As I said in my First Look review, the Naída CI Q70 is a powerful but complex system with a long learning curve. Here is what I’ve learned in the past week.
I’ve been told through Facebook that Advanced Bionics is working on a software patch that will reduce the annoying 6.6-second interval of silence when switching programs. Thanks, Advanced Bionics. I hope the delay is a lot less, like half a second.
I think I’ve finally figured out ZoomAhead. (Advanced Bionics calls it “UltraZoom.” That’s a confusing name, so for clarity I call it “ZoomAhead.”) ZoomAhead is designed to help the user in very noisy environments such as a crowded restaurant. The processor compares input from different microphones to focus on what’s directly ahead of the user. The key seems to be to use it in very noisy environments. My wife and I had dinner in a pizza joint packed with customers, and ZoomAhead definitely made it easier for me to hear her compared to my “standard” program. I had seen less benefit in a less crowded restaurant, so my guess is that it works best in environments with very loud speech babble.
I’ve also figured out ZoomToSide (which Advanced Bionics calls “ZoomControl.”) Ever since I met my wife Tory (fifth anniversary of our first date was two days ago!) I’ve had to walk on her right side, since my left ear is my good ear. With ZoomToSide, I can now walk on her left side if I want. The mike on the right processor sends her voice over to my left processor, and I can understand her very well. That’s very nice. But I doubt I’m going to be using it much, except maybe on our rare long car trips. It takes me 15 or 20 seconds to set it up and then as long to take it down. That’s just too complicated for casual switching. As I said in my review, the processor really needs to become smart enough to do such things on its own, reliably. That’s a tough challenge. As any Apple user knows, Siri still screws things up a lot. But it’s got to be solvable within the decade.
I’ve tried using the ComPilot (what I call the “Connector”) for listening to the TV. I’m not using Phonak’s TV-Link accessory for this. I simply strung a patch cable from the audio output jack of the TV to the input jack of the Connector: twelve bucks or so at Radio Shack, cheaper online, as here. The basic idea is to get a male-to-male cable with 1/8-inch jacks, and it has to be long enough to get from the TV to your couch. The sound clarity is fantastic. Documentaries are extremely easy to understand without captions. My wife and I watched Spinal Tap and for some reason, the captions didn’t work. It’s an older DVD we rented at the store. So I tried watching without them. Those guys have English accents, you know. I was able to follow most of the dialogue with some work, which I could never, ever have done watching the TV unaided. I doubt I’ll ever quit using captions, simply because they make things so easy, but it’s nice to know I can now do without them if I have to.
I’ve been listening to music quite a lot. I’ve begun to go beyond my old favorites, which is a relief because I was worried that I would only enjoy music that I remembered hearing before with hearing aids. I’ve especially enjoyed the Beatles’ Revolution, with its intriguing sound effects.
I’ve also been listening to Eye of the Tiger, Space Oddity, Unknown Legend, a few pieces from the soundtrack of Myst, The Rip (Portishead), and Stairway to Heaven. These pieces are somewhat familiar to me from my hearing-aid years, but I haven’t listened to any of them since before 2001. My wife said, “Of course, you know Stairway to Heaven was the last song played at every junior-high school prom.” All right, maybe so, but after 13 years out of the game I’m entitled to like what I like. I’ve also been trying out classical pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth, but for now shorter pop music is best for what I’m up to.
Which is getting my right ear up to speed. My right ear is much worse and much less carefully programmed than my left ear. On its own, it hears music terribly. It sounds like a vaguely rhythmic rumble. But put together with my left ear, it seems to supply some of the bass effect that gives music depth and richness. It makes a very substantial difference.
Today I went back to the audiologist Julie Verhoff at the River School here in D.C. to work specifically on the right ear. (It provides audiological services to the community via Chattering Children, its nonprofit arm.) Dr. Verhoff has been very thoughtful and thorough, and I’m learning a lot.
The right ear has two problems: poor frequency resolution, so that adjacent keys on a piano sound the same, and a mismatch with the left ear, so that the same note sounds different to each ear. We decided to work only on the first issue today. For years I’d been using only 11 of its 16 electrodes. The other five were turned off because they seemed to interfere with the rest. The 11 electrodes that remained on were the ones that ordinarily deliver the lower-frequency sounds, which partly explains why the ear sounded so rumbly to me. (Only partly; it’s more complicated than that, but I won’t go into the details.)
