The Widex SmartRIC Aims to Redefine Hearing Aid Design and Performance: A Closer Look with Dana Helmink, AuD

widex smartric hearing aid review
March 1, 2024

The Widex SmartRIC is a recently introduced hearing aid featuring a unique L-shaped design, strategically placing the microphones in a more horizontal orientation to enhance directionality and speech comprehension, particularly in noisy environments.

In this week’s discussion, Dana Helmink, AuD, Senior Director of Audiological Development at Widex, joins host Andrew Bellavia to provide an in-depth exploration of the company’s newest device. Beyond speech-in-noise gains, the SmartRIC’s redesigned microphone cover also slashes wind noise by up to 20 dB. The portable charger was designed to meet modern tech consumer expectations – it easily fits in pockets and purses while providing up to 37 hours of use per charge.

Dr. Helmink also highlights the SmartRIC’s sleek and contemporary aesthetic, challenging the stigma associated with traditional hearing aids by offering a modern alternative to traditional devices, particularly appealing to younger individuals.

Full Episode Transcript

Hello, everyone, and welcome to This Week in Hearing. Is there any doubt about the biggest thing people wish their hearing aids would do better? Of course, it’s speech in noise performance. As hearing aid processors have gotten more powerful, algorithms of increasing sophistication have been implemented to address that need. A key part of the speech and noise toolkit is the ability to focus the microphones in a particular direction, reducing the sound level everywhere else. To do that well takes careful attention to several details. Widex has tackled that challenge in a unique way with their recently announced SmartRic hearing aid. Here to explain what makes the smart Rick unique is Dana Helmink, Senior Director of audiological development at Widex. Dana, welcome to the show. Please begin by telling everyone a little bit about yourself and your background. Thank you, Andrew. I’m excited to be here with you today. so my background, I am, of course, an audiologist. I am the senior director of audiological development for Widex US. I’ve been with Widex for five years in some different roles leading up to this one. But in my current role, what I focus on is helping to create that message about our innovation and our technology that we share with hearing care professionals in the US. And before joining Widex I feel a little bit like a dinosaur saying this, but spent roughly 25 years as an audiologist in Illinois. Initially as a clinical audiologist, and then in the hearing industry in a number of different roles. But getting a great opportunity to learn about the research and development side of our industry through my career leading up to this point. Well, hopefully the color of my hair will relieve any feelings you have about being a dinosaur. I did look at your background, and I think people who come from wide and varied backgrounds, I always have a lot of respect for. And I saw you were even at Etymotic. You were over there for about the first year I was at Knowles, and I was actually wondering if I had met you in one of my visits. I’m going through the same, yeah. I did work there for almost 13 years. And it was a great experience to be growing up in the industry as a younger audiologist and learning about research and development and that goal that we have as manufacturers across the industry to deliver innovative products that solve problems and are focused on good sound quality. It was a great foundation for me and where I’m at today. And we very well could have met at that time. Well, no doubt spending time with Mead Killion. I mean, we could have a whole discussion, a whole podcast on Mead Killion, right? but yeah, let’s talk about the SmartRIC I mean. The difference between that one and other hearing aids is immediately apparent just from looking at it. please describe the form factor of the hearing aid for those who haven’t seen it yet. Yeah, the Widex SmartRIC is really exciting. I would say this is a groundbreaking design that delivers several benefits. We’ve focused on exceptional focus, delivering exceptional focus to wearers. We focused on ultimate convenience and deliver on paralleled aesthetics. you commented on the design of the product. We’ll certainly talk I hope within this podcast today about our goals in creating this unique design. But what we’re really doing is building on our former achievements in natural sound quality and thoughtfully upgrading our platform here. This Widex SmartRIC product is something that brings a hardware design that delivers a smarter approach to how we’re handling sound. moving forward for Widex, and it’s due to this, I guess, groundbreaking design, really, when we think about it, it’s due to this groundbreaking design that we are delivering some measurable audiological benefits that help wearers perform in noisy situations. So improving speech understanding and noise. You kicked us off today talking about that challenge that drives most individuals to seek hearing care in the first place. And the solutions to that are something