Please forgive the headline hyperbole, but RCA seems to have come up with the answer for my – well, our generation's – gradual hearing loss.
How good an answer? I can actually hear TV dialog clearly without jacking up the volume wholesale or just on the center channel of my home theater system, both of which I've been doing, fruitlessly, and much to my wife's annoyance.
As I told the RCA exec I spoke to, it seems as if the company made the Symphonix just for me.
The RCA Symphonic, as you can see from the photo, is a small device that sits behind the ear with a small tube tendril tipped with a speaker dome that goes into the ear canal. The tail curls inside the ear lobe to stabilize the dome tendril tube thingy.
Symphonix is light and comfortable – after a few minutes, you won't even feel it – and, as you can see from the picture, nearly invisible to people facing you or even in profile.
Unlike those cheap personal sound amplifiers you might see advertised on late night TV, Symphonix doesn't amplify every sound indiscriminately. Symphonix uses digital processing to amplify only those specific frequencies affected by aging hearing loss – voice frequencies, for instance – and dampens those ambient/environmental noises that drown out the utterances we actually want to hear.
I can hear you now
Even though it looks like one, Symphonix is NOT, I repeat, NOT a hearing aid. It is a "personal sound amplifier." According to RCA, the FDA defines what a hearing aid is, and what a hearing aid is is a device specifically tuned to compensate for the specific frequency losses of a specific patient.
But, says RCA, most of our generation's gradual hearing loss – sped up by Walkmen, MP3 players and loud concerts – falls into large categories covering between 80-90 percent of us. (The USA Today ran an excellent overview of the nation's hearing loss problems in late March.)
Then there is my other hearing problem – tinnitus, a ringing in the ears (for me it is the SHHHHHH sound of steam escaping) that never ends, also suffered by famous folks such as Liza Minelli and William Shatner. My SHHHHHH is at nearly the same frequencies as human voices and, for me, acts like a conversation blanket, hence my problem with TV dialog.
The problem is there is no cheap solution (and for tinnitus, no solution) for this 80-90 percent of us. Hearing aids, even if they are covered by insurance (and RCA says most aren't), are expensive – more than $1,000 at least, but usually more than $3,000.
Symphonix is $300. It comes with a cradle that charges its internal battery, which supplies 15 hours of hearing after a seven-hour charge (which means you can use it all day and charge it when you sleep). You can check out some videos of how it works at RCA's YouTube channel, and it can be purchased at the company's Web site and, starting Sunday, at around 100 Radio Shacks nationally.
Does it work?
Yup. Unbelievably well. I've been using it for the last couple of days for TV watching. It sounds strange at first – the sound obviously is coming into one ear instead of in stereo (or surround sound), but somehow the brain compensates and the one-sided nature of the sound gradually disappears.
And, as advertised, only dialog is boosted – it sounds initially like someone whispering in your ear. Ambient music and sound effects magically stay at regular volume. It's as if I jacked up the volume level on my center channel speaker only. It's a revelation.
There are three volume settings; for me, only the top setting works. A step-up model to be sold under the Acoustic Research brand and priced at $350 will have a fourth volume level.
Around the house, it's less effective. It picks up other unwanted sounds, like floorboards creaking as you walk, paper and cellophane shuffling, the ticking of a clock – even my fingers pouncing and bouncing all over my keyboard. But it doesn't amplify chewing while you eat (only lip and teeth smacking), which is a relief since I usually watch TV while I eat.
I haven't tried it in a crowded room, but considering how muddled, muddied and generally indecipherable conversation sounds to me with dozens of people speaking simultaneously around me, Symphonix can only be a help.
But for TV watching – and bringing clarity to what I previously had trouble hearing – I swear, RCA must have made Symphonix just for me.