I’m not sure when I started to lose my hearing, but it was two years ago when I had it formally tested in a fancy echo chamber. The doctor said that I was going to need a hearing aid, sooner or later. Hopefully later. Either way, the numbers were clear: My hearing loss was now at 26 percent, mostly stuff in the upper frequencies, and it was probably going to get worse.
It’s more of a nuisance to my family than to me. When my wife asks in the dead of night, “Did you hear that?” I invariably have to say no. Anyone who tries to talk to me from another room sounds muffled at best—not that that stops them from trying. And I find myself constantly asking “What?” in conversations; it was especially a problem back when crowded restaurants were a thing. Most of the time, however, my hearing loss isn’t that big an issue, so long as I can turn up the volume on the TV—though that’s another battleground.
But as the ear doctor predicted two years ago, it is getting worse, and I’ve lately been wondering if it might be time to start investigating some support in the form of hearing aids. (There’s solid medical rationale here too; even mild, uncorrected hearing loss doubles your risk of dementia.) I knew that hearing aids had come a long way in recent years, and impossibly small devices with app-based controls that let you fine-tune your audio are now commonplace. But when Signia told me about its product, it seemed to be a case of perfect timing. The company’s pitch asked, “How do you convince people with hearing loss who have not yet decided to wear hearing aids to do so?” The subtext being, how do you make them feel less old?
The Signia product line revolves around a simple conceit: What if we made hearing aids look like regular earbuds, removing the stigma of the device? And while they look the part, what’s under the hood is a pair of full-blown hearing aids, fine-tuned devices that are designed not to blast The Weeknd at you but to improve your hearing in a range of situations.
I should note that, while I worked directly with Signia to obtain and set up my review device, consumers will only be able to get Signia products through a medical doctor. (Sites that sell these products online directly to consumers are bogus, says Signia.) You need to go through medical channels because a trained audiologist must tune the earpieces based on the particulars of your hearing loss. The audiologist will examine your audiogram—which tracks what frequencies you’re missing—and pump up the volume for them appropriately. Then you’ll go through live testing with a variety of audio inputs. “Better like this? Or better like this?” The device can be tweaked again over time but, outside of a few basic settings, not by the end user.
The Signia Active Pro hearing aids come with a charging case.Photograph: Signia
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, I did all of my work with the audiologist over a video chat session. This is unorthodox and perhaps not ideal, but I was definitely able to hear the difference that her real-time device configuration changes—delivered via the cloud—made to the sound quality.
As someone who’s never worn hearing aids, I found that they definitely took some getting used to. Hearing aids extend much deeper into the ear canal than a standard earbud, which makes them difficult to put in, more difficult to take out, and mildly uncomfortable all the time. After a few hours of sustained use, I found that my ears would begin to itch, necessitating a break from wearing them, at least for a time.
With the Signia Active Pro hearing aids in, and this might sound obvious, everything is louder. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, the TV is louder. Yes, my wife’s voice is louder. But so is my voice. So is the rustling of the bag of chips I’m eating, and so is my crunching. The scratch of a pencil on a piece of paper can sound deafening, and every little noise echoes. I eventually started to feel paranoid, like someone was always behind me—only to realize that the sound I was hearing was the echo of my creaking desk chair. There is also always some level of background hiss, sometimes high, sometimes quite low. I presume that if you’re super deaf you probably don’t really notice it; maybe in a few years I’ll be at that point.
After some initial testing, I went back to Signia for a Zoom-session tweak, boosting frequencies that would make TV audio clearer, reduce the volume of my own voice, and mitigate hiss. The changes helped, but I soon got the impression that we were reaching a point of diminishing returns, and that things were just about as good as they were going to get.
Turns out though, that’s pretty good. The “everything is louder” approach worked well enough in the end, provided I wasn’t moving around a lot or trying to eat while listening. And the more I wore the units, the more comfortable they got, though I still haven’t reached the point where I feel like I could wear them all day. Even after weeks of testing, I really only felt like wearing them when I knew in advance I was going to need them.
Your audiologist can tune your hearing aids and set you up with preset modes for different situations.Photograph: Signia
The Active Pro hearing aids connect to your phone over Bluetooth and can double as streaming audio monitors in a pinch, but I can’t recommend them for this purpose. While they turn down the volume of the outside world a bit while you’re listening to music or watching a movie, they don’t block it out like a pair of noise-canceling earbuds can. What you’re left with is a strange combination of the entertainment program you’re enjoying and everything else. While wearing the Active Pros at the gym, it was like having an ambient Bon Jovi soundtrack overlaid on top of the Netflix movie I was watching, and it made me long for my usual earbuds. Plus, there’s like no bass at all.
Signia’s app offers some rudimentary manual controls—namely volume, which I normally had pegged at maximum, plus a bass-treble slider. In Universal mode, you can fine-tune directional hearing—for example, by pumping up audio in front of you while blocking noise behind you. There's also a Face Mask mode, which is designed to clarify the voices of people whose mouths are muffled behind face coverings. If your audiologist sets up different usage modes, you can switch among them in the app too. I have modes for Noisy Environment, Reverberant Rooms, and TV, to name a few. They all tend to work reasonably well for their designated purposes, though the sound never offers the crystal-clear audio experience I’ve dreamed of.
In keeping with the earbud theme, the Active Pro hearing aids come with a charging case that provides up to three full 26-hour charges, enough to make it through a long weekend without having to juice up the case. The case itself includes both USB-C and Qi wireless charging, which makes it extremely flexible.
Even better, not one person has asked me about my hearing aids, because no one has realized I was wearing them. Wearing earbuds in public is such a normal part of life now that people probably thought nothing of them at all. That said, if they had known how much these things cost—between $3,000 and $7,000 depending on your medical provider—perhaps their thoughts would have run elsewhere.
To be honest, I’m probably just not to the point of hearing loss where this kind of cash outlay makes sense. During times when I removed the hearing aids and didn’t have the case handy to stow them away, I felt like I was smuggling precious contraband in my pockets for which I could get shanked at any moment.
Best put them back in so I can hear the footsteps of the muggers gaining on me, no?