Wearables

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

Signia Pure primax hearing aid...
We used these high-tech hearing aids for a couple of months – here's what we learned
We used these high-tech hearing aids for a couple of months – here's what we learned
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The devices fairly subtle in hear
1/6
The devices fairly subtle in hear
The device itself, tucked behind ear, sticks out more on a bald head than it will one with hair
2/6
The device itself, tucked behind ear, sticks out more on a bald head than it will one with hair
Hearing aids inside charging dock
3/6
Hearing aids inside charging dock
We used these high-tech hearing aids for a couple of months – here's what we learned
4/6
We used these high-tech hearing aids for a couple of months – here's what we learned
Signia's hardware and feature breakdown
5/6
Signia's hardware and feature breakdown
Expect to pay thousands of dollars at your audiologist's office, for a high-tech pair of ear trumpets like these
6/6
Expect to pay thousands of dollars at your audiologist's office, for a high-tech pair of ear trumpets like these

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.

The devices fairly subtle in hear
The devices fairly subtle in hear

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.

Signia's hardware and feature breakdown
Signia's hardware and feature breakdown

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.

The device itself, tucked behind ear, sticks out more on a bald head than it will one with hair
The device itself, tucked behind ear, sticks out more on a bald head than it will one with hair

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.

Expect to pay thousands of dollars at your audiologist's office, for a high-tech pair of ear trumpets like these
Expect to pay thousands of dollars at your audiologist's office, for a high-tech pair of ear trumpets like these

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.

Hearing aids inside charging dock
Hearing aids inside charging dock

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

3 comments
Wolf0579
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). Considering ALL of the R&D for these devices has been paid for decades ago, (with the exception of adding bluetooth) I am furious that the FDA or SOMEONE hasn't stepped in and required these companies to lower their prices. Considering that the majority of the tech was developed by NASA and they got that tech for FREE, courtesy of the US TAXPAYER, I consider this a shining example of what is wrong with America's health care system.
MercTech
Having worn hearing aids for the last couple of years; there are a few things that are a PITA with most hearing aids. - Wind whistle, Even if the wind isn't high enough to whistle across the hearing aids blowing your hair around sounds like crackling plastic in your ear. You end up dialing the hearing aids down to where you really aren't getting any benefit. - The notch filters really don't track well enough for High Definition movie watching. You crank up the hearing aid to hear the voice ranges then get blasted out of your seat by sound effects or music. - There is no way to "try before you buy" and your insurance plan may specify what they will cover. - The most common type of behind the ear hearing aid is not conducive to wearing safety equipment. You end up taking the hearing aids out to put on a motorcycle helmet or use hearing protection at work. (those knock your hearing aids out of your ear much too easily) Yes, your average earmuff for noise areas crushes the behind your ear hearing aid into the side of your head. Hearing aids are more than just an amplifier. I do wonder if hearing aids were not locked away behind the prescription wall there might be more price competition.
asly
I would like to applaud your statements of cost and benefit but like you said not being impaired, hard to fully judge. Last year I was informed by my daughter, that I have a problem;) This is the way most aging people find out. Checked out costs then decided to use Medicare to see a ear nose throat specialist, PA did look, scrape minor wax, proceeded to pass me on to office helpers, tested bone and sound booth, passed on to audiologist in his office complex, he put aids in, fine tuned with computer and said it would be 5K for two, could use for a month no charge. Turn down. Did self test with ipad app, confirmed loss, called private audiologist he tested confirmed doctor and my finding, between I bought off ebay a slightly used pair, he tuned them up to my frequency loss. I can say buying top of the line, you can solve, some hearing problems but others here have said it creates other problems, especially wearing glasses. The best use of them is watching movies where the sound engineers add music over vocal, and when my quiet speaking daughter visits. Worsted use is in noisy restaurants. Rereading this forgot to mention I did see the specialist before leaving his office complex and had to ask him about the original problem of itching ear, wrote a Rx, suggested a return in 6 month, 5 min consult and had office girls retest ears, he was happy and I was too. They do have a scam going in pricing, but I sort of beat it $1K and a lot of research. By the way you don't lose all your hearing but some frequencies will cause loss of specific sounds making some words unintelligible, and some instruments in a band. Wind if constant can be corrected but when it varies it takes a couple of seconds to correct each time.