I feel a bit strange about giving a review for hearing aids when I do not actually have a hearing impairment. This is about my wife’s hearing aids. But since I am my family’s CTSO (Chief Tech Support Officer), I do have a perspective on anything tech in the household. And modern-day hearing aids are a whole lot more tech than a microphone, amplifier, and speaker.
And it has taken me a long time to actually wrap up this review and record it. But that was mainly because I didn’t know how it would end.
The Problem To Be Solved
We have been looking for new hearing aids for my wife, to provide maximum hearing quality with minimum “fiddliness”.
Hearing Aids Received
My wife received her new hearing aids in early June 2021. I had attempted to get across to her audiologist that (as iPhone users), we thought that there would be a significant advantage to her having hearing aids “Made for iPhone” (MFi), and I pointed him at the web pages on the topic. In response, I got words to the effect that “all modern Bluetooth hearing aids work fine with both iPhone and Android”. Yeah, well, not exactly the same thing, but I couldn’t seem to get that across.
Well, he either subsequently learned something or we “lucked into” an MFi hearing aid. Anyway, she received the Signia “Pure Charge&Go 7X”, which does appear on the MFi compatibility list. Along with one of those, she received a Signia “CROS Pure Charge&Go X transmitter”, to take sounds from her profoundly deaf side and feed them into the hearing aid on her less-deaf side.
Both of these are “behind the ear” units, with the bulk of their electronics, battery, microphones, etc. sitting in a small module behind the ear, with a thin wire leading to a fancy “earbud” inside the ear canal. These are by far the smallest behind-the-ear units I’ve ever seen, including a pair worn by a very senior Google executive who can clearly afford whatever kind he wants. And they are remarkably lightweight.
Does She Like Them?
My wife reported that she is hearing much better with these than she had with her previous units, which were in-ear and several years old. She was quite happy with them at the point of just starting her 45-day evaluation period.
That said, they are pretty high-tech. And as such, they share some issues of high-tech devices with which we are all too familiar (namely, Documentation and Fiddly). And I will note these things that we have run into so far.
And we will revisit this question later.
First, just a note on documentation. Kudos to the Signia folks for including some.
But, of course, most of the pages cover things that I think are totally obvious, a few pages on some more advanced topics covered in insufficient detail, and no pages covering some things that I really want to know.
Signia lists an address in New Jersey and says that the hardware was manufactured in Singapore. The documentation is in English and Spanish. I can’t comment on the Spanish. The English documentation is written pretty well, though there are a few clues that it might not have been written or edited by a native English speaker. But it’s certainly better than the manual for a rear-projection television I owned way back when.
There are something like 7 or 8 manuals for all the stuff. The longest in terms of pages is the one for the main hearing aid. Tying that for length is the “Safety manual for hearing instruments”, which appears to be a fairly purely lawyer-written document full of helpful tips like, “If a battery is accidentally swallowed, seek medical attention immediately….” (We seem to be talking here about accidentally taking a hearing aid, using a specialized tool to remove two pins that hold it together, using a specialized tool to pry the housing apart, removing its guts, separating the battery from the electronics, and then accidentally swallowing that battery. See? Lawyers.)
There is a fairly simple iPhone app. It includes the ability to change the hearing aid “program” from among those set up by the audiologist, adjust volume, and control a few other things (some of which I will mention below). It’s a pretty reasonable app; pretty easy to understand and use. But it’s an app. It’s fiddly. There have been a few things that crop up that seem fixable only by fully exiting and re-starting the app. Most of these seem to be in the realm of loss of synchronization between or among the hearing aids, iPhone, and other hearing aid accessories.
The hearing aids have a built-in Lithium-Ion battery, so there is no need to buy and deal with tiny batteries with increasingly arthritic fingers anymore. It came with a small charging box that charges them inductively and (somehow, magically) dries them. It has a set of three LEDs on each side (one side for each device), with a chart in the documentation that explains what the different color, pattern, steady/blink states all mean.
The documentation makes quite clear that you need to use the included power adapter or bad things could happen. Well, nearly all devices come with such warnings. I figure that it’s probably put in there by the lawyers to limit liability.
I looked at the power adapter and cable and quickly determined that this was a 1.0A USB supply with a fairly standard micro-USB cable. So I plugged the supplied cable into the multiple outlet / USB box that we’ve had plugged in behind our bed headboard for years. (As an age indicator: It has a 30-pin iPhone connector on top.)
The charger fired up and seemed to be working just fine. But it quickly started to act “fiddly”. Taking the aids out the next morning, we expected all LEDs to extinguish, but all six (3+3) remained solid green. And there were a few other bits of odd behavior.
