My hearing is fading but my hopes are rising. One reason I write this blog is because it enables me to keep up with the rapidly emerging technologies that hopefully will keep me one step ahead of the decline.
So when the venerable Danish company Oticon released its new Opn (pronounced “open”) I was intrigued.
“With Opn we’re introducing new and groundbreaking technology to address real issues that affect those with hearing loss,” says Oticon President Søren Nielsen. “Opn opens up a whole new world of sound, allowing users to benefit from technological advances to manage multiple speakers in difficult situations such as dinner conversations.”
I was eager to try them out and the company lent me a pair of demos to take for a test drive. I tried them in a wide range of environments with sometimes surprising results.
Ringing in your ears can be a good thing
One of Opn’s key features is bluetooth connectivity. That means they connect directly to an iphone without the need for an intermediary device hanging around your neck.
That opens up a world of possibilities and convenience. The app is simple and elegant. Phone calls are clearer since the sound goes straight into your ears and background sound is automatically lowered. You can also listen to tv, stereos and basically any device that has bluetooth.
As well as controlling the volume and other settings, the app has another another neat feature thanks to that bluetooth phone connection. With a tap you can turn off the hearing aids’ microphones, and use the phone’s microphone instead which picks up only nearby sound. A couple of times I turned that feature on and slid my phone across the table so it was closer to the person talking. (I should note that Starkey’s Halo models also have this direct bluetooth technology. I haven’t tried them yet but Lloyd Alter has an informative review.)
This feature also gives you a way to spy on friends and family. If you want to know what they really think of you, leave your phone on the table, step out of the room and you will be able eavesdrop on the conversation.
Oticon also boasts that the Opn is the first hearing aid that can connect to the emerging “internet of things“. IoT, as it’s called, allows the Opn to interact with appliances, door bells and smoke detectors. All that is coming but right now I am not all that sure I am very interested in hearing from my coffee maker.
While all that technology is very cool, more important to me is that first and foremost I want a hearing instrument. I want a device that actually improves my hearing, and allows my audiologist to tune it for me.
I asked Irene Nicholaou of Oticon to outline some of the technical features for me.
As for my own verdict, here’s what I discovered. The new directional system works like a charm. I was able to detect where sound was coming from 360 degrees around me with much more precision. Very useful if you are crossing the street for example, or you hear someone talking behind you.
I also found that voices were clearer and it was easier to follow conversations. As anyone with hearing loss knows, sometimes it can be tiring to listen to extended conversations. Your brain has to work hard to fill in the inevitable gaps to interpret speech. I noticed that with the Opn it was less taxing for me to keep up.
On the con side, I noticed that they would sometimes reboot randomly which can be a bit disconcerting. It’s important to remember that modern digital hearing aids are essentially computers and I have yet to discover any computer that is bug free.
Like any complex electronic device, hearing aids can be sensitive to changes in humidity.
On a fall weekend in northern Ontario I found that when I stepped into a warm cabin from the chilly outdoors, the Opns stuttered and went awry. Condensation had screwed up its circuits. An hour in my little drying kit fixed that. (More on drying kits in this post) Another good reason to use them.
A couple of minor quibbles: I found that the new domes seem to clog up more quickly and I had to replace them more often. Batteries also don’t last as long. No surprise there since they have to power two radios.
In sum, the Opn is a welcome leap forward in hearing aid technology.
For more on Opn, here’s Oticon’s promo video: