What sucks about Bluetooth Hearing Aids?

A while ago I wrote an ode to Bluetooth hearing aids and described how they changed my life. While that is totally true, it is not the whole truth. Not everything is super cool about Bluetooth hearing aids. In this article I’ll list the annoying quircks that you might encounter when when you buy Bluetooth hearing aids. While I still think they are an awesome piece of technology, I want you to have the full picture.

Note: I assume that most of these problems are not necessarily problems of the implementation in the hearing aids itself. A lot things things that are annoying are due to Bluetooth itself, how it is implemented in the sending device (the phone, the laptop) and how other devices in the room might interfere with the hearing aids. Hence I am not necessarily blaming the hearing aid manufacturers here, but if there is something they can do about these things, I would be grateful for an update.

Note: the things I list here are tested with the following devices. The experience might vary with other devices and software versions.

Hearing Aids highjacking the stream

I’ll start with the most annoying problem. My hearing aids hijack the connection when I have another Bluetooth device connected to my phone. The setup is the following:

I connect my Bluetooth speakers to my phone and use it to play music. My hearing aids are recognized by my phone and might or might not be connected. To be sure, I often explicitly disconnect them from the phone so that the Bluetooth speaker is the only device connected at the time.

What happens then is the following: I leave the room for a short amount of time to take a leak. I come back, my phone finds my hearing aids again and stops playing music over the speakers and instead starts streaming to my hearing aids.

That is super annoying because there might be other people in the room also enjoying the music. It is especially mean if you are listening to an exciting audiobook with your partner and then all of a sudden they cannot follow the story anymore. But also for music, I usually use the speakers because they have more base than my hearing aids, hence I would love them to continue to play the music.

I suspect this is more a problem of the Bluetooth implementation of my phone rather than the hearing aids. Nevertheless, it is annoying.

Device Connectivity Issues

Some of the following problems I have with my Bluetooth speakers as well, hence I assume this is not necessarily hearing aid specific. Bluetooth devices are annoyingly picky about what devices they want to connect to and when.

  • Most sending devices (phone, laptop, Bluetooth adapter) are designed to recognize a device that they have been paired with before and connect to them automatically when the device is in reach. I feel like that works only 50% of the time. Neither my laptop, my phone or my BT adapter manage to do this reliably. Often it takes really a long time or I have to intervene manually.
  • When trying to convince a device to connect to the hearing aids, then I first try to pick it from the list of devices that the sending device sees at that moment. But also that only works half of the time.
  • In the remaining cases, I force the hearing aids to enter pairing mode again. I do that by opening and closing the battery compartment. That works in 90% of the remaining times. Last but not least, my phone is especially picky and sometimes doesn’t even connect this way.
  • The very last resort here is then to remove the hearing aids from the list of known devices in the phone, initiate the hearing aids pairing mode and introduce them to the phone as if they had never met each other before.
  • All these issues become worse if you have more than one Bluetooth device that can consume a Bluetooth stream or you have more than one device in the room that can send a Bluetooth stream. The issues become less if you switch off Bluetooth in all devices that you currently don’t want to use. Like if I want to connect my phone to my hearing aids, I switch off Bluetooth in my laptop, because the laptop might connect to the hearing aids and then they are even more reluctant to connect to my phone. Same for the Bluetooth speakers, if I am trying to connect something to my hearing aids, I usually switch off the speakers so that the device I am trying to connect to can fully pay attending to the hearing aids.

App Connectivity Issues

I use the MyPhonak mobile app to connect my hearing aids with my phone and adjust the settings (volume, program etc.). There are some annoyances about that:

  • It takes quite some time to connect the hearing aids. And sometimes it needs several tries. That is annoying, because often you just wanted to use the app to quickly adjust the volume or connect to the TV adapter. And then you spend several minutes trying that before you can start watching the movie.
  • Worse than that, once every couple of months, the app completely stops connecting to the hearing aids. I have had this several times now. The only thing that helps is clearing the app’s cache, deinstalling it, re-installing it, going through the entire pairing flow with the hearing aids again. Then it will likely last another 1-2 months till you have to do that again.

Other issues

  • Power: As mentioned in my earlier article: Bluetooth consumes quite a lot of power. Since I work from home due to Covid-19, I spend several hours a day in video conferences where I connect my laptop to my hearing aids. Since then my consumption of batteries went up a lot. Still, however, it would worse with rechargable hearing aids.
  • Security: Bluetooth is a protocol not specifically designed for hearing aids (at least most parts of it). With that, like in any protocol used for inter-device-communcation, security issues can happen. Bluetooth had quite some of them in the last years, see this database. It is quite likely that some of these security issues exist in Bluetooth hearing aids and therefore make them hackable. However, the best defense against security issues being exploited are regular updates of the firmware, so that when manufacturers fix the issues, your device is not vulnerable anymore. However, there is no way to update a hearing aids firmware without a visit to the audiologist. And most audiologists don’t want to see you more than once a year. Hence I would not be surprised if many Bluetooth hearing aids are indeed vulnerable most of the time. It would help here if I could update my hearing aid’s firmware using my phone for example.

Conclusion

Bluetooth sucks, but it is the best we have when it comes to connecting hearing aids with modern day’s technology.

About Helga Velroyen

Born 1982. Living in Munich (German) with husband, cat and snake. Hard of hearing and wearing hearing aids since about 10 years. Software engineer at Google by day. Geek by heart.

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