Phonak Launches The First Real Bluetooth Hearing Aid
Back in August, Phonak invited me up to their HQ in Warrenville, IL, to get a sneak peak of their new hearing aid — the Phonak Marvel. Being a Phonak fan myself, I happily accepted the invitation. Last week, I flew up to Chicago and tested the Marvels on my own ears. I was not let down. My expectations were exceeded on all the dimensions that matter; features, functionality, and sound quality.
What I was hoping to see
Being the only manufacturer without a Made-For-iPhone product, I was hoping to finally see a Phonak Made-For-iPhone (MFi) hearing aid. I would have been satisfied with that, and I’m sure that would have been enough to excite Phonak fitters and users alike. Back in August, ReSound launched the ReSound Quattro, an MFi hearing aid with rechargeability. So, I was secretly hoping that Phonak would do something similar with their new product.
What Marvel offers
Phonak knocked it out of the park with Marvel. The hearing aid delivers every single one of the blockbuster features consumers have come to expect, with some noteworthy industry-firsts (keep reading). I’ll break down each feature below, but here’s the quick list:
- Stereo Bluetooth streaming - Streaming from iPhone, iPad, MacOS, Android, Windows, and any other Bluetooth-enabled audio device.
- Hands-free calling in stereo - True hands-free calling from Bluetooth-enabled phones and VOIP services like Skype.
- TV Streaming - Marvel can stream directly from Bluetooth-enabled TVs, and can also stream from the Phonak TV Connector accessory.
- Rechargeability - Marvel promises a full day of hearing aid use from a single charge.
- At-home adjustments - Marvel hearing aids can be adjusted remotely by your hearing expert.
- Moisture protection - As with most Phonak hearing aids these days, Marvel hearing aids have a high IP68 rating.
- RogerDirect - For the first time, users will be able to stream Roger directly to their hearing aids.
- Phonak hearing aid technology - Phonak has a great reputation for helping users hear better in background noise.
Stereo Bluetooth streaming
- iPhone and iPad
- Android, Windows, Blackberry, and other Bluetooth-enabled phones and tablets
- Mac, Windows, Linux, and other Bluetooth-enabled computers
- Any other device with Bluetooth audio streaming
So what’s new here?
- To date, Phonak is the only hearing aid manufacturer to allow direct audio streaming to and from all Bluetooth devices. Direct streaming in other hearing aids is currently limited to iOS devices, with the one exception of ReSound (who has promised future support for Android).
- With Audéo B Direct, streaming audio was only available monaurally (in one ear). With Marvel, Phonak has introduced binaural (in both ears) audio streaming in high-fidelity stereo.
- Integration with personal assistants offered by all platforms: Google (Google Assistant), Apple (Siri), and Amazon (Alexa), etc.
I briefly tested out the audio streaming at Phonak HQ, and was pleasantly surprised by the audio quality. I have tried on my fair share of hearing aids over the years, and have honestly never been 100% satisfied by the audio quality. I always chalk it up to the tiny hearing aid speakers and the fact that my ear canal is left open (all the bass leaks out) with receiver-in-canal hearing aids. The streaming audio sound quality on Marvel was not what I would expect with my favorite triple driver earbuds, but it was better than any hearing aid I’ve tried yet.
Just for fun, here’s the song I queued up on my Spotify:
Hands-free calling in stereo
Here’s another industry-first. The Audéo B Direct was the first hearing aid to allow hands-free calling without the need for an additional accessory. Now, with Marvel, it’s finally possible to have true accessory-free / hands-free calling in stereo!
I really wanted to put these hearing aids to the test, so I tried making a phone call while I was streaming music from my Android phone (I use an LG G7). I punched in my wife’s number and pressed the call button. The audio switched over from Spotify to the call, as expected, and the ringer was loud and clear.
I walked over and grabbed a cup of coffee while chatting with my wife, which was probably around 15-20 ft from my phone. My wife’s voice was clearly audible the whole time, and she said she had no trouble hearing me. When I hung up the phone, I was switched right back to Spotify, as expected.
The whole experience was pretty seamless. This is the type of experience I’ve come to expect as a consumer of wireless Bluetooth headphones, and I’m so glad the world of hearing aids is finally catching up!
Marvel hearing aids can stream TV directly from Bluetooth-enabled TVs, or can use the special Phonak TV Connector to connect to non-Bluetooth TVs. Phonak tells me that their environmental classification system (AutoSense OS classifier) will continue to work while watching TV (or streaming audio), so that should mean improved speech understanding when there is background noise on TV, or when you’re listening audio recorded in a noisy environment.
