Sweat trickled down from my hairline onto my brand new Alpine White Phonak Audeo Marvel hearing aids. The sound of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” surged through the devices, making my legs move, my arms wave, and my face to contort in a way that said: “I take my disco dancing very, very seriously.”
The music was loud and crystal clear, with no annoying squeals or feedback from the devices on my ears. My wife Kate circled around me, and I reeled her in with a “catching a fish” dance that we’ve perfected over the years. I was working very hard, and was a little worried the perspiration would damage the devices. But not too worried. After all, the next song was “Get Down on It” by Kool and the Gang. Concerns about malfunctioning gadgetry were put aside as I proceeded to…you know…get. down. on. it.
Earlier in the day, my audiologist had fitted me with my new Marvel hearing aids. And for the first time in a long while, I felt carefree and confident when it came to my hearing. It had been a long road, with several missteps along the way, but I’d finally found the aids that worked best for me. And for that, I wanted to show them a good time.
Five months before, I had just purchased a different set of high-end digital hearing aids. The Marvels weren’t out yet, but other brands were promoting the “device to hearing aid” streaming feature that I was incredibly excited about. As an experienced hearing aid wearer (15 years and counting), the idea of streaming music, podcasts, and even making calls from my smartphone straight to my aids was like, well, music to my ears.
But these hearing aids fell short in many ways. Sure, they had all the bells and whistles with fancy names—the echo blockers, the whistle minimizers, the multi-dimensional environmental noise reducers—but what I really needed were conversation enhancers. I spent thousands of dollars on this new technology, but the sound of the hearing aids didn’t compute with my brain. The acoustics were foreign and overly mechanical. It also seemed like the devices were trying too hard to impress. Different programs turned on and off depending on the environment I was in. I gave these aids a shot, but returned them after a few weeks.
The next set of hearing aids I tried received great reviews and had all the latest streaming technologies. But there were some fit issues with the domes, and like the others, it seemed like they were trying too hard in different environments.
At work, simple conversations were still difficult. I work in an office that’s a long, open room with no cubicles, just neatly arranged desks for about 20 people. As hearing aid wearers know, that kind of open space makes understanding conversations a huge challenge. As words and phrases from the mouths of my coworkers travel across the open room, letters drop off along the way. By the time the discourse gets to my ears, it’s like soft and indecipherable gibberish.
With these hearing aids, I’d hoped nearby banter would be improved. But I still couldn’t quite understand the conversations around me. As a result, I didn’t interact as much because I didn’t want to look like a moron when I couldn’t understand someone. I never thought of myself as anti-social, but that’s how I was coming across.
Outside of work, I tried the hearing aids at a local pub. Three of my buddies and I met up for a few beers. We sat in a small booth and traded stories, embellished our tales a little, and laughed a lot. I’d read an article about the superb speech in noise features of the aids I was wearing. But, um, no, I would have to disagree with that review. I was able to hear maybe 50 percent of what was being said, and my friends were right in front of me. The tables around us were the problem. I just couldn’t block out those other conversations. I remember at one point all of us were laughing at some joke, only I didn’t hear the joke, and was simply laughing along with them. Sure, I had fun, and was able to hear enough to get by, but I was hoping for better performance in that situation.
The last straw with these hearing aids was when I was walking my son to school. It was a cold Thursday in December, and the wind was howling.
“Hey Dad, did (something) to (something) when the (something, something)?” asked 8-year-old Charlie.
“What’d ya say buddy?” I said, leaning down to place my right ear directly in his face.
Just as he was repeating himself, the wind picked up and pummeled us. I had to adjust the positioning of my head to stop the barrage of wind noise in my aids. Of course, I didn’t hear what he said a second time.
“Sorry pal, what was that?” I said.
Charlie looked up at me, then looked back down.
“Nevermind, Dad,” he said. “It’s okay.”
He then sauntered ahead of me, skipping along like kids do. I remained a few steps behind, turning my head every which way to avoid the wind turbulence. I returned those hearing aids later that day.
