So, when Widex came out with their latest chipset evolution, their new Unique, I reserved judgement. I wanted to see just how much of a difference this latest chip had evolved from their old Dream offering into the new Unique series there is, for the typical user.
Each year I do my best to listen to as many of the major manufacturers products as possible, always looking for that best balance between price, performance, and benefits.
First you’ll need a little background on this particular guinea pig. I’ve a severe to profound, bilateral, ski slope loss with near normal hearing below 1K Hz, and no response at 85dB HTL above 6K Hz, due to noise exposure as a young man.
I can fool you when in a quiet environment, but as soon as the background noise elevates in any environment, I get real dumb real quick.
Typically, as with so many others, I can hear, I just can’t understand the words, as the vowels of speech come through somewhat, but all of those consonants simply get lost in the upward spread of masking with my hearing loss.
Without quality amplification, I live in a rather quiet environment, or I’m simply not able to communicate, or socialize effectively. An unacceptable, and isolating experience without my aids.
Even with some of the industry’s top gear, I have still had trouble in the same places that my patients do, noisy crowded parties, social events, and restaurants. Anywhere that the ambient noise, particularly if it consists of lots of other people talking, can be a real problem for me, and millions of others.
Now, before I go any further I want everyone to know that all of the major manufacturers are building some truly amazing gear. All of them can do a good job helping a wide variety of hard of hearing folks, in a wide variety of environments.
Some just do a much better job in the worst of environments than others.
For those folks outside of our industry who are reading this; there are three major goals for every fitting we make as follows:
The First goal of each and every fitting is to achieve audibility.
That means that we have to amplify all of the appropriate sound signals to a level where they are above where their hearing starts, or above their thresholds. You simply cannot process a sound that never gets sent to your brain, so our first job is to make sure all of the appropriate sounds are present at a level that allows them to be detected in the first place. Very simply, all of the right sounds have to be loud enough to hear.
The Second goal of each and every fitting is to achieve a comfortable fit.
By comfortable fit, we mean both the physical fit, and feel of the gear as it is being worn, as well as the comfort of the acoustic environment it is providing to our patients. No matter the sound environment, our patients should never feel the need to remove their hearing aids in order to be more comfortable.
We strive to make each and every fitting ‘transparent’. By that I mean we want our patients to forget that they are wearing hearing aids, and just get on with living their lives.
The best compliment we can get is when a client tells us that they forget that they are wearing their aids, and did something like just jump in the pool, or shower without even thinking of their hearing aids.
We want to improve the understanding of speech for our patients, so that they can hear the voices that they want to hear, no matter the sound environment that they find themselves in.
As I explain to all of my patients, this is the most difficult of our three primary goals.
Improving the understanding of speech embedded in noise is the goal requiring the most processing of the sound environment, and where the particular approaches taken by the various manufacturers vary the most.
It is also where there is the largest difference in performance between companies.
If, you live in a relatively quiet environment, and aren’t interested in being able to follow speech in those complex sound environments like parties, or noisy restaurants, even the simpler circuitry of another era may be adequate for your needs.
But, being able to narrow a beam of amplification to the front of the person you are trying to help, and enhance the speech contained within that beam, while attenuating the other noises, or even other speech coming from different directions takes some very advanced processing, and the chips to run these programs in real time.
Not every manufacturer has proven as adept as others in accomplishing this very complicated task.
Having given you the background of what we are trying to accomplish overall with every fitting, my hearing history, and the loss I cope with, and a bit of the challenges we face in fitting others, I am going to move on to a discussion of my experiences with the new Widex Unique 440 series hearing aids that I am wearing, and how their performance differs from their preceding chip series, the Dream.
I’ll also share some of my experience with how the Widex products compare in other areas to products currently available from the other major manufacturers in our industry.
The first difference I noticed between the Widex Dream 440s and the new Uniques was how much quieter the Uniques seemed in the lab when I first fit them.
The low level noise filters are superb. The cooling fan in my lab computer that had been quite noticeable in the Dreams was still their, but at a much lower level. Yet when my office manager picked up the phone at her front desk, I could hear her quite clearly even from the lab, about thirty feet from where she was, and around a corner, out of site.
The next big difference I noticed was when I walked outside. The traffic on New Haven was pretty busy that close to lunch, there were lots of cars, truck and motorcycles going by, yet all was comfortable and I was able to hear the conversation of the folks walking in front of me on the sidewalk, as I went to my truck for the ride home.
