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Interview with Donald Hayes, Ph.D., Director of Audiology, Unitron Hearing

Donald Hayes, PhD

October 23, 2006
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Topic: The New Element™ Product Line
Dybala: Hello everyone! We are talking with Dr. Donald Hayes from Unitron Hearing. Don, thank you for taking time to talk with me today. Tell us, where are you calling in from?

Hayes: I am calling in from Unitron Hearing's Corporate office in Kitchener, Ontario, which is about 45 minutes outside Toronto in Canada. Glad to be here, Paul.

Dybala: Just to get us warmed up, tell us a little bit about what you do for Unitron Hearing in your day-to-day work.

Hayes:, I am the Director of Audiology at Unitron Hearing's Corporate office, and primarily what we do here in audiology is product validation. So, when the R&D group develops a new product, we test it before the launch to make sure that it performs up to specification, and also that the features we have added are desirable for both clinicians and customers. We also do training and review all of the marketing materials that go out the door to make sure that we are not making any claims for anything that we shouldn't be.

Dybala: So when you have a new hearing aid that's coming to the market, what's the time frame when it gets to you and when you put it through the validation process?

Hayes: Well, for example, our newest product, Element™, was first conceived about December of 2005 and R&D continued its development until about June 2006. In early June, audiology began its validation process. So overall, we have been doing the validation on this product throughout June, July, August and September.

From that, you can tell it's quite a lengthy procedure. We begin by bringing in 30 or 40 people with hearing loss. We fit them with all different shell styles and we test them internally where the audiologists here have complete control over the fitting software and the hearing aids. We work out things like the defaults for controls and where we want the settings to be for different adaptive features.

Then we move from the internal testing for about 6 or 8 weeks to external testing where we go out to various sites in different countries. In the case of Element, we tested in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and in the Netherlands. In all of these locations, we do additional fittings, approximately another 30 or 40. We monitor what happens. We continue to test software. We update the features based on feedback from the clinicians who are doing the fittings.

Then we usually do a limited product release where we begin to sell the product to our beta customers. This gives us an opportunity to collect final feedback and testing results, and expose the product to full commercial pressures. In this case we are announcing Element on October 4th with product availability on October 12th.


Figure 1. The Element logo

Dybala: Earlier in the year at the American Academy of Audiology meeting, you released your new premium product Indigo™, and completely new fitting software as well. Only 6 months later, you are releasing another new product, Element. It seems like you are really moving forward with offering a comprehensive product line. Tell us a little bit about how things have gone with the Indigo release, and how Element fits into the Unitron Hearing product line as a whole.

Hayes: Indigo, as you know, is our premium automatic hearing instrument that we launched at AAA this past April. We are very excited about Indigo, our first product offered on our new generation of DSP hardware. The new DSP platform is built with the future in mind, and offers faster speed, greater processing power and more memory. These benefits mean more precise, intelligent operations within a shorter time span. The result is Indigo's brilliant, clear sound.

The Element series consists of three different products; Element 16, Element 8 and Element 4, spanning the entry to mid-level product categories, that offer premium innovations and comfort features to a broader range of clients. These hearing aids offer varying degrees of automatic performance and comfort features to meet the specific lifestyle, listening preferences and budgetary needs of more clients. Element 16 is an advanced hearing aid positioned just below our premium hearing aid, Indigo. Element 8 and Element 4 are then positioned below in the mid and entry level categories.


Figure 2. The complete Element line.

The Element series is really about providing a wide range of products with different features at different price points so that people can get a product that suits their listening needs and budget. For example, if you are more budget conscious, you may be more interested in Element 4 with fewer features, but still very good sound quality and performance. The Element series is all about personalization and offering the product that best meets the client's needs.

Dybala: That's a great feature. Now I assume the numbers following Element 16, 8, and 4 relate to the number of compression channels, or are we talking about frequency bands?

