Currently, Siemens (Signia) and Phonak have rechargeable products in their portfolios. Phonak has products at 3 different price points that are rechargeable (models BR-50, BR-70 and BR-90) and Signia has products at the top 2 price points (Cellion 5 and Cellion 7). Differences are not all that significant, with the exception of this - the Phonak products have a button that the user must press and hold, in order to activate the hearing aids when they are taken out of the charger, in order to turn the hearing aids "on." We have found this to be a major flaw in the design, as the button is small, and it flashes to indicate the hearing aid has powered on, but most users need to cover the entire button when pressing it, which makes it so that the flashing light cannot be seen. Users with dexterity issues also have a hard time pressing the button with enough strength to initiate the activation. The Signia products are "on" as soon as they are taken out of the charger, making them easier to use. With regard to battery life, the Siemens and the Phonak products both have long battery life (18-24 hours of average usage), and both products will have a full charge after approximately 2-4 hours in the charger. The battery is expected to last 3-4 years, at which point, according to both manufacturers, the user can pay an "out-of-warranty" repair charge to have the battery changed.
There are several companies now producing hearing aids with rechargeable batteries, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Of the "Big 6" manufacturers, Signia (formerly Siemens) has been doing it the longest, with three level of technology available in their Primax product line. Prior to November, 2016, their rechargeable battery was based on nickel metal hydride, and has been around for several years. The technology was adequate for most people, but for some the charge wouldn't last through the end of the day, which is a weakness in this system. The batteries themselves were guaranteed for a year, but we also found that they didn't quite last a full year. Signia, however, would replace them if they failed prior to twelve months. One advantage of this system is that the batteries are "field changeable", and if a battery failed you could use a traditional zinc air battery if you were in a pinch or went on a trip and forgot your charger.
In November, Signia introduced a new rechargeable system called "Cellion", based on Lithium Ion. Yes, this is the battery that notoriously cause cell phones to spontaneously combust, but those were also in circumstances that would be almost impossible to occur with hearing aids. The advantage of Lithium Ion is that the batteries last significantly longer (easily more than 24 hours on a charge, and overall life of 3-4 years). One disadvantage is that the battery is built into the hearing aid, so if for some reason it does fail or truly hits the 4-year mark and need to be replace, the hearing must be sent back to the factory for replacement, which is considered a repair charge in these circumstances, and can amount to a few hundred dollars to accomplish. Indeed, its the policy of the manufacturer to always replace the battery if the aid is sent in form repair, whether it is battery-related or not. A good rule of thumb for Lithium Ion hearing aids, therefore, is get a long warranty. At our office, all Lithium Ion hearing aids come with a 4-year warranty, and it's our intention to send the aids in to the factory just prior to warranty expiration for "reconditioning" so that the battery will be replaced, effectively extending the lifespan to potentially eight years. Since the battery is built in, another disadvantage of Lithium Ion is that if you forget your charger you can't substitute traditional zinc air batteries.
Signia was not the first to the market with Lithium Ion; Phonak also introduced this type of rechargeable in August of 2016 in their "Audeo B-R" product line, making them the first to the market with it. The design parallels Signia, with the battery lasting up to 30 hours on a charge, overall lifespan of 3-4 years, and the aids must be sent to the factory should a battery fail or become exhausted. One innovation that Phonak introduced was an additional "Power Pack" that can be attached to your charger for when an electrical outlet isn't available (like when you're camping). This power pack can provide up to seven additional charges, or essentially a week's worth of back-up, and can be re-used. Initially only available for Phonak's line of receiver-in-the-ear products (Audeo), at the end of February they launched a traditional behind-the-ear model (Bolero) with the same rechargeable system.
The most recent introductions for rechargeable hearing aids, however, come from Unitron and Starkey, and hold some high promise of combining the best of both worlds. Partnering with a company named "Z-Power", they both utilize an updated version of the nickel-metal hydride system but with improved overall battery charge and lifespan. The promise is for at least 24 hours of use and longer than a year for overall lifespan. Time will tell if they've really accomplished this, but it does allow for the use of traditional zinc-air batteries as well.
One innovation specifically from Unitron is that patients who had previously fit with their line of "Moxi Fit" instruments can actually be retro-fit with the rechargeable system, making it available to those who have previously purchased and aren't ready to replace their hearing aids just yet. The estimated cost to retro-fit the instruments would be in the $300 - $500 range. Since this system is based on the Z-Power design, Starkey could also offer such a solution but I am unaware if they are offering this at this time.
Finally, one remaining player is a company that has done rechargeable systems for quite some time, but is a smaller company and not as well-known: Hansaton, a subsidiary of Sonova and sister company to both Unitron and Phonak. Their current system is also based on nickel-metal hydride, but boasts an overall lifespan of five years. Hansaton also currently offers the only in-the-ear model of rechargeable that I'm aware of (although there have been a few other players that offered in-the-ear in the past and may still do, but these are much smaller companies).