I asked Dr. Verhoff to turn on all 16 electrodes. When I’m trying new maps my general strategy is to make a new map that’s very different, to give me a clear difference that I can assess. I might not be able to hear much difference between having 11 electrodes on and 12 electrodes. But 16 sounds very different indeed: crisper and more high-pitched. I also asked her to turn off ClearVoice in both ears. It’s designed to filter out what it thinks is noise, so it might also be filtering out some of what makes music sound good.
Here’s my new music program. Red is right ear, blue is left ear. It’s in program slot 2. I still have my original music program, the one Dr. Verhoff set up two weeks ago, in slot 3.
So now I’m home listening to Boléro, which I use to assess new maps. Music sounds more like music in the right ear, because of the high-frequency sounds the newly turned-on electrodes are giving it. But when I put the two ears together, I’m not sure if it’s better. I hear a pronounced hum in the left ear, as if I was sitting next to an air conditioner. Turning off ClearVoice in that ear might not have been a good idea – although maybe I just need to habituate to the difference.
I’ve also been trying the old music program in the left ear and the new one in the right. The hum in the left ear is gone, and I’m hearing the highs in the right ear. In theory that seems like it ought to be the best combination, but I’m not sure if it is. It may be that the pitches I hear in both ears are so different that I’m having difficulty integrating them. Or it may be that the newly turned-on electrodes in the right ear are interfering with the rest, which was what I had concluded when mapping that ear years ago. Or I may simply have to adjust.
The only way to know will be to (a) do a lot of listening with programs in various combinations and sort out what’s going on in each ear individually and in both ears together, and (b) experiment with making more changes with Dr. Verhoff, particularly to try to match pitch percepts on both sides. It may also be a matter of (c) getting my brain to learn to hear and use the different pitches being presented to my right ear. I take notes as I listen, which is very useful later on.
It is a complicated undertaking, sort of like solving a set of equations that have variables that change when the other ones do. Mapping two ears is more than twice as complicated than mapping one.
Finally, in my first-look review I mused about enabling the processors to be controlled directly by a smartphone via Bluetooth, without any intermediaries. That has just become possible in the hearing-aid world. The new hearing aid is called the LiNX, made by GN ReSound. According to CNN,
It’s been possible for people to operate their hearing aids via custom remote controls and even link them to smartphones, but that has required an intermediary piece of hardware, most often a small, clunky box worn around the neck. Now, using a combination of Bluetooth and a proprietary Apple protocol, the LiNX hearing aids can communicate directly with Apple mobile devices. (Link to full story here.)
That “small, clunky box” is the ComPilot, the “Connector.” Its sound quality is fantastic, but it is clunky. Moving the Bluetooth capability directly into the Naída would be a tremendous advance. No more connectors and remotes to juggle; just the clean, powerful smartphone one always has to hand. Or later in 2014, as many people expect, an iWatch.
According to this press release, Advanced Bionics’ biggest competitor, Cochlear Corporation, has been working with GN Resound to create a new processor:
“One of the benefits of 2.4 GHz technology is that it enables the end-user to receive streamed sound directly without wearing an intermediary device around the neck,” said Jennifer Groth, MA, GN ReSound. “We know that eliminating body worn streamers is a priority for hearing aid users. Coupled with superior sound quality, 2.4 GHz addresses core user needs.”
This is exactly what I was wishing the Naída could do.
I don’t know how feasible it will be with cochlear implant processors, which are much more complex and power-hungry than hearing aids. I’m no expert on the subject, but just thinking out loud, I can see there being two levels of difficulty. First, there’s using the smartphone to change processor programs and settings, which requires occasional exchanges of data. Second, there’s offloading complex processor tasks to the smartphone, which would require, I would guess, near-constant data exchange. I imagine that both would be difficult to do without quickly draining the small batteries that power cochlear implant processors.
If Cochlear can do even the first, in a way that actually works in daily usage, at a development price it can afford, and that users can afford, it will have a serious advantage. If I was an exec at Advanced Bionics, I would be trying to produce a Bluetooth-native Naída Mark II as fast as possible.