We can all agree that things have been pretty nerve-racking these past few weeks, or even months, depending on where you’re located.
In addition to concerns about our own well-being, we’re worried about our loved ones being exposed to the COVID-19 virus, loss of income, lack of supplies, restriction of movement, physical separation from friends and family, and so much more. However, as stressed as we may be, some of us might still be taking things for granted. Like hearing.
One thing I recently came to realize is that stress levels are much higher for those who don’t hear well.
Think about how guilty they feel watching television in close quarters at a volume that disturbs the rest of the household, or about the frustration they feel when visiting facilities where staff members are wearing face masks, thereby depriving them the ability to read lips. I bet you didn’t think about that. For us, masks are an inconvenience. For those who don’t hear well, it makes communication nearly impossible.
Social distancing has placed greater reliance on mobile phone calls, which don’t always offer the best voice quality, and tend to be limited in the volume that can be applied.
Statistics show that less than 5% of those who need hearing help use hearing aids. There are many reasons for this, such as high cost, social stigma, limited functionality, and the necessity for repeated visits to a hearing professional for fitting and tuning.
Then there is the issue of denial. It is much easier to believe that something (or someone) else is responsible for the hearing difficulty. We can blame loud music, background noise, mumbling conversation partners, bad phone reception. The culprits are conveniently everywhere, except in our own auditory systems.
So now, in the age of COVID-19, when mobility and income are even more restrictive, can anything be done to assist those with hearing loss? It appears so, and Alango Technologies, a privately-owned veteran Israeli developer of sound-enhancement technology, has a few solutions.
Alango was founded in 2002, and is based in Tirat Carmel, south of Haifa, with additional offices in St. Petersburg, Russia.
While their tech is typically used in automotive hands-free products and Bluetooth accessories, Alango recently launched their “Wear & Hear” line of assistive hearing products.
These devices can be personalized by the wearer to match his or her unique hearing profile. Alango’s sound clarification and amplification technology is housed in modern Bluetooth stereo headsets. Users modify what they hear in real time via a dedicated smartphone app that includes a hearing self-test.
Since Wear & Hear products are not formally classified as medical devices, they do not carry the high price tag of hearing aids, or any other associated roadblocks to obtaining. As Bluetooth devices, they connect to a variety of audio sources, such as smartphones, laptops and music players to support a wide range of functionality.
Because Wear & Hear products clarify speech and amplify the frequencies that are essential to the hearing of the wearer, these devices resolve difficulties of face-to-face communication between people confined inside their homes. They also enable mobile phone calls with high quality sound optimized for the user’s specific hearing loss. They can even slow down the voices of fast talkers on the phone, making them more intelligible, using a proprietary algorithm developed by Alango called EasyListen™.
FOR USERS, this means television can be watched at a volume acceptable to all housemates as there is no longer a need to crank up the volume in order to understand dialogue. Also, listening to calming music can be made pleasurable again, as the devices amplify notes that previously went unheard, to provide a richer listening experience.
Alango Technologies was founded by Dr. Alexander Goldin, who is also the CEO. He moved to Israel from Russia in 1991. After working for several international companies, including Elscint, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Altec Lansing (as the head of Altec Lansing’s R&D lab in Israel), he established Alango in 2002.
The privately funded company has been developing sound-enhancement technologies (mostly for use in automotive, mobile phone, and entertainment sound systems) since then, selling over 50 million licenses worldwide.
Goldin had been following the situation in the hearing aid industry for the past several years, and noticed that while the number of people with hearing loss had been growing steadily, the low penetration rate of hearing aids remained stagnant.
There are multiple studies showing a strong connection between unaddressed hearing loss and an increased risk of dementia and other health problems. Altogether, it is estimated that the cost of worldwide hearing loss today is about $750 billion. Much of that could be avoided by using hearing aids but, unfortunately, traditional hearing aids fail to provide a universally acceptable solution.
Goldin identified four major obstacles to hearing aid acceptance: high prices, social stigma, limited functionality and reliance on others (hearing professionals) for deployment.
He decided to adapt the digital sound-processing technologies developed at Alango Technologies for voice telecommunication to help hearing-impaired people and integrate them into a suitable consumer electronics form-factor. These technologies include binaural adaptive processing, advanced feedback cancellation and multi-channel dynamic range compression.
And so instead of creating another hearing aid, Alango Technologies launched the Wear & Hear line of personalized hearing products. These products are a merger between advanced hearing aids and Bluetooth headsets. Costs are reduced by using consumer electronics components and high-volume manufacturing processes.
A stylish form-factor eliminates any stigma, and built-in Bluetooth connectivity and hi-fi speaker drivers expand functionality. A simple hearing assessment procedure followed by the device’s “prescription formula” (developed by an audiologist) automatically personalizes the device's sound according to the user’s unique hearing-loss profile. Integrating it into a smartphone application is a simple technical task.
The first Wear & Hear personalizable hearing headset model was sold commercially in September 2018. A second model was released earlier this year.
The company has focused its sales and marketing efforts in the US (selling on Amazon and via hearing supply channels), with some also in Europe and China. They recently signed a distribution agreement with Sonova in Israel, and they are starting to market the brand in their hearing clinics.
There needs to be an increase in public awareness about alternative solutions to hearing enhancement, such as Wear & Hear. Hearing loss is natural and extremely common, and I feel we must collectively do our best to accommodate those with hearing loss by letting them know of their options in an effort to ease their frustrations in daily life.