that I think we endeavor every day to improve as manufacturers within our industry. And with Widex SmartRIC, I think what we’re looking at here is a great example of what happens when form meets function. So that unique design, that L shaped design isn’t just for looks. this is the means by which we have accomplished something audiological, something beneficial to the wearer, and optimized the microphone angle on that design to really improve directionality. In fact, we call this smart directionality when we talk about the Widex SmartRIC Yeah, and this is clearly a form follows function kind of device. describe the, what, what drove the shape of the hearing aids in the press release. It describes the shape allowing for the placement of the microphones in an ideal location to do beam forming directionality. Describe that in a little more detail. Yeah, exactly. what we set out to do here with SmartRIC is to look at how the dual microphone directional systems could be improved. And I think that goes back to thinking a little bit about directivity index, right, that measure of directivity in devices. And it’s well known in the industry that directivity index is dependent on the angle formed between those two microphones relative to the horizontal plane. So when you think about it, our goal is to achieve sort of perfect zero degree horizontal focus forward with a directional microphone system. What impacts that directivity is how much the microphone angle might deviate from that perfect zero horizontal angle. And research within the industry on directivity index makes it known that as that angle increases, right, as those microphones, those dual microphones deviate from that perfect horizontal the directivity index is impacted negatively. So directivity decreases as microphone angle increases. This makes perfect sense, right? Microphones that point more forward are more focused. They have a greater distance between them on that horizontal plane. And when we tip them up, we change the distance relative to that horizontal plane and they’re no longer as focused on what we want. within the industry, we think that the impact on directivity is generally small when we keep that angle less than 20 degrees. But when the angle starts to increase 30 degrees, 40 degrees, even beyond that directivity index can really be impacted. So our position is that this is something we really need to pay attention to in hearing aid design, right? You and I’ve joked about being dinosaurs, but I remember marking ear mold impressions with having a level, right. And trying to make that mark on an ear mold impression for in the ear dual microphone designs. So this is something we know about. We know about it as manufacturers we know about it as hearing care professionals. and yet it’s easy to kind of forget about it as we’ve migrated towards RIC devices and are catering to and addressing wearer preferences in those designs and how devices sit on the ear. And so where we’re at today is that typical RIC devices can have a microphone angle that probably ranges in the 30 to 40 degree range. We’ve certainly found that in our investigations and we see it reported by other independent individual researchers and even other manufacturers at that microphone angle of RIC devices probably sitting somewhere around 40 degrees on average. And that’s a bit of a danger zone for impacting directivity in a negative way. And so with Widex SmartRIC and this unique design this more l shaped design, we bring the microphones to a more horizontal angle than other hearing aids. and that improves signal to noise ratio and improving signal to noise ratio, of course, is linked to speech intelligibility and noise and improvements there. So with that goal in mind, we really looked at, as you say function and the form required to achieve that in a whole new kind of category of product here. Okay. Well you led very nicely into my next thought, which was given the change in the design of the microphones, you’ve got a good comparison. Granted there are other things going on too. But if I take for example the Widex Moment, what’s the SNR? Improvement over the moment with this hearing aid. Yeah. So Dr. Francis Kuk a man who needs no introduction, but I’ll introduce him anyway and his colleagues who are part of our office of research and clinical amplification, also known as workup. So Dr. Kuk leads our US group of researchers there and he and his team completed a study on SmartRIC and well really a study that looked at the importance of microphone angle on speech and noise performance. this will publish next month so you’ll be able to get all the details with that publication. But I’m happy to share a little bit about what he and his colleagues found here today. And so the study that he did set out with two prime objectives. First was to measure the new microphone angle of the Widex SmartRIC. So we designed it to be more horizontal. But of course what is really happening on the ear and then when we isolate the impact of microphone angle, what is the impact on speech understanding in noise? And so in that study what they did was compare the Widex SmartRIC to a Widex Moment