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Health

The Future of Bluetooth Hearing Aids: How LE Audio Will Revolutionize the Way You Hear the World

By Jeremy HillpotMarch 4, 2021 6:00 AM
hearing aid

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Imagine walking into an airport and tapping a prompt on your smartphone. Immediately, your Bluetooth hearing aids receive a live stream of sounds from the announcement channel of your airline. Or, how about sitting in the last row of the audience at a public presentation? There’s too much ambient noise to understand the presenter, so you connect your Bluetooth hearing aids to a private broadcast that beams crystal-clear audio directly to your ears.

That’s the future of Bluetooth, and the new Bluetooth 5.2 “LE Audio” standard is making it possible. Over the next several years, headphones, earbuds, and hearing aids equipped with Bluetooth LE Audio technology are set to radically transform the way we enjoy the world around us – with improved sound quality, better connectivity, and longer battery life.

But wait, haven’t Bluetooth hearing aids been around for a long time? And how is Bluetooth LE Audio different? In this article, we’ll answer these questions by looking at Bluetooth technology, and the future of “hyper-connected, low-battery consumption, Bluetooth hearing aids.” But first, let’s talk about the limitations of traditional Bluetooth hearing aids, and why you’ll want the upgrade.

●      Traditional Limitations of Bluetooth Hearing Aids

●      How LE Audio Bluetooth Technology Is Changing the Game

●      Longer Battery Life and More Efficient Energy Consumption

●      Improved Sound Quality and Better Listening Experience

●      Simultaneous Streaming to Multiple Devices

●      Better Listening Connectivity for Public Venues

●      Compatibility with a Wider Range of Devices

●      2021 Bluetooth Hearing Aids Using LE Audio Technology Now

●      Final Thoughts on the Future of Bluetooth Hearing Aids

Limitations of Traditional Bluetooth Hearing Aids

In 1999, the release of Bluetooth Classic technology was nothing short of groundbreaking. It allowed us to ditch the cables and send data, music, and conversations between our devices and headphones wirelessly. The problem was, Bluetooth Classic needed a lot of battery power, making it impractical for hearing aids. But that didn’t stop hearing aid manufacturers from trying.

Starkey released the first Classic Bluetooth hearing aid in 2005 – the Starkey ELI – but it required a bulky, external adapter that was far from convenient. Notice the awkward dongle that plugs into the bottom of the device? This dongle houses a Bluetooth receiver and a larger, more powerful battery.

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Starkey ELI (2005 Device): Image Sourced from Hearing Aid Journal

The release of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology in 2011 paved the way for genuine Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids that didn’t require an external adapter. But it wasn’t until 2014 that ReSound shipped the first of these devices (the ReSound LiNX ). Notice how the ReSound LiNX does not require an external dongle?

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ReSound LiNX (2014 Device): Image Sourced from the ReSound Website

These days, most hearing aid manufacturers offer Bluetooth aids that allow you to wirelessly stream audio from a range of devices – like smartphones, tablets, TVs, and laptops – directly to their ears. Some devices allow you to engage in hands-free phone calls from your hearing aids while your phone is in your pocket or in another room. Others use Bluetooth to connect your hearing aids to an app that gives you more control over your hearing aid settings. For example, the MDHearingAid CORE comes with a Bluetooth-connected smartphone app that takes you through a hearing check and automatically customizes the hearing aid to your particular hearing loss – all without visiting an audiologist.

Despite these benefits, post-2014 Bluetooth hearing aids still have their downsides. For example, Bluetooth Low Energy uses the “low-complexity subband codec” (SBC), which requires less power than Bluetooth Classic. Nevertheless, Bluetooth Low Energy still drains your batteries a lot faster than normal aids.

Also, compared to Bluetooth Classic, BLE tends to suffer from a reduction in sound quality. To improve sound quality, some manufacturers have gone back to using Bluetooth Classic in their hearing aids – and in recent years, they’ve produced Bluetooth Classic aids without a dongle or auxiliary device. For example, the Unitron Moxi All uses Bluetooth Classic for better quality sound streaming and hands-free calling. However, these hearing aids are still extremely inefficient when it comes to battery power.