In the vehicle I noticed a marked improvement in the way the Unique series handled the noises associated with traveling in a car. While I had no one next to me to talk with, the radio was crystal clear, and the outside noises were at a minimum.
When I got home I noticed something both exciting and reassuring. Lots of my patients are golfers, boaters, or active outdoors types. Wind noise across their microphones has been a perennial problem. Not with the Unique circuit. While it was a breezy afternoon, when I exited the truck at home, I could hear the breeze clearly rustling the leaves of the mango tree beside my drive, but none of the typical wind noise.
The Unique chip uses an analysis of the sounds as they are created between the front and back microphones of each aid. The turbulence created by by the wind hitting each microphone is random, and different from actual environmental sounds, like the leaves and speech. The wind noise program in the Uniques is able to compare the two and simply subtract out the wind noise, from the sound of the leaves, birds, or voices delivering a clear, clean and undistorted sound even in a stiff breeze.
As I spend a lot of time out back in our garden, I noticed immediately that I was hearing more bird calls, as well as the buzzing of the bees working the flowers above my head, yet with none of the associated microphone, or circuit noises that are normally associated with low level sound amplification.
The other thing I noticed was that even the very loud bird calls, and even speech had become cleaner in all sorts of environments. The widest dynamic range in the industry means that these instruments are bringing me sounds as soft as 5 dB SPL, yet remain clear, and clean all the way up to 113 dB without distortion.
This wide performance range makes a huge difference in both being able to hear those whispered sweet nothings, whether they occur at home in the quiet of the bedroom, or even across the table at your favorite restaurant.
Of all of the major manufacturers, Widex has the widest dynamic range of them all.
This means that even in the noisiest of environments, the input signal of these hearing aids is delivering a clean signal to the processors to start with. Once the input circuits reach their saturation, everything the instruments do with the signal from then on is distorted.
You just can’t get around the garbage in, garbage out truth of it. If, your microphones, or their analog to digital converters can’t handle the sounds coming in without distorting their output, then the entire system’s output is compromised, and all of it’s output distorted as well.
This improved range became very clear a few days ago, when I took a patient who had been experiencing nothing but frustration with the attempts of another manufacturer to fit her loss into Meg O'malley's, one of our local pubs, after just fitting her with a new set of Uniques.
We were both able to converse normally across a table with each other, even in a terrible sound environment.
She was hearing so much better in fact that my patient’s unsolicited comment was, “Wow, I’m hearing better with these hearing aids, and your fitting than I did with the others after over six months of them trying.”
She has agreed to be our ‘Miss December’ so look for her experiences in a coming set of articles.
They also completely redesigned their wireless dongle, the Com Dex. They made it much smaller, lighter, simpler and easier to use. I found no problem in pairing it with my iPhone, and iPad. I really enjoy the hands free, stereo streaming of my music, phone calls and ebooks.
You simply have to try it to understand just how great music can sound when the left and right channels are actually separated, corrected for your hearing loss, and streamed directly into your ears.
The only thing that comes remotely close, is the experience created with a HyperSound system.
Oh, and you can either have your microphone system active, while controlling the input of your music, or phone stream with the phone, or, iPad’s volume control, enjoying the outside environment, as well as your private stream. Or, you can entirely mute the hearing aid microphones in those very noisy environments when you want to take that cell phone call. This allows the cell call, or stream to be presented directly to both ears without any interfering outside noises. All with the touch of a button on the side of the Com Dex.
They even have an application that lets you control your aids from your smartphone if you want, or check the status of your dongle’s battery. Complete with help videos this app will even find the nearest authorized Widex dispenser for you, should you be traveling and need service.
When you add in the industry’s best, and only fractal tone tinnitus management system, there isn’t much that Widex has forgotten.
They’ve even upped the moisture resistance rating on their system making it not waterproof, but very moisture proof, as I can personally attest, as they are so transparent in their operation, and so comfortable to wear that I’ve already caught myself a half a dozen times in the shower with them.
When it comes to defining the very best that our industry has to offer, from sound quality in the widest range of environments, to the greatest dynamic range in the industry, with great wireless performance, all in a small attractive package that can take Florida’s heat, humidity, and more, you simply cannot beat the Widex Unique series.