RIC. so the mRIC and the selection there is that in this case, in this study the moment mrRIC can represent traditional RICs overall. and we see evidence in other publications that this holds true, this sort of traditional RIC angle that we found as the outcome of the Moment mRIC angle in this study. So we’re really looking at when we isolate just microphone angle, how does it impact speech understanding and noise. And so what Dr. Kuk found in this research is that the average microphone angle is reduced to twelve degree degrees with SmartRIC. So the average microphone angle is reduced to twelve degrees with SmartRIC compared to an average of 37 degrees with a traditional RIC represented by Moment mRIC in this case. So that is a significant reduction in microphone angle really brings us much closer to that horizontal zero that we would love to achieve but is difficult in the real world. And so the study was interesting because it found that every single participant in the study saw a reduction in microphone angle with SmartRIC. So we certainly see that the ability to achieve a more horizontal microphone angle is possible with Widex SmartRIC. And the results then by measuring snr 50 using speech and noise testing. The hint was used in this particular study. We saw an improvement here. The results showed an average 1.25 dB improvement in signal to noise ratio with the more horizontal angle of the SmartRIC. And that corresponds to roughly about a 12.5% improvement in speech understanding if we assume that typical performance intensity function for sentence materials has a slope of 10% per dB of intelligibility. So to put this into a frame of reference, right, we’re often talking about the theoretical sort of directivity possibility with directional microphone systems. But in the real world, things like microphone angle can impact that negatively, right. So we’re fighting for every dB, for every patient for speech and noise improvement. So gaining this 1.25 dB improvement on average gives us a speech intelligibility benefit that could be again on average around twelve and a half percent. But what I thought was even more interesting is this study is that some of the individual improvements, when you look at individual subjects showed 2 dB, 4 dB, even 5 dB improvements in signal to noise ratio, isolated to that improvement in microphone angle and making that more horizontal, that could be really life changing for a wearer to kind of achieve that much improvement in signal to noise ratio. So a benefit overall on average, but some individual outcomes that can really change a wearer’s experience in my. Okay, so depending on a lot of factors like the individual HRTFs, if nothing else is, you’re getting from 1dB to 5 dB of improvement. Yeah. All right. Very nice, very nice. And so, yeah, clearly I’m on both sides of the fence, right? I’ve been in the industry for a dozen years and wearing those for five. So I know exactly what you’re talking about. And 10% improvement in speech intelligibility really is meaningful. It is It’s absolutely the kind of thing that is noticeable by a wearer. And when you look at even greater possible improvements, although not directly measured in this study, but you see those individual outcomes of even greater benefits in SNR, I think in my mind, what struck me when I saw that was thinking about patients who sometimes aren’t doing as well as you would expect them to do and you are not sure why. And again, going back to that, we’re fighting for every dB of improvement in noise. And maybe there’s things working against us at times in our fittings that we didn’t even realize, like the poor microphone angle that might be achieved on some individuals ears with the RIC devices that are available to us. And so being able to provide a design in SmartRIC that achieves just naturally by its design achieves this more horizontal angle gives us a better foundation for starting every fitting with the intent to improve speech and noise in the. Long run makes perfect sense. And it’s clear that getting as much gain in SNR as possible was the key goal for this hearing aid. But you’ve also done some other things. I mean, what other features are unique that were incorporated into the SmartRIC? Yeah, absolutely. We took every opportunity to make improvements related to this design and bring benefit to wearers. So we talk a lot about exceptional focus related to that microphone angle. But focus is also about reducing distractions. we know you’re a hearing aid wearer yourself, so you’ve experienced potentially some of the distractions that can come along with wearing hearing aids, like experiencing wind noise or the experience of things touching the microphones on your device and how that can be. Yes, exactly. All of us who put glasses on and off throughout our lives wear hats, have hair all of the stuff. Right. So we also looked at this smart RIC design as an opportunity to make improvements there. So it has an entirely new microphone cover and microphone inlet design related to that microphone cover. And what this does is create significant improvements in handling of wind and touch noise. So we see up to a 