My wife asked whether I was using the cable supplied with the charger box. I said yes, and then realized that I was not using the 1 Amp charger they supplied, but was using a 1 Amp port on that old outlet box. I switched to using the supplied USB power supply, and it’s now been working completely fine. So, maybe my 1 Amp port was actually 0.9 Amp or something. Maybe if I had used one of the 2 Amp ports, it would have been fine, but I’m not touching it for now, since it’s working. Anyway, just a bit fiddly in terms of power supply. But since the lawyers made them put that line into the manual, I can’t really blame Signia for this.
The StreamLine TV is an accessory we got with the hearing aids. It is a small USB-powered box that sits in the audio stream from our TV and transmits that audio via Bluetooth directly to her hearing aid. It came with an optical digital audio cable, a pair of RCA phono cables, and an RCA to mini-headphone adapter. So, pretty much covering all the bases.
I was impressed that optical was an option. But I was concerned that we were already using the optical output from the TV to talk to our Sonos system. I started bringing up manuals for the TV and the Sonos to see whether there were any other options for making that connection, to free up the optical for my wife’s hearing aid interface, or whether there were RCA/headphone outputs from the TV that we could use with it.
I kept striking out on every option I could think of and was about to order an optical 1-in/2-out box from Amazon when I looked at the StreamLine TV box again. Hey, wait a minute. I’m seeing two optical connections on the back of it. Holding it differently, so that the light hit the molded-in port descriptions, I saw that one was labeled “IN” and one was labeled “OUT”. Reading the manual again, more carefully this time, I realized that I could run one optical cable from the TV to the StreamLine and another optical cable from the StreamLine to the Sonos. And with the supplied cable, I already had everything that I needed to do it. It works great! I’m really impressed that they thought to include the OUT connector for people who have non-trivial A/V systems.
This all works really well, and the volume going through the streaming system to her hearing aids is completely independent of the volume of sound coming out the Sonos system. So she can be enjoying a show on her own without any sound from it distracting me doing something else. At the same time, the microphones on her hearing aid are still active, so I can talk to her and get her attention. The downside of that, though, is when we are watching a program together. Because then she is hearing the sound directly through the streaming device and also the sound from the Sonos that I am listening to. This mainly becomes an issue if I want the volume on the louder side. Maybe there is a way of fiddling with one of the volume controls to deal with that, but we haven’t tried that experiment yet.
A bit of “fiddly”: The app is used to flip the hearing aids into “streaming” mode, sending the audio from the StreamLine box to the hearing aids. Because my wife has some hearing in only one ear, the audio is sent to it only, and the crossover device goes into some kind of power down or standby mode. In theory, when streaming mode is exited, we think that the crossover should be re-awakened and resume normal operation. But if my wife has been watching TV for a while, it doesn’t seem to, and so requires holding one of the physical buttons on the CROS until it powers up.
One other bit of “fiddly”: If my wife is watching TV and streaming the audio, she can walk around within the ~30-foot Bluetooth radius, but if she gets too far away, the connection is broken. This is to be expected. (In the biz, we call this “WAI”, for Working As Intended, when the thing fails in such a way that the engineers expect it to fail, and it’s the user’s fault. 🙂)
But here’s the thing. When this happens, the multi-device cooperation of the streaming box, hearing aid, and iPhone app kinda get confused as to the state of things, and the app stops displaying the “stop streaming” button, even though it is showing that it is in streaming mode. And her hearing aid is also stuck in streaming mode instead of reverting to the default / normal mode. To get out of this, the power button on the hearing aid itself needs to be pressed for several seconds to turn it off and then pressed again for several seconds to turn it back on. And that’s in addition to whatever may need to be done to the CROS to get it fired back up.
The StreamLine Mic is an additional accessory that seems to have about four different functions. I’m not going to go into detail on this, because the only feature we think has any potential use for us is the “Remote Microphone” feature, and we think that the “Live Listen with Made for iPhone hearing aids” feature should handle this use case just fine. This MFi feature lets the user position the iPhone closer to or pointed at the person speaking, and the sound picked up by the iPhone microphone is streamed through the hearing aids. In initial testing of this, my wife was not impressed, but we have not given it the full “noisy restaurant” test. We returned the StreamLine Mic as it seemed to be something for which we have little or no use.
And, as it turned out later, she does not even really need the “Live Listen” feature.
Audio Books in Car
One of the things my wife was hoping we can do is some kind of direct-to-hearing-aid audio in the car, so we can enjoy an audiobook together on long drives. Currently, I have my iPhone paired with a Roav Bolt, which is a Google Assistant interface and phone-to-car audio adapter. From the Bolt, we have a mini headphone cable that plugs into an Aux Input port on the dashboard. This works really well, and the music or audiobook or podcast or whatever comes through the car’s audio system very nicely. But my wife would rather the audio came in directly to the hearing aid, to reduce the road and wind noise that is “competing for the hearing aid’s attention”.
