I have been so excited about the launch of the Sound Assist, the first time I have got really excited in a long while.
The sad truth is that Assistive Listening Devices (ALD's or simply ' accessories') for hearing aids end up in a drawer, gathering dust a lot of the time. Partner microphones (which you clip to the speaker's lapel) in particular seem like a great idea, but the reality of drawing attention by asking someone to clip on a microphone before talking is enough to put you off using them. You start out keeping your ALD in your bag, but at some point you have a clear out and it goes in the drawer. After a time, you're not sure it's got a charge so you don't take it with you. The next time you see it is to put it on eBay when you change hearing aids!
There's also the issue of the sound quality. Direct streaming of voices to aids via a mobile phone or a TV streamer is one thing. Streaming voices in background noise is another, as you hear a) naturally, b) though the aids, and then c) the added layer of the ALD. This gives sound an odd quality that is not pleasant. In my experience, people need to be really struggling to hear before an ALD is useful enough to be worth the weirdness.
As an audiologist, I often recommend the top level of hearing aid technology, and thankfully it's so good now that these accessories are rarely needed. But when someone has a very severe loss, or if their brains are the weak link rather than their ears, they will struggle in challenging environments even with the best aids. The table in the middle of a busy restaurant. The car where you can't hear your daughter over the engine noise. These are situations where a person may still struggle despite having great hearing aids which have been well fitted.
The Widex Sound Assist is both a table microphone (which looks for voices in multiple directions such as at a table of four in a restaurant), and a partner microphone. It works only with Moment generation aids. It's easy to initially pair up, but the people who aren't confident with technology may need help to do this at the start. Once paired it remembers the aids and connects automatically (the aids announce this to confirm to the user that they're in Sound Assist mode) when switched on, so tech-fearing relatives won't need ongoing support. The buttons are small and fiddly, but if you're using it only for its main functions you won't need to use them.
It is very small and sleek, comfortably pocket-sized, with a built-in clip for attaching to the person you're talking to. You'd think looks shouldn't matter, but they do because anything that draws attention to your disability is off-putting. This mic draws attention of the right kind when you use it in a friend group, people will be interested in it and then they'll forget it's there, as you would wish.
The Sound Assist knows when it’s been picked up and clipped onto a lapel and changes to Partner Mic mode, then back to table when you put it down flat again. Its microphones change direction accordingly.
I have had mine for a few weeks now. Hearing is so individual, so my experience as someone with a "young brain" but a profound high frequency loss will be different to yours. My situation means that I generally manage very well in background noise with my Widex Moment 440 Receiver In Canal rechargeable aids. I do however struggle to hear passengers when I'm driving, and I struggle with certain speakers in all situations (accents, mumblers, high pitched women). I also find it difficult to hear when I'm very tired or if I can't see the person speaking, because I lipread automatically.
In the pub restaurant group setting it picked out and balanced the voices expertly. I put it in the centre of the table and expected to hear nothing but menus being flipped over, but that wasn’t the case. There was no discernible volume difference between speakers, so although I expected to have the closest voice dominate it was so much better than that. I have an iPhone, so I was able to use my phone app function to change the balance between Sound Assist streamed sound and the regular sound from my hearing aids. I found it better and less distracting when it was set to 100% streamed sound from the Sound Assist. This would normally cause a problem if you wanted to speak to the waiter behind you, but the Mute button on the device allows you to very quickly change to your hearing aids and back again. A very user friendly feature. I didn't enjoy the way things sounded when heard though the Sound Assist, because it's quite obviously a microphone. For people who start out with cheap hearing aids, this is a bugbear. Your memory of sound - and your current residual hearing - sounds much more pleasant than hearing via the aid microphones. If you can't get used to it, you stop wearing aids. I'm fortunate to have excellent sound quality from my hearing aids and therefore I really noticed the change. This is not to say it's poor sound quality, just that the qualities of the sounds were not pleasant to me.
Restaurant Verdict: didn't like the qualities of sounds/speech, but heard vastly more words correctly, and really noticed the difference when it was switched off. I would definitely use it again if I'm struggling to hear, but would not choose to use it otherwise.
In the car with my pre-teen son who mumbles into his chest, I clipped the Sound Assist to his seatbelt while I was driving. The percentage of words I was getting immediately improved, and he wasn't bothered by wearing the mic. It sounded like he was speaking right into my ear, and the engine noise ceased to be an issue. The directional microphone combined with my aids noticeably took away the problem of him seeming quiet compared to the engine and the stereo, which is exactly what it's supposed to be doing. I'm going to try it out on a group journey tomorrow by resting it on the centre console to pick up all three passengers.
Verdict on Car: I will definitely be using this a lot in the car. It's always tiring trying to hear passengers while focusing on driving. Their voices bounce off the windscreen or are absorbed into the seat, but with this device I'm able to catch so much more, without having to look at their faces. Sound quality is not an issue as I can't normally hear anything well, so it didn't stand out.
It also came in handy when I was in the doctor's surgery with the ubiquitous Perspex COVID screen. I slid the Sound Assist under the hole and immediately the voice of the person on the other side became so much clearer. Normally the receptionist's high pitched voice would bounce off the screen, leaving me struggling to lipread through the Perspex. If she turns to face the computer I'm lost. This was ten times better, and because it's so small I had it in my bag pocket ready to go with a quick press for On.
Final verdict: as with all assistive devices, it’s only going to get used if there’s a problem big enough to warrant the hassle of usage. Hearing through another microphone is never going to be something you choose to do, especially if you originally chose Widex aids for their natural sound quality. I am unlikely to use it in restaurants for this reason. However for those with a bigger problem than mine, this is a tremendously well designed and executed piece of kit. For car journeys, it's great, and it will always be in my handbag from now on. The flexibility of it (thinking of the Perspex screen situation), and the fact I don't need to clip it to someone to use it, raise it well above a dust-gathering partner mic.
I can (and I do) actively recommend it to those with severe loss who are struggling on a daily basis.
The Widex Sound Assist is £595 at Hearing and Tinnitus Care, Brighouse. You'll have an appointment where you'll be shown how to pair it and use it. You'll receive advice on how to get the best from your device, and if it doesn't work out for you there is a 30 day returns period (subject to deduction for service).