When Phonak unveiled the first true Bluetooth® hearing aids back in 2018, I said they knocked it out of the park. Now, with Phonak Virto™ M Black, which is available in the U.S. beginning this week, Phonak is bringing the same Bluetooth connectivity to a new small custom-fit form factor, designed to look like a next-generation hearable. The sleek, compact design leans into the popularity of smart wireless earbuds, positioning Virto M Black as an answer to the age-old stigma associated with hearing aids.
Since its successful product introduction at CES in January, I’ve taken a closer look at the product and its features. The big story here is that Phonak is delivering an excellent hearing solution—not just for tech-savvy baby boomers—but also for younger hearing aid users who want the latest hearing enhancements and connectivity in a contemporary earbud-style form factor.
While Virto M Black looks a lot like a Bluetooth earbud you might pick up at Best Buy for a few hundred dollars, it’s actually a high-end programmable medical device. And, it will cost you a few thousand dollars after a hands-on fitting by a local hearing health professional.
But the new hearing aids offer industry-leading hearing enhancement, flexible Bluetooth connectivity, all-day battery life, and a multifunction smartphone app that facilitates on-the-go sound adjustments. It’s a winning combination that should make them well worth the added cost for those who need serious help with their hearing.
Virto M Black provides music streaming, hands-free calling, noise reduction, audio controls, and other features you might expect from a high-end wireless earbud. At the same time, it delivers individualized amplification and sound processing, customized to your unique hearing loss needs. And compatibility with Phonak wireless remote mic and TV audio streaming accessories makes it even easier for people with hearing loss to understand speech in challenging listening environments.
“Most hearables still only provide one-way consumption of streamed audio content,” says Ditlev Friis, Business Unit Director, Phonak Specialty Business. “But Virto M Black’s advanced sound processing technology, combined with smartphone connectivity, facilitates two-way communication with friends and loved ones.”
How does Phonak ensure the Virto M Black will fit comfortably in your ear? It turns out, this is quite the involved process. First, your hearing healthcare provider must create a physical mold of your ear (earmold).
This mold is then analyzed by Phonak to create a “Biometric Calibration” of 1,600 data points from your unique ear impression. The calibration enables placement of the directional microphones and Bluetooth radio receiver in optimal locations within the hearing aid shell to provide the best possible performance. Phonak uses 3D printing to create the base components, which are assembled and finished by hand before shipment to the patient.
With the Virto M Black earbuds, Phonak is attacking the stigma associated with hearing aids head-on. They are large enough to be noticed and don’t even try to meet the old standard of “invisibility.” Instead, they look like a slimmed-down version of the wireless sport earbuds worn by young, active people at the gym, at the office, or when running around town.
“Virto M Black was designed to blur the lines between a hearing aid and a hearable,” says Friis. “Our aim is to help people seek treatment sooner, thanks to the stylish design and innovative hearing aid technology. And because it meets the needs of even severe hearing losses, it provides a long-term solution for people with progressive hearing loss.”
In a survey, Phonak asked more than 600 consumers to compare the Virto M Black hearing aids with other traditional in-the-ear hearing aids. A majority said they would choose Virto M Black. And the highest number of positive responses were in the 18-to-56-year-old age range. The company says the more appealing design addresses the stigma associated with hearing aids, one of the reasons people delay treatment for an average of seven years after first noticing a hearing loss.
Virto M Black is the first custom-made hearing aid to integrate Phonak Marvel technology, including universal Bluetooth streaming, hands-free phone calls, and a personalized hearing experience via the myPhonak app. It is the first custom-made hearing aid that directly streams from both iOS®, Android™, or virtually any other Bluetooth®-enabled audio device. And its microprocessor chip runs five wireless protocols at the same time including Bluetooth Classic, Bluetooth LE, Binaural VoiceStream Technology™, Airstream Technology™ and Phonak Roger technology, providing comprehensive wireless connectivity.
With Virto M Black, hearing aid wearers can answer, end, or reject a phone call with the push of a button while keeping their phone in their pocket, purse, or on a nearby table. On-board microphones allow wearers to use their devices as wireless headsets, resulting in truly hands-free conversations. And when paired with a Roger accessory, Phonak says Virto M Black wearers can experience up to 10-times better-than-normal hearing in noisy situations and over distance by streaming the Roger signal directly into both ears.
Phonak’s decision to have the Virto M Black use disposable 312-size hearing aid batteries might seem to run counter to consumers’ growing preference for rechargeable hearing aids. But from a practicality standpoint, it may prove to be a winning design decision.
Phonak has helped lead the industry in developing and delivering lithium-ion rechargeable batteries integrated into hearing aids. But the small size of rechargeable batteries means they need to be charged overnight, daily. And daily battery life can be negatively impacted if you do a lot of audio streaming, make a lot of phone calls, or work in a noisy environment that prompts constant program adjustments by your sound processing software.
Phonak says the Virto M Black’s 312-size batteries, on the other hand, deliver from five to seven days of continuous service, depending on your amount of audio streaming. The disposable batteries can be easily removed and replaced by popping open the door on the outside of the hearing aid.
Phonak is betting there are enough hearing aid consumers who want to be part of the hearables revolution to make Virto Black a big success. And if early response to the product is any indication—especially from the multiple glowing hands-on reviews from consumer tech blogs and videos—it’s a very good bet. For instance: