set the sound, pegged the location, now where are they?. Lloyd Alter

The iPhone app for the Starkey Halos is a beautiful thing. There is an equalizer that lets you slide your finger over a graph to the desired balance of bass/treble or volume and then key it to a location via the GPS in the phone. It has a restaurant mode, that focuses the directional mics straight ahead and cuts down ambient noise that is less flexible and adaptable than Resound’s version. But Starkey also has a wonderful and sometimes hilarious Car Mode that uses the GPS to change the settings when you hit 9 miles per hour, to cut down that ambient wind noise. So when I got in my boat to go to the mainland from my cabin, suddenly I hear TWO!, the mode set for car; I stop the boat and it goes ONE! and then get in my car and it goes TWO! again. These things give me more conversation than my kids.

apple watch app
Tell me something I don't know. Lloyd Alter

The Apple Watch feature is a disappointment. I had great hopes for it, particularly after I was at a lecture and my wife smacked me when I took out my phone, thinking I was going to check twitter, when in fact I just wanted to adjust the volume. The watch does give you a discreet alternative for changing a few settings, but I have found I rarely used it to adjust the hearables.

However I have been using the Apple Watch to control iTunes as I feed music, podcasts and movie soundtracks into the Starkey Halo hearables, which have incredible fidelity. I sat through a long flight watching movies on my iPhone and they sounded a lot better than the plane’s entertainment system, which I know is not high praise. They are not going to replace my Grados, but they are better than most in-ear headphones. They are always on and nobody can tell. That is useful. No, that is wonderful. I do not think wistfully of the days I had wires hanging from my ears when listening to audio; I just worry about forgetting to take these things out in the shower. The edge in sound quality on the Starkey Halo for movies and music may be their killer app; who needs Beats when you have these? With one set of devices, I can hear as well or better than most people and connect wirelessly with everything audio.

Other people have to pick up phones or put on headsets or get mugged for those white things hanging out of their ears, but my headphones are virtually invisible and they connect my brain directly to my iPhone and through that, to the world.

Half of the baby boomers probably could use these, but only between 14 and 20 percent of people who do go out and get them. It comes down to two reasons: stigma and price. The stigma reason is less valid these days; modern hearables give you super powers and reconnect you to family, friends, work and the world in ways that you don’t want to hide; you want to proudly talk about being so cutting edge.

I can imagine people being afraid of wearing them to work because they think that they make them look old; that is a big deal in the workplace today. In fact they offer real advantages to the older worker that the kids don't have. Like the volume control on your head if you are working in crowded spaces, that you can turn it up when you want to hear everything going on around you. You're not old, you're bionic. Enhanced even. You are totally wired and they are not. Forget stigma, these are cool tools that give you an edge.

Price is the other issue; if more people bought them they would be cheaper, but they are also still considered medical devices and are sold through an expensive distribution system, and come with a lot of service and warranty. (Starkey VP Dave Fabry tells a great story about working with musician and inventor Les Paul, who wanted to bypass the audiologist and play with them himself. He gave them back). I suspect that will change, as people begin to realize what they can do beside just improve your hearing, and the sales volume climbs as the baby boomer generation realizes that it is a small price to pay for a truly life-changing device. Sports cars cost more and do less.

A few days after writing horrible things about the Apple Watch, I'm finding that there is a learning curve to it and I am using it more, changing modes when I am in restaurants and adjusting volume without taking out my phone. It's convenient.

But it’s not the game-changer. It is a whole lot more important to connect these things in your ear to your phone that in it is to that thing on your wrist. The Apple Watch is an intermediary; The hearables are a direct pipeline to a wider world. They have changed my life. They might change yours.