Signia Pure primax hearing aid: "Audio radar" that zeroes in on what you want to hear

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We used these high-tech hearing aids for a couple of months – here's what we learned(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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A while back, we agreed to take the new Signia primax hearing aids for a spin. The company (Signia is a brand of parent company Sivantos Group, which itself was spun out of Siemens Audiology Solutions) was promising some cool new tech inside the medical devices, and as someone who occasionally leans forward and utters the odd "huh?" and "what's that?" in public places, I thought I might be a good candidate. What we discovered, in addition to a noticeable drop in mental strain while wearing them, is that hearing aids present some big challenges for a reviewer. So read on for our extended hands-on impressions, minus the context with competing devices that we'd usually include in a review.

The Signia primax hearing aids have a long list of techie-sounding features that opened our eyes as to how much the ear trumpets of old have moved into the connected digital age. You have things like Bluetooth connectivity (where you can stream music and phone calls from your phone through the aids), an "HD Music" setting that supposedly enhances the sound of live or recorded tunes, and the ability to stream audio from a connected TV.

It turns out some of these features are common to most modern high-end hearing aids, but there are a few unique traits that, from our understanding, belong solely to these latest from Signia.

First, a couple of caveats. Expect to hear lots of qualifiers here, like "from our understanding" and "based on our experience." We did the best we could researching the competition, including talking to hearing specialists, but since competing hearing aids are locked behind prescriptions – and because I've never needed to use one before – it was impossible to research the competition first-hand. I even got my hearing professionally checked in the hopes that I could try on some alternate models, under the guise of shopping for one, but I tested completely "normal," so they sent me on my way.

That left us coming from a much more limited vantage point than we're normally comfortable with.

Back to those unique features, the highlight of primax is a system called SpeechMaster, which gives you what Signia calls "audio radar." It's a system that senses where nearby speech is coming from and automatically hones in on it, narrowing the pieces of sound (picked up by the microphones) that the hearing aids' processors are enhancing.

The aim is that you'll always hear exactly what you want to hear, all courtesy of processing and algorithms – with no need for making any manual adjustments.

Though there's medically nothing wrong with my hearing, enhancing it still reduces listening strain that I didn't even know I had. I personally feel more relaxed and centered by having a heightened awareness of my environment. When my audio environment is profoundly acute to me at all times, with no effort required to pick even subtle details up, my muscles relax and I speak more softly. Even "normal" hearing adults typically lose some hearing sensitivity compared to when we were children and teenagers, so it's nice to use a piece of tech to return to that state, at least through one of the five senses.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly how well the SpeechMaster feature is working, as an absence of unusual observations is probably the best sign that it's working well. If that's the case, it passed the test: While wearing the hearing aids with the automatic setting turned on, everything I wanted to hear sounded just as enhanced as I'd want it be, with no background noise getting in the way. We understand that rival hearing aids sometimes struggle with that last point, but, again, without a need for a prescription it's impossible to experience that first-hand.

While you're driving, the SpeechMaster appears to switch between directional dialogue (enhancing your passenger's voice if they're present and talking) and highlighting the stereo's music (when driving alone or when everyone is silent). When in public spaces, it appears to zero in on the voice of someone sitting across the table from me once they start talking. Based on my experience, Signia's promise of the SpeechMaster feature "acting like a conductor" of your audio environment, appears to hold weight.

If you know you need amplification of a sound coming from one direction and you don't want to leave that up to automatic algorithms (which is what we recommend in most situations), you can also manually adjust the direction of the amplification through a companion app – so it's always using a narrow cone facing, say, forward or to the left, or perhaps amplifying a wider 180 degree field in front of you.

SpeechMaster also includes a clever feature that, when wind is blowing in your ear, will recognize that, take the from the ear that isn't getting blown in and transfer it to the other ear. Last year I reviewed the SoundHawk smart amplifier (basically a budget hearing aid, with different form factor, that doesn't require FDA approval) and wind was a major issue – the slightest breeze sounded like hurricane-force winds blasting my eardrums. I still sometimes hear wind while wearing the Signia hearing aids, but it's dramatically subtler. And of course the muting effect is more pronounced when wind is blowing directly from one side: During times when the wind was coming from the front or back, equally attacking both ears, the feature didn't drown out as much.

We suspect the hearing aids' HD Music feature is going to work better for, well, people who actually need a hearing aid. I experimented with toggling the recorded music setting on and off while listening to different stereos (both home and auto) and while it sounded slightly better with the setting on vs. off, none of it sounded nearly as pure as listening with my own unaugmented ears. It's possible that if you've lost that ability to some degree this will enhance your experience, but that's an area where we're (yet again) running into limits.

Speaking of music, there's also an optional neck-worn accessory you can buy called easyTek that lets you stream your phone's audio to the hearing aids. This isn't unique to Signia, though: Many high-end hearing aids have similar wearable accessories that add Bluetooth to the mix. And in contrast to the product's overall sound quality, which I find to be excellent, I wasn't impressed with the quality of the Bluetooth audio streaming; perhaps it's inevitable that today's tiny hearing aids can't possibly produce anything remotely close to high-quality headphone or earbud audio from a paired smartphone. For me, the result was much closer to AM radio than to that of even the cheap pair of earbuds that ship with your smartphone.

Perhaps the impressions of someone who's never used a hearing aid before and doesn't need to use one in the first place don't hold much weight. But as someone who enjoyed enhancing his "normal" hearing (with an ear to how well the tech is working), I can say that, if you're looking for hearing enhancement, and you've previously run into problems with other products not adjusting well to amplify what you want, or not giving you enough control over your audio experience, perhaps the Signia primax will be worth trying on in your local audiologist's showroom. It would probably be wise not to take my word for it alone, but I can say that the product appears to do exactly what it's advertised as doing.

If you too are new to the world of hearing aids, then you may do a double-take when you learn about pricing. There's no set-in-stone figure we can quote, as cost varies from place to place, but expect to pay at least US$2,000-3,000 for a pair of these (and most insurance companies won't cover hearing aids). Technology like this means losing your hearing isn't a lost cause, but it also isn't going to be cheap.

Product page: Signia

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