Phonak plans to release a rechargeable version of the Marvel in late November. While I don’t have the full rechargeable specifications, I do know that Audéo M-R (the rechargeable version of Marvel) will come equipped with Phonak’s robust lithium-ion technology, and Phonak is promising a full day of use (with plenty of audio streaming) on a single charge.
Update: Phonak sent me some more details on the rechargeable battery performance for the Marvels. With no streaming, you can expect the Audéo M-R to last 24 hours on a single charge. With streaming (4 hours of TV streaming plus 4 hours of Bluetooth streaming), you can expect 16 hours of total use time.
Audéo M-R Battery Life
- No streaming - 24 hours of hearing aid use
- 8 hours of streaming* - 16 hours of hearing aid use
* 4 hours of Bluetooth streaming + 4 hours of streaming from TV Connector
Phonak has made a few minor improvements to their rechargeable hearing aids when compared to the older Phonak Audéo B R.
- Look closely at the image above, and you will see that the push button is now a rocker switch with a protruding lip on the top and bottom. This enables greater manual control of the devices, and also makes it easier to see the indicator light while pressing the button to turn the hearing aids on.
- The hearing aids now turn on automatically when removed from the charger. They may also be configured to remain off until manually activated by the user.
- Phonak has also improved the indicator light by adding red, yellow, and green colors (the light was limited to green previously). This should make it easier to determine the charging state of the hearing aid.
Phonak has been piloting a remote-programming system with the VA hospital for the past year or so, and is finally ready to release the technology to the masses. Phonak’s “Remote Support” system enables real-time programming sessions between audiologists and patients using video chat, and only requires that the patient install a smartphone app to gain access.
I got a demo while I was at Phonak HQ, and I’m extremely excited about the possibilities. Audiologists have access to the full functionality of the Phonak’s hearing aid programming software (with the exception of feedback calibration tests), so they can provide the same level of care whether you are at home or in the clinic.
In the image above, we take an audiologist’s perspective on a remote programming session. The patient can be seen in the video to the left of the screen.
Phonak plans to release at least five versions of the Audéo Marvel, each with an IP rating of IP68. For the uninitiated, IP68 indicates that the hearing aids are "dust resistant" and can be "immersed in 1.5 meters of freshwater for up to 30 minutes." Phonak was an early adopter of documenting and publishing IP ratings for their hearing aids, and they continue to be a leader in producing robust form factors.
Roger is a proprietary 2.4 GHz wireless system that Phonak uses to beam sound from remote microphones to hearing aids. Phonak has a whole suite of products that use Roger, including table mics, clip-on mics, and the famous Roger Pen. In the past special “Roger Receivers” were required to enable hearing aids to pick up the signal from Roger microphones, but starting with Marvel (Fall 2019), it will be possible to connect Roger-enabled microphones via direct wireless connection (no receiver necessary).
I wasn’t able to test out the direct Roger link while I was in Warrenville, but I have no doubt that the technology will work. I’m frankly pretty excited, because I’ve spoken to a number of people that rely on the Roger Pen to hear better in noisy situations. My hope is that more people discover Roger microphones as the technology becomes more accessible.
Phonak hearing aid technology
On top of solving the monaural (one ear) audio streaming issue, Phonak is also re-introducing its Binaural VoiceStream Technology (BVST in the chart below) into the Marvel family. Some keen observers may have noticed that BVST was not available in the Audéo B Direct. This has been remedied with Audéo Marvel, which means users will receive exceptional sound quality and speech understanding while also gaining access to the features discussed above.
Binaural VoiceStream Technology™ is the exclusive ability of Phonak hearing aids to stream the full audio bandwidth in real-time and bi-directionally for improved sound quality and unmatched speech understanding. This unique technology enables programs and features such as Speech in Wind, Speech in 360°, and DuoPhone. - Source
The M-312 and M-R models will become available in late November. M-312T and M-13T (telecoil-enabled models) will be released in February 2019. M-RT (rechargeable with telecoil) and RogerDirect will come later in the fall of 2019.
Dr Cliff Olson Reveals Marvel [Video]
Want to know more about the Marvel? Dr Cliff Olson (follow his YouTube channel here) will take you through even more details in this video:
Customer Reviews of Marvel
Update: Marvel hearing aids are now available for purchase, and the customer reviews are beginning to roll in.