Here’s a comparison of battery power consumption:

●      No Bluetooth: A typical hearing aid battery provides between 84 to 168 hours of use when Bluetooth is not activated. Therefore, batteries will last for 7 to 14 days assuming 12 hours of use per day (depending on the battery size).

●      Bluetooth Classic: With normal use of Bluetooth on a pair of Bluetooth Classic hearing aids, a 312 battery should last 3 to 4 days (depending on how much you stream).

●       Bluetooth Low Energy: With normal use of Bluetooth on a pair of Bluetooth Low Energy hearing aids, a 312 battery should last 4 to 5 days (depending on how much you stream).

At the end of the day, both Bluetooth Classic or and Bluetooth Low Energy lead to additional battery replacements and more frequent recharges. This is why the biggest complaint from Bluetooth hearing aid users relates to high power consumption and the cost of replacement batteries. Fortunately, with the introduction of the “LE Audio” standard (Bluetooth 5.2), these battery power challenges are about to disappear.

Even better, LE Audio offers some game-changing sound quality and connectivity improvements that will soon allow you to stream crystal-clear audio at movie theaters, public presentations, and other venues.

How LE Audio Technology Is Changing the Game for Bluetooth Hearing Aids

In early 2020, a consortium of over 34,000 companies known as the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) announced the creation of LE Audio (Bluetooth 5.2). Now, after a year of development, most hearing aid brands and Bluetooth device manufacturers are set to release LE Audio-equipped devices that incorporate this technology.

What’s so great about LE Audio? Bluetooth LE Audio uses a more advanced sound compression technique called the “low-complexity communication codec” (LC3). According to Stefan Zimmer, Secretary General of the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association:

LE Audio [and the low-complexity communication codec] will be one of the most significant advances for users of hearing aids and hearing implants. EHIMA engineers have contributed their specialist knowledge to improve the audio experience, especially for hard-of-hearing people. As a result, within a few years, most new phones and TVs will be equally accessible to users with hearing loss.

Notice how Zimmer said that “most new phones and TVs” will soon feature this technology to benefit individuals with hearing loss? As soon as device manufacturers update their products with LE Audio, those with Bluetooth 5.2 hearing aids will be able to quickly and easily connect and stream sounds from different audio sources as they move through the world. 

The most exciting benefits of Bluetooth LE Audio for hearing aids include:

●      Longer battery life and more efficient energy consumption

●      Improved sound quality

●      Simultaneous streaming to multiple devices

●      Better listening connectivity for public venues

●       Compatibility with a wider range of devices

Let’s take a closer look at these benefits:

(1) Longer Battery Life and More Efficient Energy Consumption

Compared to Bluetooth Low Energy and Bluetooth Classic, LE Audio offers such a significant improvement in power efficiency that most users will not even notice the battery-life impact of Bluetooth streaming. In other words, Bluetooth 5.2 lets you stream all you want without worrying about the cost of replacement batteries.

According to Peter Liu, a wearable systems architect from Bose Corporation:

“We now have a CODEC that can do the same quality… but at half the amount of airtime. That brings benefits in terms of battery power that needs to be allocated to the radio, and that translates to users experiencing all-day runtime in a small form factor or [doing away with] having to deal with bulky earbuds, which aren’t really what they want.

When Liu refers to airtime, he’s talking about the bandwidth available for data transmission. Whenever two Bluetooth devices communicate, they consume airtime. Low airtime utilization saves battery power, and this is where Bluetooth LE Audio excels. Bluetooth 5.2 allows you to stream rich, high-quality sound while consuming less airtime and reducing energy consumption.

(2) Improved Sound Quality

Bluetooth 5.2 will improve the quality and clarity of music, conversations, and sounds. The blue bars in this graph indicate how LE Audio (LC3 codec) offers significantly better sound quality than Bluetooth Low Energy (SBC codec).

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What results is a best-of-both-worlds solution that provides higher-quality sound like Bluetooth Classic with minimum impact on battery life.

According to Andrew Estrada, Senior Manager of Systems Engineering at Sony Electronics:

We asked for a codec that was higher quality and lower bitrate, so that’s a more efficient use of the spectrum and the airtime. Well, those are two difficult things. Usually, you get one but not the other. They delivered a codec that does deliver on both of those metrics, so now we have a codec that we can send to the market that promises longer battery life, lower airtime – so better coexistence with all the other wireless things that are happening – and better quality, so you increase your user experience as well.

