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Interview with Victor Bray, Vice President and Chief Audiology Officer, SONIC innovations

Victor Bray, PhD

February 5, 2007
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Topic: Balance
Paul Dybala: Hello, this is Paul Dybala with Audiology Online and I'm here in the historic Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. I have the privilege of sitting here with Dr. Victor Bray, he is the Vice President and Chief Audiology Officer at SONIC innovations. We're both attending and speaking at the Texas Academy of Audiology annual meeting and Victor has been nice enough to sit down with me and talk about a new product that SONIC innovations has just released. Thanks for your time!

Victor Bray: You are welcome, I'm very pleased to be here, and pleased to be representing SONIC innovations.

Dybala: You've just released a new premium hearing aid, one ranked at the top of your "pyramid", so to speak, called Balance. I like the name; it's simple and clean. We previously had discussed that the name really implies the goal and focus of what the hearing aid does. Give us a little background on why it's called Balance and what SONIC innovations is trying to accomplish with the aid.

Bray: Balance in this case is the name of a hearing aid that actually has a meaning. That doesn't always happen in our industry. Traditionally, hearing aids have had dedicated memories for particular listening environments. But, our customer base is asking us for a hearing aid that would have a single listening program to work across a multitude of listening environments, so we've been looking at how that should be done.

What we've done is created an adaptive hearing aid that can operate on a single memory. The hearing aid mixes new adaptive algorithms with some of the fixed algorithms that we've developed over the last ten years.

What we wanted to do with this product was to get the best of both worlds of fixed algorithms, that have known benefits, and also of adaptive algorithms without the artifacts that, in the end, cause problems for users. So it really is a balance of both worlds which results in a universal hearing aid.

Dybala: Excellent. Now, in looking through some of your literature, I know that this universal program is going to work in specific ways for a specific set of situations and then you have additional memories for the hearing aid. Could you give us an overview?

Bray: Absolutely, Paul. This is really exciting, what with the way we set the hearing aid up. The hearing aid can be configured as a one-, two-, three-, or four-memory hearing aid. Balance is really designed to be a single memory hearing aid if that's how the clinician wants to fit it to the client. And in that single memory goes what we call universal programming. This means that program one is universal. Its basis of course is the 16-channel compression system that's the heart of all of our modern hearing aids that we've been working with for the last year-and-a-half. And, of course, this system is constantly adjusting gain and output depending on the listening environment. On top of that we've built a new directional system that we call hybrid directionality. We've built a new noise reduction algorithm as well, which we call hybrid noise reduction, and running on top of that is a new DIRECTIONALfocus™ system, which is our form, a proprietary form, of adaptive directionality.

The universal setting is using four algorithms in parallel, which all will adjust themselves to the listening environments with one exception, being the hybrid directionality.

Dybala: Let's talk about hybrid directionality. Give us a little idea what's happening there and how that's new and different in Balance.

Bray: OK, I'll be glad to tell you about that. As I was saying, the hybrid directionality is the only one of the systems that's not adaptive, and the reason that we built that foundation was because we believed that the current adaptive directionality systems and the programming switching that goes on in some of the single memory hearing aids is the root of some disorientation that clients are perceiving. So instead, we're keeping this in a single memory with a grounded directional system that's part omnidirectional and part directional.

Dybala: What do you mean when you say "grounded?" Can you give me some more information in that?

Bray: In the low frequencies we keep the system omnidirectional, but in the mid and high frequencies we go directional. So you're getting the directional polar pattern in the mid and high frequencies where you have the competition for speech cues, but since we're still leaving it omnidirectional in the lows, it allows us to have more gain in the lows while still having a quieter internal circuit to the hearing aid, which provides audibility when the person gets into a quiet environment. The consequence of doing that, however, might be that low-frequency steady-state noise could be interpreted as an objectionable signal; this is where we've matched it with the hybrid noise reduction system. The hybrid noise reduction system acts for low inputs, like you would encounter in a quiet environment, and is still on and still fairly aggressive. In essence, we knock out the low-frequency noise using the noise reduction system rather than the directional microphonal low frequencies.

So we now have audibility, a low noise floor, and an adaptive algorithm to take the noise down, but only when it is present. Then as the noise levels get high, the noise reduction system will engage, and it can engage very aggressively for all frequencies and will really take into account high-level noises.

Dybala: This is one of those examples where you were saying that there are different systems, but you're able to use them appropriately, yet separately, in a given situation, but it also ensures that it's changing in the right way. Am I saying that correctly?

Bray: Paul, that's absolutely what we're after. We like adaptive algorithms very much, and we feel we've done an excellent job of getting a single memory hearing aid here. But we're also very concerned that people should have a hearing aid that doesn't introduce artifact and audio distortions. So the entire internal component is grounded in a very elegant hybrid directionality system, but with a new noise reduction system running on top of that which is not only signal-to-noise-ratio dependent, but also sound pressure level dependent. It's engaging and disengaging to the environment. We know that this only works with steady state noises, so we still have the problem of how to get the hearing aid to adapt to non-steady state noises. We're not going to look at the fixed directionality; instead we will employ the hybrid directionality system to do that. We have another overlay of the DIRECTIONALfocus™ algorithm; it's a new variation of DIRECTIONALfocus that we wrote for this hearing aid.