Hayes: 16, 8, and 4 are the number of in each instrument. The way we are presenting the definition is that compression adjustments will take place at the channel level, and then you can do gain adjustments at the band level. So Element 16, for example has 16 channels and also 16 bands. Element 8 has 8 bands and 8 channels. Element 4 has 4 channels and 8 bands so you can adjust gains and MPO within each band; however with Element 4, you can only adjust compression ratios in the four channels.

Dybala: Is all this WDRC, or do you have compression limiting features available as well?

Hayes: Well, similar to the Unison line, the Element series utilizes a multiple processing strategies approach. All three Element products allow you to fit either WDRC or linear output limiting compression with MPOs.

Dybala: I noticed, too, that you are providing a range within Element, in terms of features. It looks like the entire Element line comes with several top-of-the-line features, some of which are standard even in the Element 4, right? I saw that they have directional microphones, a feedback management system, automatic noise management, data logging. I also saw that some of the other differences are within the automatic programs and maybe how the directional system engages. I was wondering if you could expand on that.

Hayes: Well, it has always been Unitron Hearing's philosophy to provide innovative features and more benefits down at the mid and entry level categories, so the idea of Element 16, 8 and 4 spanning the entry to mid-level product categories, is to provide premium innovations for everyone - but not at a premium price.

Element 16 features autoPro2™: two distinct listening destinations within one seamless automatic program. AutoPro2 automatically switches between quiet and noise destinations by intelligently monitoring the acoustic characteristics of the listening environment. Element 16 also brings premium technologies such as antiShock™, level dependent speech enhancement, an adaptive directional microphone system, and data logging to the mid-level product category, as well as easy-t automatic telephone solution.

Element 8 provides hands-free performance featuring automatic directionality combined with premium innovations and comfort features. Element 8's autoMic intelligently switches between omni and directional microphone strategies within a single listening program, depending on the signal characteristics of the environment. Element 8's autoMic is an enhancement on the autoMic in Conversa.NT. It works a little differently because it is on a different platform, but it is the same basic philosophy of switching from omni to directional mode. However in Element 8, you can choose either adaptive, fixed or omni-directional in autoMic. With Conversa.NT, for example, you can only go back and forth between omni and fixed directional microphones, but with Element 8 you can go with either adaptive or directional microphone mode.

Element 4 offers up to four manual programs along with adaptive features. There is no automatic program capability built into Element 4. Element 4 also offers antiShock and a directional microphone system and is particularly suitable for budget-conscious clients.

Dybala: Could you provide an explanation for both the antiShock™ feature and speech enhancement LD?

Hayes: Sure. These are two great new features and we are really excited about them, especially antiShock. AntiShock is a system to control transient input levels. The temptation here is to think of this as being the same thing that an MPO control would do and it's completely different. AntiShock is an adaptive algorithm feature that controls transients regardless of the input level. The philosophy behind antiShock is not to clip a transient, but to control the transient and bring it back down to a level that is about as loud to a hearing aid wearer as it would be to a normal-hearing person not wearing a hearing aid.


Figure 3. Waveforms demonstrating the AntiShock feature.

This is not a simple task and what makes antiShock unique is that a sudden transient, like dishes clattering or someone slamming a door or even tapping a pen, has a rise time that occurs on the order of microseconds, not milliseconds. So, if you use a traditional AGC circuit, for example, to control a transient, it is too slow. It misses the entire leading edge of the sound. What we have is an instantaneous adaptive algorithm feature that will catch the transient in those first few microseconds and then reduce the amplitude to the point where it has the same natural sound quality, and the same natural loudness for the hearing aid wearer as it would have for you and I listening without a hearing aid. If you have a lot of recruitment, hyperacusis or if you are wearing hearing aids that require a lot of gain, they may over-amplify to the point where that sudden sound is uncomfortable. AntiShock will control that.

Dybala: You are really talking about an attack time on the microsecond level, i.e. one-millionth of a second? Do I understand that correctly?