20 dB improvement in wind noise attenuation. So how much that wind noise is reduced, and it varies depending a little bit on direction of wind and speed of wind, but anywhere from two to 20 dB depending on the condition in which it’s measured. So again, when we look at improvements of up to 20 dB for wind noise attenuation, that can be very significant for wearers who were bothered by wind noise. And then on touch noise, that refers to anything that’s touching those microphones, whether it’s your fingers, your hair, a hat, anything like that. And in that we saw up to an 88% improvement in reducing touch noise or 88% improvement in touch noise perception. So again, really impacting the wearer experience by addressing those sources of distraction. And then the other part of the design of SmartRIC is really to look at what we’ve achieved through our smart power management there. So this is Widex’s longest lithium-ion rechargeable RIC yet. So what we are able to deliver there is 37 hours of use on a single charge and up to 27 hours of use with a full day of streaming. So, in addition to that, a portable charger that supports five full hearing aid charges and all of that together really means that wearers don’t have to think about charging during the day, regardless of how much streaming they do, even if they decide to binge watch an entire season of their favorite show. Not that I’ve ever done that. so whether they’re streaming extensively through the day or going days without having to plug in their charger, they’re really worry free on charging. 37 hours of use on a single charge over a week without having to plug their charger in gives them that ability to really not think about wearing hearing aids, both from the charging standpoint, from the reductions in wind and touch noise. And then in addition to that, the speech and noise benefits that they can receive with SmartRIC that all lead to that kind of worry free lifestyle that we know wearers want to achieve. Okay. And everything you said about the battery life, I can tell you from personal experience, is really important because people lead connected lifestyles. I’m streaming your audio through mine as we speak, and I’ll do 3 or 4 hours of streaming in different meetings today. And then when I’m doing chores in the evening, I’ll probably be streaming a podcast. So you need room, because that will do in modern day. Now I’m going to ask you a question, though. You’ve got 37 hours of battery life, which gives you a little headroom to do other things, because now you’ve got that extra life. Let’s say it was 24 hours, and you were able to add another feature to the hearing aid. What would that feature be? I think that it’s interesting about features and what we do right. Widex has always been really careful to put our signal processing in the right places and to be very strategic about it. in fact, we have recently sort of worked hard to express our philosophy as the Widex Sound philosophy, in this way, where we talk about how we really respect all sounds, how we tailor sound to the wearer and how we’re careful not to do too much in some of those situations. Right. So more features are great. I suppose that using all of our battery power to add more features can be tempting but might not align with our actual goal of delivering the most natural sound possible. I think that for us, we want to focus on catering to the wearer’s desire for natural sound. So I suppose if greater battery life allowed us to process even faster than we do today, we would do that. But our signal processing strategies have already allowed us to achieve what I think is the maximum of what could be achieved in the industry for fast signal processing for almost instant throughput in a hearing aid. we’re at 0.5 milliseconds of signal processing time through the hearing aid. I guess if we could get to zero that would be great, but we’re at 0.5 milliseconds and that seems almost unbeatable today. Well, I’ll indulge myself and tell you my personal wish. Is the treble response be extended for better listening to music? okay, so more bandwidth is what you’re looking for there? Yeah, exactly. and I think if it was battery life that did that, then maybe that would be on the radar for the future. Well, the SmartRIC now we talked about form follows function in this case, but at the same time, you had to be looking at the final form of the hearing aid and thinking about its acceptability to market. Share that thinking process with me, if you don’t mind. Given the way people feel about the hearing aids today and a variety of form factors that are out there, was there any hesitation to go with the unusual shape? Was it seen as actually as an advantage? how do you feel about the shape of the hearing aid? In that respect, I absolutely see it as an advantage. but I think that, of course, our goal first was the function. How does it perform? What does it deliver? if you know, Widex, you know, we always have a goal in mind and that goal being delivering on sound quality, delivering on speech clarity. So it was function that drove us. But of course, design matters. Widex pioneered some pretty revolutionary