Special hearing aids that meet Apple's specifications can tap directly into iPhones and iPads to stream audio.
Shara TibkenFormer managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.
David Grissam was worried he'd have to quit his job.
Grissam had steadily been losing his hearing, which was a serious problem for the 911 dispatcher based in Norman, Oklahoma. It had gotten to the point where normal hearing aids didn't work anymore.
But then Grissam -- who has been legally deaf since the age of six -- got the Cochlear Baha 5 Sound Processor, a hearing device that's implanted in his skull. Connecting the Baha to his iPhone via Bluetooth lets the 44-year-old stream emergency calls directly to his ears, cutting out background noise and giving him crystal-clear sound.
"With me missing the audio coming in, I was really concerned I was going to miss one of my friends screaming for help because he was shot," Grissam said. But now, "I'm able to hear more than others in the room because of that direct link."
The Baha is one of a crop of hearing devices that follow Apple's "Made for iPhone" program, which employ Bluetooth and a special protocol technology from Apple to better connect to iPhones and iPads. That lets users stream audio directly to their ears, much as you would with regular wireless Bluetooth headphones such as Apple's AirPods. Users pair one of 44 compatible, audiologist-issued hearing aids with their iPhones, allowing them to take phone calls or listen to apps like YouTube or Pandora.
For people like Grissam, these hearing aids are the difference between adequately doing a job and not.
Grissam certainly isn't alone. More than 360 million people, or about 5 percent of the world's population, have disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. In the US alone, one in six Americans experience hearing issues, but about 80 percent do nothing about it, according to hearing aid maker Starkey. As the US baby boomer population ages, hearing loss will become an even bigger issue in the country.
The Made for iPhone-compatible hearing aids cut out the need for intermediary devices called streamers that connect hearing aids to phones. And it makes the use of hearing aids less obvious, helping remove the social stigma associated with them.
"When people think about hearing technology, they don't think about small and stylish and wireless and superhigh quality audio," said Chris McCormick, Starkey's marketing chief. "When they hear about this tech, they say, 'I wish I'd done this five years ago.'"
Apple's push into making its devices more accessible to the hearing impaired began with 2013's launch of iOS 7, which also introduced the Made for iPhone hearing aid program. They started working with 2011's iPhone 4S, 2012's fourth-generation iPad and 2013's fifth-generation iPod. Users can also control their hearing aids through an Apple Watch connected to an iPhone.
"When we created the Made for iPhone hearing aid program, the key question was 'how do we improve the ability for someone with hearing loss to use an iOS device to do all the things everyone else does, from making phone calls to FaceTime to listening to music and watching movies?'" said Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives.
For now, audio streaming to hearing aids is something that works only with iPhones. Android device users can get alerts to their hearing aids or adjust the volume via their phones, but they can't stream sound directly to their ears.
Google wouldn't say when its version would be available.
"It is important for Google products to be universally accessible and useful, and we are working closely with our partners to add hearing aid support," the company said in a statement.
A smarter hearing aid
Along with streaming sound from an iOS device, users can track the battery life of a hearing aid on an iPhone. They can adjust settings and volume through the iPhone instead of tapping the hearing aid, making the process more discreet. Audiologists help program presets for different sound situations, like restaurants and concerts, and users can switch to the appropriate setting with a triple click on the iPhone home button.
Geotagging automatically switches settings based on where the hearing aid users are. If someone walks into Starbucks, for instance, it will turn on the restaurant or coffee shop setting. There's also a "find my hearing aid" feature on the phone.
Another capability of Made for iPhone hearing aids is Live Listen. This lets the iPhone act like a remote microphone so they can hear people on the other side of a crowded room or conference table -- wherever they place the iPhone. Some hearing aid companies like Starkey enable the microphone feature to record conversations.
Win Whittaker, a 50-year-old mountain guide at Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington, got used to not hearing the students in his climbing school. They'd gather around him for important safety instructions, but he had trouble understanding what they asked him. "The questions were starting to get lost," he said.
Whittaker knew years of playing in a band had damaged his hearing, but he resisted getting hearing aids. The closest audiologist was a 90-minute drive away, and as a musician, he was picky about audio. Then he heard about Made for iPhone hearing aids. The next day, he called an audiologist for an appointment and got fitted for ReSound LiNX2 hearing aids.
"They're not just hearing aids," Whittaker said. "I was like, 'Wow, this is cool.' If that had not come out...I definitely would have held off [on getting hearing aids]."
When he's on a climb, Whittaker uses his Apple Watch to adjust his hearing aids to dampen the sound of wind while still hearing his client struggling 25 feet behind him.
"I guide on Mt. Rainier, so I'm at 13,000 feet, dealing with 30 to 40 mph winds," he said. "That program is a life saver."
Just like everyone else
The hearing aids aren't perfect. Batteries drain quicker on Made for iPhone hearing aids than other models. Users can get frustrated when they want to do more tweaking of their hearing aids beyond what audiologists let them do, said Dr. Chelsea Jividen, an audiologist at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"They want to be able to adjust the things we're adjusting, which we've went through extensive training to [learn]," she said.
Hearing aids typically aren't covered by insurance in the US, and cost $1,200 to $3,000 per ear. The Made for iPhone hearing aids typically land near the top of that price range because of the Bluetooth chip, Jividen said.
Bluetooth chips also limit how small hearing aids can be. Starkey's smallest hearing aid line, for instance, can't fit the bigger processors. But with Bluetooth chips shrinking, the company plans a smaller version in January.
The industry expects all hearing aids will eventually connect to mobile devices.
"That will happen for sure," said Mats Dotevall, Cochlear's director of design and development.
Bluetooth-connected hearing aids also can be too complicated for the elderly. People in their 70s and 80s are much less likely to have smartphones than younger hearing aid users. Just learning how to use a hearing aid can be complicated enough.
But for anyone who has felt a stigma for having hearing aids, Made for iPhone takes that worry away.
Daymond John, the 47-year-old co-founder of the FUBU clothing line and a judge on ABC's "Shark Tank" is one of those people. He realized about five years ago that he had hearing loss from a lifetime spent at loud concerts. John uses the Starkey Halo 2 hearing aids, especially at night when he wants to listen to music when falling asleep without bothering his fiancee or daughter.
"I use them when I'm home all the time, because I have a 7-month-old," John said. "The last thing I want to do is wake her."
John also uses the hearing aid recording feature to document meetings. In busy restaurants, he can focus on the person he's talking to and cut out the background noise. One time he doesn't wear the hearing aids is at work filming his show.
"I don't wear them on purpose," John said. "I'm sitting in between [Mark] Cuban and Kevin O'Leary...The last thing I want to do is enhance those other sharks I'm sitting next to."
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