In late January of this year, I read about the new Phonak Audeo Marvel hearing aids. They had all the new technology I was looking for, and they were rechargeable which was cool. By the way, if I had a nickel for every stray hearing aid battery I’d found in my pocket, in the couch cushions, or in the laundry, I would’ve been able to retire early.
I was familiar with the Phonak brand since I’d worn Phonak Audeo S aids for about six years. My audiologist, Shelly Boelter at OHSU Soundsource in Portland, OR, had superhuman patience with me. When hearing aids didn’t work, she fit me with other ones. I’d like to think I’m a laid back guy, but when it comes to the gadgets on my ears, I’m as finicky as a two-year-old in front of a plate of vegetables. I don’t want to like my hearing aids, I want to love them. Shelly had a good feeling about the Marvels. So, I set up an appointment at the audiology clinic to try them out. When I put the Marvels on for the first time, I just knew my search was over.
“When I put the Marvels on for the first time, I just knew my search was over.”
The rechargeable aids were a little wider but fit snugly behind my ears. Within seconds, I recognized the wonderfully enchanting sound of the air conditioner overhead. Never has ventilation sounded so beautiful. Shelly’s voice was crystal clear. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked. But the real test was that afternoon and evening. I was going to the office, then that evening a date night was planned with the wife. The Marvels had no idea what was coming.
At work, the Marvels performed better than expected. I tried a couple of different programs in the open space of my office (“Calm Situation 1” enabled me to hear across the room with better clarity). I certainly wasn’t able to understand everyone, and group meetings were still going to be a battle, but the comfort was there, as was a nice crisp and clean sound. After a few hours, I forgot I was wearing them (a huge benefit!). I was conversing with coworkers, cracking jokes, being me. I’d not only found hearing aids that worked for me, I’d found my personality again.
I’m sure if hearing aids could talk, they’d say some very ugly things about loud restaurants. The noise causes so many mechanical issues for the devices. I picture tiny little workers in the control booth of my aids. Alarms blaring, lights are flashing, different programs turning on and off trying to make sense of the chaos.
“Just turn it all on,” the tiny Foreman would yell. “Give her all she’s got!”
I don’t know what’s inside the Marvels, but it seemed like everything was under control. We were at a restaurant called Bar Casa Vale, which serves Spanish-inspired foods along with a boisterous ambiance. We were seated out on the patio, with about six other tables, near a gas fire pit and under a canvas cover with dimly lit bulbs hanging above.
The moment we sat down at our table, the Autosense feature on the Marvels immediately popped into the Speech in Noise function. All the voices around us were muffled, but Kate’s voice in front of me was completely clear. It was a strange sensation at first, but I got used to it very quickly. On the Phonak website, it says the Marvels have a highly sophisticated four microphone technology that’s been proven to improve speech understanding in noisy restaurants by 60 percent. That sounded about right to me. I even understood the server when she told us the specials for the night. That never happens (until now!).
“I even understood the server when she told us the specials for the night.”
At one point in the evening, the disco ball was spinning gloriously overhead, sending shimmering specks of light dancing throughout the room. I imagined the light capturing my Alpine White hearing aids, illuminating them for all to see.
“I imagined the light capturing my Alpine White hearing aids, illuminating them for all to see.”
“Look at the high-tech sexiness on that guy,” I imagined all the ladies on the dance floor saying.
“He’s mine! Back off,” Kate would yell, fighting off all the women attracted not to me, but to the amazingly beautiful shiny white devices over my ears.
The Marvels worked beautifully in all the tests I put them through. I was proud of myself that I stayed persistent in my search, that I didn’t stop “til I got enough.”
Throughout the night, I introduced the Marvels to Prince, Blondie, Rick James, and many others. I was working hard on my awkward dance moves, and the Marvels were working hard as well. What a relief it was to know that I had finally found the devices that I was looking for. And as an added benefit, I was able to find myself in the process. I was comfortable being me – dancing on the inside and out.