Hayes: It's virtually instantaneous, less than a millisecond. Yes.

Dybala: I think that's an interesting feature since that's a common complaint you would get when in the clinic, like the dishes and utensils clanking. It really sets people off because it is such an annoyance. It's great that you have a feature that addresses this issue for people.

Hayes: Annoyance is the perfect word to describe what it is controlling!

Dybala: Glad to help! Now, tell us a little bit about speech enhancement LD.

Hayes: Sure. Speech enhancement is something that we first introduced in Conversa.NT. Speech enhancement works very well, but it is somewhat limited in Conversa.NT partly because you can only apply so much speech enhancement to an incoming signal before the gain applied to the speech actually makes it uncomfortably loud. Therefore, we had to limit the amount of enhancement we applied in Conversa.NT. Since then, we have developed two different ways of controlling this.

In Element 8, we roll off the amount of speech enhancement once the input level gets too high. What this really does is control the input so that it doesn't interfere with the MPO control. If you were to adjust the MPO control down a little but still wanted speech enhancement, Element 8 is adaptive enough that it will control the speech enhancement so as not to boost the gain of speech to the point where it goes into the MPO limiting. This way you don't create distortion.

Now with Element 16, we have taken it to the next step and made it level dependent, meaning greater gain increases are applied to softer speech inputs than to louder speech inputs, making it ideal for clients who interact in a wide variety of listening environments. For example, if you set this feature for, say, 6 dB speech enhancement, you will get a boost of 6 dB for soft speech in a quiet environment. As the incoming signal gets progressively louder, like in a situation where someone is walking toward you, the amount of enhancement decreases automatically. Just as an example, people with hearing loss have a great deal of difficulty with soft women's voices from a different room. As she is talking to you from quite a distance, this feature will provide as much as 6 dB additional gain just for her speech, and as she moves progressively closer and the input level to the hearing aid gets louder, the amount of speech enhancement that's applied is gradually reduced until she is standing right next to you talking or even raising her voice and the speech enhancement kicks off. That's the level-dependent nature of it.


Figure 4. Waveforms demonstrating the speech enhancement LD feature.

What this does is gives us a little bit different take on speech enhancement than what you usually think. It you think of research that was done throughout the 80s and 90s, everybody was trying to boost the performance for vowels so that you could present a lot of noise, cut down the noise at some frequencies, and boost the gain for the vowels and other phonemes. That was another application for speech enhancement altogether. What we're saying is that you can still use that approach, and certainly Element 8 works in that respect, but we are not trying to make any claims of how we are going to be improving signal-to-noise ratio or anything like that at this point.

What we are saying is that there are two advantages to this level dependent speech enhancement. The first is you can boost soft speech without boosting soft environmental sounds. The second is we can actually give you a little different gain model than what you're used to. For example, if you wanted to hit a gain target for soft speech using an NAL or DSL target, you can now apply speech enhancement to the speech signal. Using speech as a measurement tool you can hit the target for speech and allow environmental sounds to remain below the target or maybe even below the person's threshold a little bit, so that you get less interference from softer environmental sounds like a motor running, air conditioner, a refrigerator and other sounds like that which can occur.

When you try to boost the gain for soft speech, many people complain that you're boosting the soft environmental sounds too much. So that's a secondary benefit to this: it changes the way the fitting model can be done. This is a really a very unique feature in a number of different respects.

(Editor's note. Unitron has provided an interactive audio and visual demonstration of AntiShock and Speech Enhancement LD. It is featured on the Unitron Hearing Web Channel www.audiologyonline.com/channels/unitron_hearing.asp here at Audiology Online.)

Dybala: I've got two more questions for you. As you know, the latest HIA data has shown that BTEs have become the most popular style of hearing aids for new devices. I was reading that Element also has a slim tube option and this is in your Moda style. I was wondering, for those who aren't as familiar with the Unitron Hearing line; give a little background on that Moda style.

