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Amazon Fire TV Cube Now Connects With Starkey Hearing Aids on Bluetooth LE

Exclusive: It's the first streaming device to send sound directly to hearing aids in digital form.

A pair of hearing aids sit in a charging case next to a Fire TV Cube, its remote control, and a bowl of popcorn.
The Fire TV Cube now turns Starkey hearing aids into Bluetooth headphones specially calibrated to an individual's hearing loss.
Courtesy of Amazon

People with hearing loss can now pair their hearing aids with the Amazon Fire TV Cube streaming device, improving the experience of watching their favorite TV shows.

The Fire TV Cube, now in its second generation, is the first streaming device from a US tech company that can turn a hearing aid into a Bluetooth headphone that's calibrated to an individual's specific hearing needs, the e-commerce and smart home giant said on Thursday. 

The feature makes Fire TV Cube compatible with Audio Streaming for Hearing Aid, an open-source protocol for communicating with hearing aids. The streaming device will pair with hearing aids from Starkey, which manufactures products marketed under under the Audibel, NuEar, MicroTech and Audigy brands. To enable the compatibility, Amazon, Starkey and the makers of the device processors worked together to adjust their technology to work together. 

Connecting a streaming box with hearing aids was a challenge, says Peter Korn, Amazon's director of accessibility for devices. That's because people generally sit farther away from their televisions than they do from other devices, such as mobile phones. (Apple iPhones and Android-powered phones already pair with hearing aids.)

Nearly one in five people around the world -- 1.5 billion people -- experience hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. Many of them rank hearing their TV better as their second-most desired lifestyle improvement, according to Korn. (The first is to better hear conversations, he says.) 

"The innovation for us was recognizing that customers wanted TV next," Korn said, "and we saw a path to doing that."

To pair your hearing aids to your Fire TV Cube, you can enter Fire TV Settings and select Accessibility and then Hearing Aids. It's similar to connecting Bluetooth headphones, Amazons says. The feature also allows you to hear the Fire TV Cube's Alexa voice assistant through your hearing aids. Devices already exist that plug directly into TVs and broadcast sound to hearing aids over Bluetooth. Owners of Fire TV Cube won't need an extra gadget.

Fire TV Cube's compatibility is another example of Big Tech's efforts to make its services more accessible to people with disabilities. Other accessibility technology includes screen reading software, screen magnifiers and glasses for the blind that can read documents and scan faces.

The Bluetooth pairing feature is one in a series of boosts to the power of hearing aids and cochlear implants, both of which have benefited from the same miniaturization of technology over time that has made our phone and computer chips more powerful even as they get smaller. 

Hearing aids contain tiny components made possible by technology akin to that used in earbuds. Processors sit in between the microphone, which picks up environmental sounds, and the speaker that relays the sound into someone's ear. In hearing aids, the processors also amplify soundwaves from specific frequencies that the listener has difficulty hearing. Audiologists tailor that amplification to each person's hearing loss, much like an optometrist selects a prescription for correcting an individual's vision.

Connecting a hearing aid directly to the Fire TV Cube removes multiple steps involved in getting sound into the listener's ear. The data that encodes the sound in a TV show, sports broadcast or movie goes straight to the hearing aid's tiny antenna in digital form. By comparison, sound waves coming out of a TV speaker have to cross a room, raising the prospect of echoes and muffling before being picked up and processed by the hearing aid. 

While sending digital sound files through Bluetooth is more efficient than blasting soundwaves through the air, Korn said it took "100 little fixes" in collaboration with Starkey and chipmaker MediaTek to make it work. 

"At Starkey, we are transforming hearing aids into multifunctional devices," Achin Bhowmik, Starkey's chief technology officer and executive vice president of engineering, said in a statement. "Through strategic partnerships with organizations like Amazon, we are paving the way for cutting-edge products to connect with and stream audio to our state-of-the-art hearing devices."

The hearing aids connect over Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) because their small batteries have to work continuously throughout the day and aren't designed to take the heavy workload that a full strength Bluetooth signal would create.

Korn said his team isn't done. The support is slated to roll out to other Fire streaming devices later this year, including the Fire TV Stick and the Fire TV streaming service built into TVs made by Amazon and others. Amazon also has its eye on connecting cochlear implants to Fire TV in addition to more hearing aids that run on the Audio Streaming for Hearing Aid protocol.