Returning to the original question of "which company makes the best rechargeable hearing aids", the question is actually much bigger than just the battery system. Once you've decided which approach is more important to you--Lithium Ion or nickel-metal hydride--then other factors still come into play as to what is the best hearing aid for you. Your choice shouldn't be based solely on the rechargeable aspect, but which product performs best in background noise, which one has the most reliable Bluetooth interface, which one has the best sound quality for music, etc. At our office we have definitely noticed a difference in these areas, which influences our overall recommendation--including some brands or models that do not include a rechargeable option. Take everything into consideration when making your choice for better hearing.
The latest MarkeTrak studies have shown that patients are fed up with their hearing aid batteries and are in search of a rechargeable solution. Many of the major manufacturers have jumped at this opportunity and focused their efforts on providing a viable option.
Signia and Phonak have introduced Lithium-Ion batteries that make the device a bit larger but last a number of years. This lithium-ion path also allows the devices a higher degree of water resistance as the case does not have a battery door to allow moisture to sneak in. Signia's battery can be replaced at your audiologist's office while the Phonak version needs to be sent in for repair if it stops working. As an alternative Unitron has adopted a pretty version of the ZPower battery door that uses a silver-zinc battery. These replaceable batteries won't last much beyond a year before you need a new one (not horribly expensive). The upside to the Unitron/ZPower solutions is that the battery doors are backward compatible and when you inevitably forget to charge your hearing aid overnight, you're not out of commission for that 8am meeting the next day. It'll work with a regular battery.
Choose between these options? Honestly, flip a coin.
Rechargeable hearing aids aren't a new concept. Magnatone and Siemens offered rechargeable BTE and ITE hearing aids over a decade ago and never dominated the industry. Why? Maybe because it's not that big of a deal. The cost differential between a rechargeable system and conventional zinc-air batteries is minimal at best and the increase in convenience is debatable. Unless you're struggling with dexterity and cannot physically manipulate a traditional battery, all of these options are marketing distractions.
Don't get me wrong, I like the latest techie gadgets more than the average consumer, and offer them as an option in my practice. If I had to choose, I'd pick the Unitron/ZPower solution because I'd be likely to forget to charge my aids overnight. That said, remember, when you're looking for a hearing aid, keep your eye on the ball. Spend your money on the solution that allows you to understand your spouse's voice at the restaurant. The payoff from better hearing will always be more significant than saving the 30 seconds and $0.50 / week it takes to change your batteries.
Phonak is NOT the only company making rechargeable hearing aids. Siemens (now being branded as Signia) has had a rechargeable product available for many years. The drawback is that a charge would only last 12-14 hours at the most. In December they released their Primax technology with a sealed battery that will last 24 hours per charge called the Cellion which is available in the top level Cellion 7 and the next step down, the Cellion 5. I have patients in this product now and they absolutely love them. Siemens has arguably the best hearing aid on the market right now. The Cellion hearing aids use inductive charging with a full charge in four hours. A quick charge that will last seven hours only takes 30 minutes. The Cellion 7 has an automatic program that is constantly adapting to your sound environment. I wear them myself and almost never need to adjust volume or programs manually.
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You have a few options when it comes to rechargeables...
Siemens has a hearing aid that uses rechargeable batteries and regular batteries. The battery lasts about a year, but it is not a good option if you want to use Bluetooth
Phonak has one without a battery door that uses induction charging, it is a good system but a bit expensive right now
Hansaton uses the EXACT same hearing aid as Phonak rechargeable but costs much less
Unitron just came out with theirs, but I have no experience with those yet.
Widex will have something soon, according to the manufacturer it will be a big departure in rechargeability... I do not know when it will be announced.
In my opinion, rechargeable batteries are "not there yet" when it comes to hearing aid usage. Most hearing aids are worn 10 to 15 hours per day and I have yet to see batteries that can stay charged more than 8-10 hours. If you're streaming content, the charge time is even less.
Power One makes a nice rechargeable system called the Pocket Charger, but you have to have the dexterity to remove and replace the batteries, and you are still only getting limited number of hours per day. The batteries are expensive at around $30 per set on Amazon, and will only charge 350 to 400 times. They are also easily over-charged if you are not careful. You would need 2 sets of batteries and the ability to change them out as necessary.
Phonak has introduced their B-R models, but from everything I've read they are far from perfect. Because they are totally enclosed you cannot replace the battery unless you send the aids back to the factory. Life expectancy of the battery is currently around 4 years, but they are claiming a 24 hour charge even when streaming.
Z Power recharging system is being introduced later this year. I've heard good things about them, however I haven't seen the system in action yet. One of the pro's of this system is that it may be "backward compatible" with already purchased hearing aids. The replacement battery door for your particular aid would be ordered, replaced in the office and the system introduced. I know that both Starkey and ReSound are going to be offering backwards compatible battery door replacements.
Zinc Air hearing aid batteries are relatively inexpensive compared to the more costly rechargeables, and may save you some headache in the long run. Until the issue of charge time is managed I continue to fit my patients with mercury free zinc air. Make sure to leave the battery out of the hearing aid for at least 5 minutes before installing in your hearing device and opening the battery door when you are not wearing your aids to maximize the life of your battery. Remember though, if you are streaming content via bluetooth the battery will discharge faster.
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