Hayes: As you mentioned, Moda is a shell style and not a product line. For example, we now offer the Moda style for both Indigo and the Element series. We introduced Moda with Conversa.NT about a year and a half ago and expanded it to the Unison™ line about a year ago. Moda is a fully-featured 10A BTE offering a choice of slim tube open fittings or standard earmolds. We also have a BTE shell with a size 13 battery, with or without a VC. The shell without the VC can be fit with a slim tube. So, if you want to fit a patient with a slim tube, but they need longer battery life or direct audio input, we have you covered.

Dybala: That sounds great. One last thing that I wanted to ask about is that you have an option that's called ideal volume control. Give us a little bit of background on how that works.

Hayes: Many hearing aid wearers prefer a manual volume control because it has a distinct on and off and a pair of endpoints. One of the issues with the volume control, particularly on custom products that always comes up, is when you're doing a fitting, the person wearing the hearing aid asks, 'Where do I set it?'

With our ideal volume indicator, once the instruments are programmed, the volume control will produce a beep at the set point you have selected. We're not saying that the patient always needs to set it there. However, the patient has a handy reference point to go above or below as needed.

Dybala: I think that's a neat little feature because I remember putting red fingernail polish on hearing aids to give people visual cues. Of course, they had to set it and then stick it in the ear and deal with feedback. The ideal volume indicator a pretty simple feature conceptually, but I think it can have a really nice impact on how people are able to adjust to the use of hearing aids, especially new hearing aid users.

Well, Element sounds like a great fit for your midline product line. You've got lots of options that you're offering people. Don, thanks for taking time to meet with me today. I will give you the last word.

Hayes: Thank you, Paul. The Element line is our midline product, but it is fairly comprehensive in features from essential to advanced. The idea is that we wanted to offer 3 products within the Element series that had every feature you could hope for with varying degrees of automatic performance and give a little something for everybody. It doesn't have to be a premium product to offer a wide range of options for the wearer.

Also, one of the nice things about the new DSP platform is that it's five times faster than the older platform. We have better sound quality because it's being updated more rapidly and it's more accurate, and you can really hear that with these Element hearing aids. They definitely have excellent sound quality. Best of all, from our internal and external field trials, we can see that hearing aid wearers really like wearing Element hearing aids, and appreciate the antiShock technology. I would encourage all of your readers to take a look at Element. I think they will be impressed.

About Unitron Hearing:

For 40 years, Unitron Hearing has been committed to bettering the lives of people with hearing loss by developing and manufacturing high-quality hearing instruments. This means a commitment to develop innovative hearing solutions to your everyday problems and concerns you have with hearing loss.

Unitron Hearing U.S. is an ISO registered, custom manufacturing facility. Our team pays close attention to each individual order from the shell lab through assembly to final computerized quality testing.

Unitron Hearing U.S. supports hearing healthcare professionals throughout the United States with a dedicated organization of manufacturing, sales, marketing, service and technical experts.
Unitron Hearing Worldwide employs 550 people and serves customers in more than 70 countries.

Additional information can be found at www.unitronhearing.us

Element Product Page for Hearing Professionals: www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/professionals/products_us/element.htm

Element Customer Testimonials: www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/professionals/testimonials_us/elementtestimonials.htm

Element Product Pages for Consumers:
www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/people/productsp_us/element16p.htm

www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/people/productsp_us/element8p.htm

www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/people/productsp_us/element4p.htm

Fitting Indigo & Element: www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/professionals/fitting_software/ufit/fittingindigo.htm
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donald hayes

Donald Hayes, PhD

Director of Audiology at Unitron Hearing Ltd. in Kitchener, Ontario

Donald Hayes, Ph.D. has been an audiologist for 18 years. He is the Director of Audiology at Unitron Hearing Ltd. in Kitchener, Ontario. Don Hayes is the Director of Audiology at Unitron Hearing Ltd. in Kitchener, Ontario.



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