Future Media, Hearing Aids

Oticon Epoq XW Hearing Aid Review

The first hearing aid in my trial was the Oticon Epoq XW. I did a comparison test with it and the Phonak Audeo Yes in the audiologist’s soundproof booth. The Oticon was the clear winner in that test. I liked the sound quality better immediately, and the brief hearing test he gave me scored the Oticon significantly higher in word recognition than the Phonak. I picked both of these hearing aids to test because they offered Bluetooth integration, and I was excited to take the Oticon Epoq home and try it out with my Bluetooth enabled devices.

Bluetooth and the Epoq

I spent about $7500 on the Epoq and its Bluetooth enabling companion, the Streamer. A comparable pair of hearing aids without the Bluetooth would cost around $6000.

In other words, I spent $1500 to get my hearing aids to act like a Bluetooth headset.

If I spent $1500 on a regular Bluetooth headset, I would expect it to work FLAW-LESS-LY.

The Oticon Bluetooth did not work flawlessly. Not even close.

Pairing with multiple devices

I wanted to pair my hearing aids with my iPhone, my MacBook Pro, and my Mac Mini. I ran into immediate problems when trying to connect to multiple devices. Although the documentation says that you can connect up to eight devices, after unpairing and repairing I was only ever able to connect to two at a time. This wasn’t a dealbreaker, but I was frustrated by the troubleshooting I had to do, and disappointed when I realized that I was better off only connecting two at a time.

Wireless Streaming from Computer

I watch TV and movies from a Mac Mini hooked up to my TV. Usually I watch with captions, but when that’s not possible, I sometimes put on headphones so I can listen more closely. Wirelessly streaming audio from the computer to my hearing aids was a compelling prospect, but a disappointing reality. The sound quality was very soft and unacceptably tinny — so much that a Bluetooth connection was in no way better than just normal listening.

Wired Streaming from Computer

I also tried listening to music from my laptop with a wired connection. The wire ran between my laptop and the Streamer (worn around my neck), and then the sound was sent wirelessly between the Streamer and the Epoqs. The sound quality was so weak and tinny that I can’t imagine ever choosing it over listening to music with headphones. My old hearing aids are Widex Divas, and they have a good music program. I was really excited about the potential for wireless music streaming to my hearing aids. The reality was a poor quality, wired connection. Headphones plus hearing aids were still a better solution.

Mobile Phone

I was able to successfully make and receive calls on my iPhone using the Streamer. If this is the only Bluetooth integration you wanted, it would probably suffice. The sound quality was good and there was something magical about being able to push a button and have calls come in via my hearing aids. The downside is that you have to wear the Streamer around your neck in order to make and receive calls. Also, some of the people I talked to on the phone complained that I sounded like I was on a bad speakerphone.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

I really, really, really wanted to love these hearing aids. I was so psyched to get them. But a couple of things pushed me over the edge:

Background Noise

Never have I appreciated my Widex hearing aids so much as the first time I took my Oticons into a noisy restaurant. I am accustomed to being able to hear relatively easily in restaurants, at conferences, and in other noisy situations. I assumed that all hearing aid manufacturers had similar noise reduction programs to the Widex. I was wrong.

Now, I admit that I am accustomed to the Widex and so a shift in manufacturer may have been more disorienting for me. Someone who was not as familiar with Widex may not have experienced the same dissatisfaction that I did. But I was shocked! There was a dull roar of noise in the background of the restaurant that I was used to having filtered out. This extended to other environments — I particularly remember visiting my mother and asking if her birds had always been so loud. I found myself thinking that smarter hearing aids would have made better choices about what sounds to filter out.

Streamer Fail

The last straw for me was the failure of my Streamer, only two weeks into my trial. I went on a ten-day trip and the Streamer stopped working on Day 2. It refused to charge, but it would blink a flashing orange light to let me know that it was still doing something. I couldn’t find any documentation or guidance online about how to fix the problem. The instructions in the user’s manual about how to reset the Streamer didn’t work.

Onward

So back they went. Let me offer some proactive defenses here about why this was a reasonable solution:

  • I had three fittings. I went in for fittings on three separate occasions, and spent a fair amount of time with my audiologist on the noise reduction program in particular. I don’t believe he could have done anything else to resolve that problem.
  • I tried to get help on the internet. Someone might be able to tell me here how I could have fixed my Streamer problem. And if everything else had been great, I might have been willing to sort that one out. But I was not willing to pay a significant premium for spotty Bluetooth on hearing aids that weren’t meeting my basic needs.
  • I’m an expert user. I am probably in the top 95th percentile in terms of technology savvy hearing aid wearers. I am willing to experiment to get things right, and I’m comfortable searching the internet for help. But the balance between cost and effort on one hand, and benefits on the other, was just not good enough with these hearing aids.
  • My next choice was the Widex Mind 440.

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Future Media, Presentations

The Future of Media Interfaces

In 2007 I was invited to speak at the first From Business to Buttons conference in Malmö, Sweden. I worked with a colleague on two presentations: a workshop on the Future of Media Interfaces, and a case study of the New York Times redesign.

The Future of Media Interfaces looked at the effect digital distribution has had on the media and publishing industries, resulting in commodified content and declining advertising revenues. We then examined several new platforms for content delivery and discussed the challenges interaction designers face, as well as potential business models.

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