Interview with Ragnar Åhgren, Comfort Audio
Topic: Comfort Digisystem, Digital Wireless Listening System
CAROLYN SMAKA: Today I'm with Mr. Ragnar Åhgren, President and CEO of Comfort Audio Inc. Nice to have you back on AudiologyOnline. Can you give an overview of Comfort Audio for people that might not be familiar?
RAGNAR ÅHGREN: At Comfort Audio, we develop and manufacture assistive listening devices, and above all digital wireless listening systems.
We are an innovative and fast-growing company, founded in Halmstad, Sweden in 1994. Our mission is to develop cutting-edge technology and flexible, innovative solutions to enable people to communicate in every situation of their lives, whether that's work, school or social situations. We focus on the needs of the individual with the goal of improving the quality of life for people with hearing loss.
In 2006, we opened an office in North America, which is currently located in Chicago. We are very passionate about what we do and it is a real pleasure helping hearing impaired people to a better life. We are having a lot of fun as well.
SMAKA: The term "assistive listening device" encompasses a wide array of products. Can you tell me about the specific products from Comfort Audio?
Comfort Audio's product line up
ÅHGREN: Our products include a personal amplifier, the Comfort Duett as well as the first digital wireless listening system, the Comfort Contego, which was introduced in Europe in 2005 and then here in the United States.
In addition, we know that hearing loss is a growing problem and that hearing instruments or cochlear implants are often not enough, especially when there are obstacles such as background noise, distance, and poor acoustics. We saw a great need for a wireless listening system with a very clear sound, robust transmission and a nice design. We introduced Comfort Digisystem to meet that need, and the response from educational and pediatric audiologists has been fantastic.
SMAKA: What are the various components that are available with Comfort Digisystem as far as microphones and receivers?
ÅHGREN: There are three different types of microphones. The Microphone DM10 is the typical standard microphone to be used in schools and it has some special functions. As you know, in schools, it is sometimes a problem to find available frequencies. The Microphone DM10 has FCR, Free Channel Request, which prevents transmission on frequencies that are already in use. It also has FFC, Free Frequency Check, which indicates suitable frequencies to use. The Microphone DM10 also has a push button that can be easily programmed as a mute switch or a push to talk switch. Teachers appreciate the push to talk feature as it means only one student can speak at a time.
The Microphone DM05 is one of the world's smallest wireless microphones as far as assistive listening systems go. It's easily attached with a clip on the lapel. The Microphone DC10 is a conference microphone. It features PSE, Perception Speech Enhancement, that enhances speech and at the same time removes noise. It has four different modes, including one for music, a zoom mode and "Narrow mode" for close range that strongly suppresses surrounding noise. It also has Bluetooth which means that you can connect it to mobile phones or a landline that has Bluetooth.
Conference Microphone DC10
In terms of receivers, the Receiver DT10 is a new, mini ear-worn receiver. It is the world's first digital mini receiver. It can be used with an audio shoe and a BTE hearing instrument, or you can couple it to a streamer. It can also be configured using the optional Programmer DT05.
We also have a body worn receiver, the Receiver DH10, which has a neck loop to transmit the signal to the hearing aids. Alternately, it can be used with headphones or earbuds. The Receiver DH10 has some great features such as a balance control between left and right ear (when using headphones or earbuds), a maximum volume or fixed volume setting that you can select in the menu, and various "lock" settings that you can select in the menu to lock in your preferences.
SMAKA: You mentioned that Comfort Digisystem is digital. Tell me what else makes it unique.
ÅHGREN: Comfort Digisystem features our patented technology, SecureStream Technology. It is a unique digital real-time sound transmission technology that eliminates transmission noise and enables encryption to prevent eavesdropping. Encryption is especially important for adults in professions such as medicine, law, etc. so that they know their communications are secure. It also has exceptional sound quality. The bandwidth of Comfort Digisystem is much better than other systems, extending to 7 kHz. The transmission distance is superior to other systems, with a range of up to 100 feet. It covers the dynamic range of speech as well as the frequency range of speech with a very clear sound and almost no drop outs.
If you compare Comfort Digisystem and SecureStream Technology with other digital systems, like Bluetooth, we don't have any time lag. Our system is continuously streaming so you have a synchronous system between the receiver and the transmitter. Bluetooth, by contrast, groups information together and then sends it in packets so there is a delay in the transmission. This delay can make it very difficult to lipread while listening to the Bluetooth-transmitted signal.
Comfort Digisystem has received many prizes and awards, which speak to its innovation and of which we are very proud. These include the Best New Product award at AudiologyNow in 2011, the Swedish Embedded Award, and most recently the prestigious Swedish Electronics Prize. To be nominated for this prize, a product must be highly technical and the company must evidence solid economic development and growth.
SMAKA: Congratulations! What can professionals expect to see from Comfort Audio in the future?
ÅHGREN: For me, my goal is to now further strengthen our organization here in the United States for the long term. We intend to continue to provide our customers excellent service, while we develop new products to ensure that we are providing people with hearing loss the best possible state-of-the-art solutions.
In the United States, the primary areas we are focused on are schools, from preschools to universities;public spaces, in order to provide access freely despite any disability;places of employment, so that people who are working can remain active;and the home.
SMAKA: How do you find that the U.S. market compares to other markets?
ÅHGREN: There is a lot of opportunity here in the U.S. and there are also challenges. Reimbursement is one example of a challenge. In Sweden and Norway there is very good reimbursement for assistive devices, especially in the schools. There are also logistical issues in the U.S. like multiple time zones, and large distances for sales representatives to cover. We have some new sales reps starting and plan to add more in the future. There is also a lot of opportunity in the U.S. due to the size of the market;there are many people with hearing loss who could benefit from our solutions. We are excited about the opportunity here, and we look forward to continuing to grow our business in the U.S. over the long term.
SMAKA: Thanks for getting us up to speed on Comfort Audio today, Ragnar.
ÅHGREN: Thank you for having me.
For more information, please visit: www.comfortaudio.us or the Comfort Audio web channel on AudiologyOnline.