So far, the only potential solution I’ve come up with is to use a StreamLine TV device and a mini audio splitter, sending the signal from the Bolt to both the Aux Input jack and into the back of the StreamLine TV. Since the device is USB powered, it should be easy to get it powered in the car, if not from the Bolt’s USB jacks, then from some other adapter. (But see the inductive charging box fiddly about its USB power supply, above.)
And I am pretty sure that will work. But it seems that the hearing aid can be paired with only one StreamLine TV device at a time. And that means either that we buy a second fairly expensive device just for the car, and re-pair her hearing aid with it when we want to use it and then re-pair with the one on the TV when we get home (Ugh!) or disconnect the one StreamLine device we have from the TV, connect it to the car (changing how my car’s audio is usually cabled) and reverse the process when we get home (Also Ugh!). So I’m thinking that we will do the latter, but only if we are going to be doing a lot of hours of driving on a multi-day road trip.
And I am left wondering why no one in the Signia engineering department has more than one television.
The hearing aid and StreamLine TV all seem to work quite well and integrate well with the iPhone. It is just that having three devices that all must communicate with each other and coordinate operating state via Bluetooth is “fiddly”. It is far too easy for things to get out of sync, with (for example) the hearing aids and StreamLine TV happily playing the audio from the TV while the App is not showing a Bluetooth connection to the hearing aids and the iPhone Hearing Devices settings may or may not show them connected. And this means power cycling at least a few things.
But, again, when things work, they work well. Oh, she does need to get used to the fact that when things are working properly, it can still take several seconds for everyone to agree on the current operating mode before she can change it.
The CROS works quite well until it decides that it should be off or in standby mode and sometimes cannot be cajoled into coming back into the party until it has been sitting in the charger on the bedside table for half a minute or more and then taken back out. And that has feasibility issues when we are not at home.
So, basically, if you want simple hearing aids that won’t drive you to distraction, this is not what you are looking for. But if you want hearing aids with the latest technology and are comfortable with the fiddly that comes along with that, Signia is a good choice.
As I have been researching how all this should best work together, I learned that Signia released their new version of hearing aids, the 7AX, on May 18, 2021, and so we needed to ask my wife’s audiologist why he did not set her up with the latest technology; whether it is just because the new version was released between her original appointment and when her hearing aids were delivered, or there is some medical reason. We never got a good answer to that.
But my wife did get the newer 7AX, newer CROS AX, and new charger. The charger has a built-in battery, so if we ever are traveling to someplace without electrical power for a few days, she will be all set. (Like that’s going to happen.) This charger uses a tiny physical power connection, not inductive charging. And it does not claim to incorporate any sort of cleaning, drying, or disinfecting features.
While the 7AX does not explicitly appear on the MFi list, it does appear to be working exactly the same with regard to the iPhone as the 7X.
The newer model has some awesome improvements in sound processing capability, but the audiologist warned us that all the fiddly bits were still fiddly with this model. I figure that it’s probably down to using Bluetooth and that managing multiple simultaneous wireless device interactions is hard.
Oh, and I did mention that my wife didn’t need the “Live Listen” feature. Well, that’s because she can use the Signia app to tell the hearing aids to pay attention to sound coming from in front of her and mostly ignore everything else. So when we are sitting across the table from each other in a restaurant, she can flip on this mode and just hears me. She loves it. I am hopeful that she can use the app to similarly direct the microphones to pick up sound from the car speakers and less from wind and road noise, so we won’t have to fiddle with moving the Streamline TV unit into and out of the car.
Does She Like Them (Revisited)?
All in all, she really loves her new hearing aids – except for when she wants to throw them through a window. And, unfortunately, she wants to throw them through a window more and more, the longer she has them. Having three radios: StreamLine TV to iPhone, iPhone to hearing aid, and CROS to hearing aid, it seems that something is always out of sync or otherwise in some unexpected state. Nearly every day, she needs to reset or power cycle at least one or two things involved.
Maybe some of this can be solved by a software update. But the only way to get a software update for the hearing aids is to make an appointment to go back to the audiologist. The app does not even inform the user that a new firmware version is available.
So, despite loving the features of the Signia 7AX family, she detests it all. Having multiple devices that have no reasonable method for software updates, all connected to each other by multiple radios, is just too fiddly for her to stand.
She will be getting a new set of hearing aids soon. It is unlikely that they will be Made for iPhone or even have Bluetooth capabilities. And I will not be involved at all in the purchase decision, because these last several months have taught me that I do not want to be to blame for helping choose exceptionally fiddly critical technology for my wife.