VitaSound has launched a multi-functional audio enhancement device for those who suffer from situational hearing difficulties. The PAE-300 has been designed for folks who don't need a hearing aid, but could do with some help when trying to hold a conversation in a noisy room, or watch television without needing to crank up the volume. It's powered by the intriguing Neuro-Compensator technology, that's said to enforce an optimal electrical signal from the root of the auditory nerve to the brain, resulting in improved audio clarity and a natural listening experience. Gizmag has been sent one for review, but, since my hearing is pretty good, I've recruited my father-in-law, Jean-Jacques (JJ), as primary device tester.

In the box

  • PAE-300 handset
  • Wireless transmitter and contact charging base unit
  • Earphones with included microphone (and carry case)
  • AC adapter
  • RCA, optical, coaxial and stereo audio cables
  • Instruction manual

First up, a few specs relating to the mobile-phone-sized (100 x 60 x 19 mm / 4 x 2.4 x 0.75 in) handset unit. Including the 2,000 mAh Li-ion battery, it weighs in at 94.6 g (3.3 oz), which is light enough to be pretty much ignored if slipped into a shirt pocket. The device has four physical buttons on the front, one for each of the sound modes. An LED status light sits top left, and various lights shine through the housing to indicate such things as mode selection and volume level.

Along the right edge, you'll find an 8-level volume control rocker (4 dB per step) and a physical lock button that prevents accidental changing of settings while in use. The left is home to the Neural EQ selection button and a wireless pair button. The unit is already paired with the base unit it comes with, so this button is really only needed if you're using more than one handset.

There's a power switch, neck loop hook and headphone jack to the top, and another 3.5-mm jack on the bottom of the unit to allow for onward connection to a smartphone or music player. The bottom also hosts a mini-USB port for charging and two metal contact strips, for charging when docked in the base station.

The handset boasts a frequency range of between 200 and 16,000 Hz, and 32 kHz sampling frequency at 16-bit resolution. The unit is supplied with bud-type earphones, colored blue for the left, and red for right. The right cable has a microphone about half way to the Y-joint. In addition to the medium double-length silicone tips already on the earphones, the PAE-300 comes shipped with a box of large, medium and small spares.

The base station is used for charging the handset and for connecting the system to a TV. It has room for two handsets (though just the one is supplied), and can be powered off and still charge a docked handset. The handset's battery is claimed good for up to 14 hours in every mode except TV, where it's reduced to between six and eight hours, and takes around five hours to charge from drained.

It has a power button and a wireless pair button on the top face, and round the back you'll find an analog audio in port, an input mode switch (optical or coaxial), an optical audio in port and a coaxial audio in port. The last in line is an AC adapter port.

Setting up the system is fairly straightforward. Choosing which audio connection you use with the base station depends on the TV you have, but this took less than a minute in our case, even without referring to the instructions. After powering on the base, the LED around the wireless pair button turned from flashing to solid green, which told us that an audio signal from the TV had been detected. The status light on the handset also changed from red to green to indicate successful pairing with the base station, taking only a few seconds to do so.

The Neuro-Compensator

Before diving into the review proper, a quick word on the Neuro-Compensator hearing engine used in this product. According to VitaSound, the technology takes incoming audio and enhances it so that the electrical signals are restored before being introduced to the auditory nerve, resulting in near-normal firing patterns in spite of any hearing-loss-causing cell damage in the inner ear.

Users are said to benefit from a more natural listening experience, with improved clarity and sound localization, better timbre perception, and more intelligible speech, than would otherwise be provided by conventional hearing aids. The hearing engine includes audio contrast (to enhance the perceived sharpness of sound), a resolution enhancer (for improved sound quality), a spatial preserver (to help preserve localization of acoustic sources), and temporal resolution (to control how aggressively the speech is extracted), gain adjustment, and adaptive noise reduction.

With one of the company's hearing aids sporting this technology, a patient would undergo specialist fitting to produce a computer model of the individual's hearing loss, and this model would allow the hearing aid to automatically adjust system responses to specific user needs and current surroundings.

