Review: Soundhawk smart listening system

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Gizmag reviews the Soundhawk – a next-gen hearing wearable designed to help people hear better in places like noisy restaurants or movie theaters(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Soundhawk is an ear-worn "smart listening system," which the company is very careful to describe as ... well, anything but a hearing aid. So we took those claims at face value, to see how it stacks up as an audio enhancer for people with "normal" (or close to it) hearing. Read on for Gizmag's review.

Before jumping in, keep in mind that the FDA doesn't consider "sound amplifiers" to be medical devices, as long as they're labeled for recreational (or similar) use for people with normal hearing. So just because Soundhawk insists that its product isn't a hearing aid, that doesn't necessarily mean that isn't, more or less, what it is. A hearing aid of the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, "no FDA regulation, please!" variety.

I don't have anything remotely approaching severe hearing loss, so I can't review Soundhawk as a medical-grade hearing aid. But like many folks reaching their late 30s (and older), I do occasionally notice that I have to say "what?" or "excuse me?" in crowded environments – perhaps more so than I did a decade or two ago. I also miss the occasional line of dialogue in movies.

If you take Soundhawk's marketing at face value (which, again, may be a naïve thing to do), I'm the ideal customer: "normal" hearing, but could benefit from some audio enhancement in certain environments.

The product itself has a modern, techie look and feel to it. There are two parts: the "scoop" (that's it on the right, above) which is the listening device that you put in your ear, and the "wireless mic," which you can (optionally) place near someone who's talking to you in a noisy environment. The wireless mic can either rest on a table or clip onto something like a shirt or jacket. And you can easily switch between modes using one of the buttons on the earpiece.

Both parts go inside a sleek charging case (included), which closes up to protect the Soundhawk system when you aren't using it. In addition to charging via microUSB, the case also has a built-in battery, so you can keep it in your pocket and juice up the two Soundhawk parts on the go.

Perhaps the best part of Soundhawk is that it doesn't look anything like a hearing aid. Most people assume it's a Bluetooth headset. Of course that has stigmas of its own, but at least it looks like a modern and stylish Bluetooth earpiece, rather than a dated and garish one. During my time wearing the scoop, I haven't noticed any stares or odd looks in public.

And of course, like any self-respecting wearable, it all connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth Low Energy. The companion app lets you choose among four different listening modes (indoors, outdoors, driving and restaurants), each of which you can customize for brighter or fuller audio, as well as the level of the boost. There's also an output volume control.

The earpiece slides comfortably into your ear, and stays in securely. Only once, when I intentionally put it into my ear very loosely, did it fall out. Place it there normally (and also fit it with the right size of ear-tip) and it should stay put no matter what you're doing.

If you leave the Soundhawk earpiece turned on in quiet environments, you're going to hear a slight hissing sound. Even when set to the lowest levels, we still heard some degree of this. We don't find it to be too bothersome, as it's no more noticeable or annoying than the white noise you'd hear between songs on a CD (if anyone still listens to those).

Using the scoop alone, the audio enhancement is quite good. When shopping in a busy store, I hear every syllable spoken to me with perfect clarity. When watching a movie in a theater, I don't miss a single line of dialogue (though the explosions can be a little overwhelming). And at home I can place the wireless mic next to a TV, turn it down to a volume I could barely hear with only my ears, and hear everything at a perfectly normal level.

When using the Soundhawk earpiece, everything I hear is so vivid and clear that I find myself speaking much more softly. Perhaps I'm usually a bit of a loud-talker, because it turns out people can still hear this softer-spoken version of me just fine. Hmmm.

Tweaking the brightness/fullness and boost level settings can help to optimize your audio for whatever environment you're in. We find it annoying that you can't create (and name) your own setups though – you're left to remember whether you set the "outdoors" setting for the movie theater or TV, and whether "driving" was really for driving or for your trip to the store.

Our biggest issue with the wireless mic is that it gives us a high-pitched interference sound that's more noticeable (and annoying) than the white noise hiss you get when using only the scoop. The mic's noise isn't horribly distracting, but its constant high-frequency murmur does take something away from the Soundhawk's multi-device setup.

In addition to enhancing your hearing, you can also use the Soundhawk scoop like the Bluetooth earpiece it will be mistaken for. It lets you take calls and use Siri (iOS) or Google Now (Android) for smartphone voice control. Just keep in mind that phone calls will drain the scoop's battery faster.

Another cool element of Soundhawk, and one that isn't being advertised, is that it gives you something that approaches super-hearing. We aren't talking Daredevil stuff here, where you can hear the heartbeats of people standing five feet away from you, but you can, at the very least, notice ambient sounds that otherwise would have faded into the background. When walking in public, we're more aware of things like footsteps of people approaching or slow-moving vehicles in the area.

You simply feel more prepared and in tune with your environment when your auditory sense is heightened. That can potentially keep you safer (in addition to making you feel a bit like a superhero).

There's also the potential for some serious eavesdropping here, if you tuned the settings for that. That isn't our style, so we didn't try to test that in public, but our closed-door simulations allowed us to understand faint whispers from across a bedroom. The next time you're whispering a secret to a friend, watch out for people wearing Soundhawks in the area. They might be able to hear you.

Battery life is acceptable, but falls short of being an always-on, full-day device. Using the scoop alone (in active listening mode) it's rated for 9 hours, while that drops down to 2.5 hours when you add the wireless mic to the mix (our experience lines up well with those estimates).

You can wear the scoop in your ear all day long, and keep it muted when there's nothing important you need to listen to, as the battery drain is slow when active listening is turned off. And of course you also have that portable charging case, if you want to drop the scoop in there for a few minutes in the middle of the day.

We imagine many hard-of-hearing folks are buying the Soundhawk as an unofficial next-gen hearing aid, and after playing around with it, we imagine that's where it indeed makes the most sense.

But we do also think it can work for people who still hear pretty well. I went into this intrigued by the novelty of using tech to heighten my senses, but Soundhawk is handy enough for conversations in public places, visits to the movies, and at home watching TV that I could possibly find use for it long-term. We hope future versions will have longer battery life and lose the hissing sounds, but for a first-generation modern hearing wearable – something we haven't seen much of yet – Soundhawk is fairly useful, stylish and discreet. Even for someone who doesn't (yet) need a hearing aid.

Soundhawk, which includes the earpiece, wireless mic, charging case and four different ear tips, retails for US$350. That's significantly less than you'll pay for most hearing aids.

Product page: Soundhawk

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