Lend me your ears, and I’ll share the tale of mine

At the risk of navel- (or earhole-) gazing, my inability to find reliable first-person narrative on my specific hearing issues leads me to believe there’s value in sharing the odyssey that recently led me to becoming a “relatively young” person with hearing aids.

No, I’m not “going deaf.” To the contrary, my hearing is mostly normal and has been relatively unchanged over the years. The issue is that there is a very specific frequency group at which everything goes akimbo:

My recent hearing test, which looks like every other hearing test I’ve done.

What does that mean? Here’s a chart from the audiologist with my trouble spots circled in red.

So, no problem at all, unless I want to hear my wife, alarms, phones, or music. Not depicted here is my hearing kryptonite: conversations in noisy restaurants or bars — things that are a significant part of my business week.

Audiologists have repeatedly told me that this looks like the kind of damage they see from soldiers or rock musicians, neither of which describe me. I solved the mystery some years ago, learning that my dad has the exact same pattern. The presumption, then, is that it’s a genetic thing.

I got my first hearing test about fifteen years ago, noting these problems. At the time, the state of technology was such that all that could be done with a hearing aid was to amplify everything, meaning that getting the trouble areas up to snuff would make everything else painfully loud.

For years my solution has been nearly no solution. At business lunches and events, I’ve had to focus attention intensely on whomever was speaking and behave as though the only people at a table were those right next to me. I generally made a strategic beeline for the middle of a table, but as noise escalated, I sometimes just gave up on all but immediate neighbors, especially when the least bit tired. I imagine that in some cases it made me seem aloof or uninterested, when I really just couldn’t hear beyond a dull roar.

As gadgety as I am, I surprisingly hadn’t given thought to reinvestigating solutions until I was on a recent trip where I realized that one of my compatriots had some pretty sophisticated hearing aids going on. My big clue was that despite having no visible earbud he was taking calls. I inquired, and it turns out he had a similar pattern to mine, and that in addition to Bluetooth connection to phones, hearing aids had advanced in their discernment of different types of sound.

So, I paid a visit to Total Hearing Care in Dallas where Dr. Gloria Buckley validated the results of all my prior hearing exams. To my surprise, she had a set of custom-programmed hearing aids in my ears within a few minutes, and was able to recreate some noisy scenarios to test out the configuration. At the doctor’s request, Crystal attended with me, so we could nail down the settings with her voice overlaying distracting scenarios.

And just like that, I became a wearer of the Oticon Opn S1 miniRITE. I am fortunate that my insurer, BCBS, kind of covers it (counts towards deductible) and that Wells Fargo Health offers twelve months, no-interest. It’s a pricey piece of equipment, given the technology required to discern individual speech in a room full of noise, while being discreet enough to protect my vanity.

Unretouched photo of my hearing aids in action. Doubt you can find it without a seeing aid.

I’ve been using the aids for a week now, enough to give an early review.

On the whole, they are incredible. Near-invisible, and they make a huge difference. I can make out any conversation much more clearly in general. And in crowds, it’s a revelation.

Oticon’s depiction of how the tech works.

On the very first night, I had a business dinner at Javier’s, which Dallas folk know is not a quiet joint. During dinner, I could hear everyone at the table perfectly. Post-dinner drinks in the noisier bar were just as good, once I turned the aids up a notch using the Apple Watch app.

Let that sink in — the Opns connect via MFi Bluetooth to an iPhone, and adjacent to that, the Apple watch. Using the app, you can select presets created by your audiologist and turn them up and down from there. I have three settings: A baseline; a “noisy room”; and a “music.” The phone streams audio from phone calls; Siri; and media to the Opns. It even comes packaged with IFTT scripts to alert when the battery is waning or when you get mentioned on Twitter.

An IFTTT alert.

The other big wow is in listening to music from external speakers. Being a music nut, this may be what I appreciate most. It’s like going from two-dimensions to 3-D, especially on high horns, hammond organ, or high-range backup singers. My 2018 car stereo went from sounding average to exceptional with the introduction of the aids.

I emphasize external, as the music streaming is the sole major disappointment. Streaming to the Opns is fine for a call and maybe a podcast, but for music, it’s straight-up terrible. Part of this is because my bass range is otherwise fine, so isn’t boosted in the aids. Part of it has to do with the rubber covers, or “domes.” Mine are open, again because I don’t need bass boost. But I tried some closed ones that still left the music feeling tinny and distant. Worse, the Bluetooth connection when streaming music is dicey, sometimes connecting one ear or the other, but rarely in stereo.

On one hand, this feels like a minor quibble with an otherwise miraculous piece of technology. On the other, even the crappiest wireless ear buds do a better job here, so I’m incredulous that the latest and greatest model touts this as a feature and then fumbles so badly.

As a practical matter, this means that for a workout I have to switch out to music-centric earbuds, like my AirPods. And for traveling, where I need to hear and want music on the go, I needed some over-ear headphones. Based on the ever-reliable Wirecutter, I went with the Sony H.ear On 2.

(That, coincidentally, led me to get a Costco membership to save 70% on the headphones and thus open a Pandora’s (big)box of bulk shopping.)

So far, no one’s noticed the hearing aids without me showing them. They feel a little funky, but I’m noticing them less daily. Upkeep is nominal and is quickly becoming automatic, like when I used to wear contacts and could clean them in any state of coherence.

The team at Total Hearing Care was great, thorough, and explained everything along the way.

The upshot is that I’d highly recommend looking into a solution if you have a hearing, or any other health problem. The folks at Total Hearing are aces, and the Oticons are awesome on every front save for music streaming, which should probably be looked at as sprinkles on the icing on the cake.

Most importantly, I’m shocked at how much unnecessary angst I used to have at lunch meetings, something that probably showed in subtle ways. I feel quicker, more responsive, and more relaxed.

So, I can hear you now. Ask me anything.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.