"In the PAE-300, we are providing the Neuro-Compensator function in a pre-programmed format instead of a specific customized format for an individual," says VitaSound. "In order to do this effectively, we have selected the four most common hearing loss profiles and carried out the Neuro-Compensator computer modeling, training, and parameter computations on each. These are then stored as pre-sets in the PAE-300 device. An individual can select the pre-set that most closely approximates his/her own hearing loss and benefit from the full functionality of the Neuro-Compensator technology in the device."

Exploring the four sound modes

Relax mode

Though the unit automatically powers into Talk mode, we'll deal with them in a left to right fashion and head into the Relax mode first. Four relaxing sounds are offered here, which are chosen by pressing the EQ button on the left side of the handset. Waves crashing on a beach is the first, a stream or babbling brook is next, then you're treated to the sound of birds chirping, and last up is a storm, complete with rain and the low rumble of thunder.

The sound quality of each of these looped clips is excellent, and you don't have to be in the system's target group to appreciate what's on offer. The selection provides the perfect accompaniment to an hour spent with your nose in a good book, or if you can find the time to just sit down and relax, then this is a pretty good way to do it.

Talk mode

Next up is the Talk mode. When in a crowd of people, all of whom are trying hard to be heard above everyone else, all that noise can just blend into one uncomfortable wall of sound. Trying to have a one-on-one chat in such situations isn't too pleasant with the best of hearing, and is much worse for those with mild hearing loss.

The built-in noise cancellation technology is supposed to help in this regard, and bring the voice of the person you're talking to into sharp focus while lowering background chatter. Though the former certainly appeared to be the case, my intrepid tester didn't notice too much by way of the latter. However, the voices did come through clear and natural.

Though not a hearing aid, the PAE-300 did seem to pick up quite a lot of detail from the surroundings. Whether it was someone whispering in the corner to test its range or the crunch of some crusty bread at the other end of the dinner table, the device effectively presented sounds that would otherwise have been missed, and it did so without overwhelming the wearer with high volume clatter.

The microphone that's picking up those sounds round about is located on the right cable of the earphones. It can be a little disconcerting, if not wholly distracting, to hear the sound of your own voice coming through the earphones from the microphone (your own angelic tones through a microphone always sounds markedly different to the way they do without) along with those of everyone else.

The presence (or loudness) can be adjusted a little by moving the microphone behind the ear, but JJ didn't particularly warm to this aspect of the technology. He persevered though, figuring that the benefits would outweigh any such discomfort, and eventually got used to it.

Depending on your dexterity, we did discover a bit of a work-around – if you hold down the mute button on the microphone while you're talking, you only hear the voice in your head, but timing is critical for this as you don't want to miss something important that the other person is saying.

Throughout this part of the test, JJ reported that the EQ settings seemed to have little effect on the quality, though the beep confirmation when scrolling through the different settings could be a little annoying.

For the wearer, it makes talking to someone a whole lot easier, no matter what's going on in the background. For those you're in conversation with, it means that they can be heard without needing to shout. Everyone's a winner.

We did have a couple of rude awakenings while using the device in Talk mode, though. If the microphone gets too close to the driver in the earpiece, a loud whistle results. For those who take surprises in their stride, this will probably be no more than a minor inconvenience, but for everyone else, the effects of the feedback can run from startled surprise to an ear-grasping shock. In either case, it's not pleasant.

Listen mode

The symbol that lights up on the front of the handset for this mode is a mobile phone, so we plugged one end of the supplied audio cable into the headphone port of a Blackberry and the other into the bottom of the PAE-300 handset. VitaSound says that the mute button on the microphone can also be used to receive and end calls, but this didn't work for us on either the Blackberry or our Android smartphone.

Not that this is particularly going to be an issue, but there is latency when using this device. Unlike our tests, your caller is not going to be in the next room so you probably won't notice the slight delay in the person speaking into the phone and the audio coming through to the earphones.