(3) Simultaneous Streaming to Multiple Devices

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Due to its low airtime utilization, LE Audio offers a surplus of bandwidth to enable “Multi-Stream Audio.” This means that a single Bluetooth source – such as a tablet, television, or smartphone – can stream audio to multiple devices at the same time. Therefore, two people wearing hearing aids can simultaneously stream sounds from the same device. Also, depending on the device, you may be able to connect Bluetooth 5.2 hearing aids to receive audio from your TV, smartphone, and voice assistant at the same time. 

According to Nick Hunn, CTO of WiFore Consulting:

Developers will be able to use the Multi-Stream Audio feature to improve the performance of products like truly wireless earbuds. For example, they can provide a better stereo imaging experience, make the use of voice assistant services more seamless, and make switching between multiple audio source devices smoother.

(4) Better Listening Connectivity for Public Venues

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Broadcast audio, or “Location-Based Audio Sharing,” will make listening easier for hearing aid users at public presentations, movies, concerts, and churches. Currently, hearing aid users struggle to hear sounds in these public venues due to background noise interference. Traditionally, a telecoil can help in these circumstances, most venues (and most modern hearing aids) no longer offer telecoil connectivity.

Venues that offer Location-Based Audio Sharing will be able to stream sounds directly to anyone in the audience with Bluetooth hearing aids or headphones. Best of all, connecting to these public Bluetooth broadcasts doesn’t require any special steps. You’ll just click a button or prompt on your smartphone and start hearing sounds immediately.

According to Peter Liu from Bose Corporation:

Location-based Audio Sharing holds the potential to change the way we experience the world around us. For example, people will be able to select the audio being broadcast by silent TVs in public venues, and places like theaters and lecture halls will be able to share audio to assist visitors with hearing loss as well as provide audio in multiple languages.

We’re not likely to see LE Audio at venues, theaters, and public venues until 2022, but this technology will radically improve the listening experience of hearing aid users once it’s available.

(5) Compatibility with a Wider Range of Devices

In the next several years, LE Audio will become the standard Bluetooth technology for personal electronic devices like TVs, smartphones, headphones, earbuds, and hearing aids. This means that it will be easier than ever for those with hearing aids to stream high-quality audio from virtually any device they encounter throughout the day.

Can you imagine watching a movie or the Superbowl at a friend’s house and immediately connecting your aids to the television? With Bluetooth 5.2, you won’t need to worry about device compatibility, and you won’t have to fumble around with a complex Bluetooth pairing procedure. Universal connectivity will be instant and seamless for all users of Bluetooth 5.2 aids.

2021 Bluetooth Hearing Aids Using LE Audio Technology Now

Most hearing aid manufacturers are racing to produce Bluetooth 5.2 hearing aids. Moreover, audio device manufacturers like Bose are also working on LE Audio-equipped active listening products. Here are some of the most exciting LE Audio products to look for in 2021 and beyond:

Oticon More (Currently Available)

At the time of this writing, Oticon is the only manufacturer with an LE Audio-equipped Bluetooth hearing aid on the market, the Oticon More. Priced at approximately $4,200 to $7,600 a pair (depending on device specifications and the clinic selling them), the Oticon More is one of the most expensive hearing aids that Oticon sells.

Here’s an image of the More that we sourced from Oticon's website. This device is a RIC (receiver-in-the-canal) hearing aid style:

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Oticon More Hearing Aid

The Oticon More boasts the following features:

●      iOS and Android connectivity through Bluetooth LE Audio technology.

●      Oticon’s newest chipset, Polaris, with two times more processing power and eight times more memory than prior Oticon platforms.

●      An onboard “Deep Neural Network” for artificial intelligence-powered sound processing, clearer sounds, and more detailed listening.

●       Oticon ON smartphone app compatibility for remote hearing aid control and settings adjustments. The rechargeable version of the Oticon More offers a full day of battery power (including streaming) after just a three-hour charge.

Read more about Oticon hearing aids here.