DIRECTIONALfocus, remember, looks for sounds that are coming from the frontal axis, and the farther the sound is located off of the front, that is, the greater the azimuth measurement is away from zero degrees, the more we attenuate the sound, and we attenuate it whether it's steady-state noise or modulated noise. So it's very effective in an environment like this, where we have multi-talkers all around us. The hearing aid will take down the multi-talkers in our form of adaptive directionality, as long as the talkers are coming from the sides or behind, while at the same time, amplifying your voice loud and clear.

Dybala: What you're assuming is that if you're in a really noisy environment or high noise environment, as you and I are doing right now, you're always going to be facing the person that you're talking to- that's where you want to focus. Everything else becomes essentially irrelevant. Correct?

Bray: That's absolutely right. Sounds that are coming from the front and are modulated are definitely the targets. As you move off axis from the front, and as you move from modulated noise to steady-state, the hearing aid will attack those more and more. As you get into higher and higher noise environments, the hearing aid will attack those even more. And as you go to lower noise environments, or into quiet, the algorithms will disengage, now universally going from quiet to noise. Again, it's balancing using hybrid noise reduction, hybrid directionality, and the DIRECTIONALfocus algorithm.

Additionally, we've created four new DIRECTIONALfocus algorithms for Balance, a couple of which are really tuned for high-noise environments. The most aggressive of those we have is designed for a single-speaker target in a high-noise environment, so if you have a client who is in a loud, noisy bar, we have now a specially tuned program for that, which is built around very aggressive use of the DIRECTIONALfocus algorithm. Frankly, when you listen to it, it will be astounding as to how much it can preserve of the modulated signal coming from the front and tune out extraneous signals from every other direction.

Dybala: Going beyond the universal program, tell us more about the other programs that are available in the other memories.

Bray: This is a very exciting change in the way we program our hearing aids. These changes were not only made to help the clients using the hearing aid, but to help the clinicians who are programming the hearing aids.

What we did was basically create seven suites, or packages, of algorithms for different listening environments. In the past, it wasn't unusual for clients to comment and say, "Would you create for me a program specifically for music?", "Would you tune my hearing aid for the classroom or the auditorium?"

Now if a person comes in with these requests, you can do it. If you take the example of listening to music, what we do is set the microphone to omnidirectional, take the noise reduction down, and on top of that, decompress the hearing aid on the high-end to preserve the stronger dynamics, which can be tolerated by the client in the music environment.

Previously, clinicians working with our hearing aids had to manually figure out what to do. We have now worked out how to package these different algorithms, be it noise reduction, directionality, or DIRECTIONALfocus, and in addition. fine-tune the settings of the hearing aid for these particular environments.

Dybala: I guess that ties back to the whole Balance theme, and the fact you do have universal mode, which is going to be effective for a lot of patients. You also have specialized algorithms to help out with specific situations that they can manually mix in. That sounds great. Now, Balance is available in a mini BTE all the way down to a CIC, correct?

Bray: Yes. We make it as small as a micro CIC in the custom size, then all the way up to a full shell ITE, and for the first time, we have two BTE styles in the same family. We still have our standard BTE that we've been working with for the last year and a half that's good through 100 dB of hearing loss.

We have now introduced, with the Balance product, a microBTE. It's built around the ideas that came forward with the very small, yet powerful Ion packaging. While it has the heritage of the Ion casing, Balance is really a new hearing aid that exceeds what Ion is capable of. We've been able to convert that technology over into a microBTE with standard ear hook and tubing that is good through 90 dB of hearing loss. It doesn't carry a telecoil, it doesn't carry DAI, it doesn't carry a volume control. But for someone with a moderate loss who doesn't need those features and wants a very small package, there's nothing on the market that will match this hearing aid. We still have the dual microphone, it still has the universal program, it still has the hybrid noise reduction, the hybrid directionality and all of these advanced signal processing features in a tremendously small package, as I said, that's good for 90 dB hearing loss.

This microBTE is only available in Balance, so we're very excited about that.

Dybala: Excellent! Well, we can see that there are great things coming from SONIC innovations. Victor, thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me and everyone from Audiology Online. Thanks for having a beverage here at the Menger Hotel, and we'll look forward to more great things from SONIC innovations in the future.

Bray: Paul, thank you so much. It's always a pleasure talking with you.


About Sonic Innovations:

SONIC Innovations designs, develops, manufactures and markets advanced digital hearing aids intended to provide the highest levels of satisfaction for hearing-impaired consumers and proprietary auditory testing equipment intended to automate the four most commonly performed hearing tests. Capitalizing on what it believes is an advanced understanding of human hearing, the Company has developed patented digital signal processing, or DSP, technologies and embedded them in the smallest single-chip DSP platform ever installed in a hearing aid. For more information, please visit our website at www.sonici.com.

For more information on SONIC Innovations on Audiology Online, visit the SONIC innovations web channel at www.audiologyonline.com/channels/sonic_innovations.asp
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victor bray

Victor Bray, PhD

Chief Audiology Officer