design ideas within our portfolio back in 2008 when we launched what was known then as the ‘Passion’ and today as the RIC 10, really tiny size ten battery. RIC, we really changed thinking on how small a RIC device could be. with SmartRIC, we have kind of carried forward that goal to keep a device small and comfortable on the ear, but also weren’t afraid to look at a design that I think conveys a more modern, forward thinking sort of approach to appearance. And I think there is a benefit in this. in fact there was a study in 2018 that looked at non hearing aid wearers who were in that 40 to 65 year old age range and reported mild to moderate hearing loss. And participants in that study were shown pictures of a new, more modern looking hearing aid design compared to traditional RIC designs. And the findings of that study were that the modern looking design attracted more attention and was associated with higher intention to purchase. So I think there is some background to suggest that we should be a bit more adventurous within the industry regarding hearing aid design and not be locked in to the traditional RIC design that we have see most commonly. And with SmartRIC, we have been asking wearers about their impressions and the early usability studies into the product. And then more recently, as we’ve started to roll it out to individual wearers. And how we hear it described most often is as sleek, modern, stylish and small. in fact one HCP who started fitting Widex SmartRIC since the recent launch reports that their patients are drawn to it amongst all the options presented. And I think that really says something. if I think about my personal life, aren’t you drawn to things that are a little different than all the other things? I think there’s just something in human nature about that. Think of any purchase that you’ve made. Right. And were you maybe at least drawn to consider the different one? And so I think in addition to the way it looks though it has a great on ear feel and on ear appearance in fact, I think it’s really important to note that our feeling is that SmartRIC that the pictures of smartric, the ones you might see on social media, even on our website, don’t do it justice. Right. It looks better in the hand than it looks in a photo, and it looks better on the ear than it does in the hand. And I think that people just need to see it to really appreciate it, see it in person, hold it in their hand, put it on their ear. That’s certainly been our experience with it, but I’m excited to see how it gets wearers talking about it, because talking about amplification is a great benefit to all of us. Yeah, absolutely. And everything you said potentially has important implications for the way people are thinking about stigma. Right. Stigma is very much on people’s minds these days. What are the components of it? How do you combat it? And what you’re saying is if you take the younger cohort of people who are first now moving into the need for hearing assistance that they’re open to different form factors, they’re less concerned about invisibility as the primary driver. I would agree with that, that they are absolutely open to different form factors. SmartRIC looks great on the ear. I don’t think we’ve compromised anything in terms of cosmetics. in most ears that I’ve seen it on, it’s still very cosmetic device that is not very obvious on the ear. Sits really nicely, achieves that horizontal angle without being unattractive or more or less discreet across many ears that I’ve seen it on. but I do think it conveys this modern look. And wearers are open to that. they’re pleasantly surprised to find that it doesn’t look like what they imagined a hearing aid looks like. I think there’s an opportunity for us to sort of immediately disarm those newer wearers who were expecting to come in and be presented with options that look a little like the hearing aid maybe their elderly family member is wearing, and instead see something that might look a bit more like the types of consumer products that they have been users of at some point in their life. And to me that is a positive in addressing the stigma that we know we fight every day, unfortunately. Well, and I’m sure there are some people who are surprised really, with any modern hearing aid, and we won’t go down this rabbit hole. But how many articles have you seen in popular media where they still break out that photo of the 1970s? Ya know, the Big beige banana absolutely. People think about a hearing aid. It’s so true. My greatest source of disappointment is a really well written article about the amplification today in some publication that has been paired with a hearing aid that I have barely worked with in my career in the last 25 years. It is really unfortunate that that is too often the case. And so I think there’s an opportunity for us to change that with images of devices that look more interesting at the very least. and in addition to the way the hearing aid looks we also paid a lot of attention to the way the charger looks. It is I think on par with any portable charger that you have seen in high end modern consumer audio products. It fits in the hand, the