MDHearingAid (Q4 2021 Release Date)

On a more economically-friendly note, Doug Breaker, CEO of the affordable hearing aid manufacturer MDHearingAid, stated in a 2021 interview that “MDHearingAid is working hard to integrate the latest version of Bluetooth LE Audio into our hearing aids and anticipate launching the latest LE Audio support later this year.

As a direct-to-consumer hearing aid manufacturer, MDHearingAid sells high-quality, FDA-registered hearing aids priced at just $399 to $999 a pair. Customers can order MDHearingAid products over the phone or internet and they never have to set foot inside a hearing clinic.

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Behind-the-Ear Hearing Aid Styles from MDHearingAid.com

Once released in Q4 2021, MDHearingAid’s LE Audio Bluetooth hearing aids will include the following advanced features:

●      iOS and Android connectivity through Bluetooth LE Audio technology.

●      Two-way sound streaming so users can enjoy hands-free phone calls like they experience with Apple Airpods.

●      Television streaming through a Bluetooth-enabled TV, or TV streaming box that sends crystal clear audio directly to your hearing aids.

●      Bluetooth broadcast connectivity when venues offer LE Audio broadcasts. Users will be able to stream sounds at public venues like movie theaters, presentations, airports, malls, and more.

●      Siri and Alexa support so you can interact with your smart home assistants directly through your hearing aids (assuming that the hearing aids are connected to a smartphone).

●      Smartphone app compatibility for fine-tuning and control of your hearing aids.

●      Remote assistance features so MDHearingAid staff can tune and customize your hearing aid amplification settings to reflect your hearing test. 

The most exciting part of MDHearingAid’s Bluetooth 5.2 hearing aids is the projected price point, under $1,000 per pair. That’s a considerable savings over the cost of LE Audio devices from traditional hearing aid manufacturers. Traditional manufacturers will likely sell their Bluetooth 5.2 devices for $3,000 to $8,000 a pair depending on manufacturer and hearing clinic markups. 

MDHearingAid offers additional services – like a free online hearing check – to help you evaluate the extent of your hearing loss from home. You can also chat with MDHearingAid’s audiologist-trained phone assistants – at (833) 548-0616 – to determine if you’re a good candidate for their hearing aids.

LE Audio Hearing Aids from Bose (Unknown Release Date)

From 2017 to 2020, Bose Corporation sold noise-canceling headphones called Hearphones. Beyond standard music listening and noise cancellation, these devices amplified speech sounds to help individuals with hearing loss. Technically, Hearphones are not “hearing aids” due to FDA requirements, but they could benefit certain individuals with hearing loss.

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Bose Hearphones Sold from 2017-2020: Image Sourced from TheHearingReview

Although Bose stopped selling Hearphones in 2020, we do happen to know that Bose submitted a “De Novo Classification Request” asking the FDA to certify a novel form of hearing aid. Funny enough, this FDA paperwork shows that the Bose hearing aid looks a lot like their Hearphone product.

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Bose Hearing Aid: Sourced from www.accessdata.fda.gov

As for whether the Bose hearing aid will include LE Audio capabilities, a recent article from Andrew Sabin, Ph.D., Lead Researcher at Bose Hear, suggests that it will.

Ultimately, the FDA approved the Bose Novo Classification Request in October 2018, so as soon as they’re ready, Bose is free to start selling this hearing aid to customers. Watch out for a Bose Bluetooth 5.2 hearing aid in 2021. The release of this product might be just around the corner.

Read more about the potential for Bose hearing aids here.

Final Thoughts on the Future of Bluetooth Hearing Aids

At this early stage, we’re still waiting for more hearing aid and listening device manufacturers to announce their plans for LE Audio Bluetooth devices. However, now that the Bluetooth Special Interest Group has released the Bluetooth 5.2 codecs, it’s only a matter of time until LE Audio becomes the standard for all Bluetooth-equipped hearing aids, earphones, smartphones, and televisions.

After more manufacturers release their LE Audio-equipped hearing aids in 2021, we’ll be posting a complete cost, quality, and features comparison of the most popular Bluetooth 5.2 devices, so stay tuned for additional updates!

Biography

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Fascinated by emerging science, Jeremy Hillpot’s background in consumer litigation and technology offers a unique perspective on the latest developments in medical science, agrotechnology, blockchain, data engineering, app development, and the law.