Modern hearing aids are pretty smart to begin with, but the latest generation of devices could make life even easier by connecting to our smartphones.

Hearing aids such as ReSound’s LiNX and Oticon’s Opn use Bluetooth wireless technology to stream live phone calls, music or navigation instructions directly from a smartphone to the wearer’s ear. The technology essentially turns the hearing aid into a wireless earbud, except the hearing aid provides a level of assistance prescribed to the wearer. “It will amplify only the sounds they have trouble hearing,” said Ian Odgear, audiologist with Pacific Northwest Audiology in Bend. “It has some pretty sophisticated technology inside to manage background noise.”

With smartphone-ready hearing aids, wearers can use smartphone apps to locate lost hearing aids — which cost $3,000 to $6,000 per pair — and control the hearing aid’s volume. They can also use their smartphones as remote microphones to pick up speech in a noisy setting, such as a crowded restaurant. “You can set it on the table so you can hear the person over there a little louder and clearer,” Odgear said.

Hearing aids made for smartphones are available from ReSound, Oticon, Widex and Starkey, four of the six major manufacturers. Another manufacturer, Signia, plans to release its own version this year.

Hearing aid makers have been displaying their technology at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and this year Oticon’s Opn and ReSound’s ENZO2 were recognized for innovation. Oticon’s Opn boasts a proprietary “brain hearing” technology, which allows hearing-impaired people to gather speech sounds from multiple directions within a noisy setting. The ENZO2 is a made-for-iphone hearing aid that’s powerful enough for people with severe to profound hearing loss.

Hearing aid makers have been using wireless technology for many years, but that technology required one or more accessories, which have become much more affordable — a few hundred dollars — in recent years, Odgear said.

Background noise continues to be the top complaint among hearing-aid users, and wireless accessories can help overcome that, he said. A hearing aid user can give a friend a small microphone to use while they talk in a crowded restaurant, or set it on a table to pick up a conversation at a distance.

Smartphones are simpler to use than accessories such as the so-called “companion mic,” Odgear said, but the sound quality from microphone apps is a work in progress. “It’s not as sophisticated as the devices they design for that purpose.” •

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