pocket, the tiny purse. It is really small. It is a truly portable charger. Sometimes you see things labeled as such that you wonder how you will actually bring it with you if it doesn’t fit in your pocket or your purse very easily. And so it is small, it is portable. It offers a range of options for how it can be charged. So you can plug it in with the USB-C cable. It has wireless charging for the portable charger, so it can go on all of those Qi charging pads that we have in our homes and our cars very often these days. And so I think it meets the expectation that wearers have or the technology that a hearing aid should bring to them. Yeah, really a device that exemplifies the fusion of consumer earbuds and hearing devices in a lot of ways. It’s like an ordinary, true wireless earbud, except it helps you hear better and enjoy life more. Right. But with all of the advanced signal processing and evidence behind doing so that widex has worked on for all of those years. Okay, we’ve done a pretty good deep dive into the SmartRIC, but is there anything else people should know about it before we end the podcast? No, I guess I’ll say this. I think a few things come to mind in that category. I think again that SmartRIC offers this unique benefit to wearers, unique within the widex portfolio and unique within the industry. But of course leveraging that widex sound philosophy that I mentioned earlier. So our unique approach just in the processing that’s just been proven to have a wearer preference for clarity, for natural sound quality, for speech in noise. and then the added audiological benefits that are only available with SmartRIC are some key points that I like to drive home. And I guess I’ll end by sharing that. I think that every now and then there’s an innovation that comes along that really changes the way we think forever. Right. if we think of our time in this industry there have been many things like that. Right. whether you’re thinking back to the first CICs or the first digital hearing aids or whatever that situation might be, I think that every so often we can think of Widex and our pure sound technology that really shattered the industry accepted standard on how fast you can process through a hearing aid and how we can address problems of delay-based distortion. Right? So there are these innovations that will forever change the way we think. And I believe that thinking differently about this microphone angle is one of those. Had the opportunity to be out sharing SmartRIC with hearing care professionals over the last few weeks. And it’s just remarkable how as we talk about that, the question is asked, why haven’t we been talking about this? Why haven’t we been thinking about it? It seems important. and then the realization that while it’s something we can absolutely pay attention to in our current RIC fittings of other models and even other brands achieving that angle. It’s something that isn’t possible until the design supports it. And it’s really interesting to me to think about how this could be just the first step in really a different approach in the future in looking at how hardware can deliver on those audiological benefits, how hardware can deliver on better speech and noise. Okay, well, no thanks. I really appreciate you spending the time to go into more detail about what makes the SmartRIC tick. if people want to reach out to you and ask more, how would they do it? Yeah, you can absolutely reach out to me at Widex. So my email address is a little long, but not too complicated. Dana.Helmink. That’s [email protected]. And if there are questions about this, I absolutely would love to hear from you. I want to thank you again. and thanks to everyone for watching this version of This Week in Hearing. Thank you.

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About the Panel

Dana Helmink, AuD, is the Senior Director of Audiological Development at Widex. She earned her Master of Arts in Audiology from Northern Illinois University and her Doctor of Audiology degree from Salus University. She worked in clinical audiology in Illinois, where she also served more than 10 years on the board of directors of the Illinois Academy of Audiology. With more than 15 years in global product management, Dana applies her experience in user-centered design and usability testing to develop innovative training programs.

Andrew Bellavia is the Founder of AuraFuturity. He has experience in international sales, marketing, product management, and general management. Audio has been both of abiding interest and a market he served professionally in these roles. Andrew has been deeply embedded in the hearables space since the beginning and is recognized as a thought leader in the convergence of hearables and hearing health. He has been a strong advocate for hearing care innovation and accessibility, work made more personal when he faced his own hearing loss and sought treatment All these skills and experiences are brought to bear at AuraFuturity, providing go-to-market, branding, and content services to the dynamic and growing hearables and hearing health spaces.


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