For the caller, the sound through the PAE-300 microphone is reported crisp and clear, but it does have a "speaking from a toilet" kind of feel to it. For the PAE-300 user, the caller's voice is very clear indeed, but JJ did report a slightly robotic feel to it. I, on the other hand, found the audio reproduction to be quite natural. Cranking up the volume when receiving quiet calls didn't always yield the best results, with distortion adding an unwelcome element to the conversation.

This mode can also be used to listen to music via a player or hi-fi system. After flattening the EQ on the source music player, I stepped up to the plate and sat back to enjoy what the PAE-300s had to offer. As a headphone amplifier/audio enhancer for digital music, I have to say that the PAE-300 offers a less than satisfying experience.

The volume of the music coming through the earphones actually reduced, when compared to just plugging the supplied earphones directly into the player. A near equivalent output level was achieved at the highest position on the volume control, though. The technology is designed to enhance the perceived sharpness of sound, and for me this translated to a good deal of sibilance.

Vocals in tracks were brought to the fore in the mix, but it seemed to be at the expense of supporting instruments. I also noticed an odd phased effect, with the percussion particularly prone to a kind of swirling movement around the soundstage. On the whole, I felt that it was like hearing a song through a cheap transistor radio. But then, I'm not the kind of person that this device was designed for.

While JJ agreed that the recordings were significantly altered, his experience was markedly different to mine. He didn't seem to suffer the same odd effects and found the delivery clear and distortion-free, there was decent separation in the soundstage, and the quality seemed to be pretty good. This was also the first time that the Neural EQ had a noticeable effect on the output. The best of these was the first for most music.

Watch (TV) mode

JJ and myself were in agreement here, the TV mode is by far the most impressive feature of the PAE-300. The big screen TV we used for this part of the review had both RCA and optical audio connectors. We chose the latter, which meant ensuring that the switch at the back was moved to the optical and not the coaxial position.

Up until this point, JJ had been using a set of wireless headphones to watch TV with family or friends, but found the PAE-300 to offer a far superior listening experience. The microphone is muted during TV mode so if you're the kind of person who likes to join in with the running commentary from other viewers, this isn't the device for you since it does an excellent job of isolating you from what's going on around you.

The handset is reported to have a 33 ft (10 m) range and, though there's no line-of-sight requirement, the signal did fall away sharply when faced with solid stone dividing walls. Since JJ found the earbuds uncomfortable for long hours in front of the goggle-box, he opted to plug in the slightly less portable Moderna MS-200s from V-MODA, and reported that an already excellent audio experience greatly improved as a result.

As with the MP3 music player tests, we found the best Neural EQ for watching TV was the first, with number two fairing a little better in this outing (three and four did not find favor in any of our tests, but such things are undoubtedly down to personal preference). Though we didn't get the chance to try it out during this review, VitaSound says that up to 100 handsets can be paired to one base unit, something that's claimed unique to the PAE-300.

The bottom line

The TV mode and Relax modes were the outright winners here, with the Talk and Listen modes proving useful, but taking some getting used to. At the end of the review period we're unable to verify the battery life claims, since the handset spent most of its time sat in the charging cradle when not in use, but we didn't suffer any low battery issues when the unit was in use for extended periods.

My father-in-law didn't like the supplied earphones at all, and dropped them in favor of other cans at every opportunity. By contrast, I found them to be very comfortable, but I do wear buds on a daily basis so we'll chalk this one up to personal preference and familiarity.

Having good hearing, my own testing of this device can be taken with a pinch of salt since they're not meant for someone like me. I guess the real test of any device is how useful it proves to be to the person it's designed for, so I'll leave the last word to my father-in-law. I asked him if this is a system he would use in everyday situations, "Definitely, I would be ready to use it at home or in a busy environment outside," he enthused. "This is certainly something that can improve the quality of life of somebody with mild hearing problems."

The PAE-300 is available now for a recommended retail of US$399.

Product page: PAE-300

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