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Phonak Virto Black hands-on: A hearing aid that gives you superpowers

Daredevil, eat your heart out.
James Trew, @itstrew
January 8, 2020
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James Trew / Engadget

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Something weird is happening. I'm walking through a Las Vegas casino having a normal conversation with someone on my left. This might not seem too strange to you, but the noisy background of slot machines and desperation combined with my one-sided hearing loss usually renders what listening ability I do have useless. Today, however, I'm wearing the Virto Black hearing aid from Phonak, and it's kinda blowing my mind.

You might not have heard of Phonak, but the Swiss company's been around for decades. It makes a range of hearing aids, but the Virto Black is its latest and greatest. Unless you suffer from hearing loss, hearing aids are probably not that interesting, but there's enough going on in the Virto Black that it almost feels like a smart wearable as much as an accessibility tool.

For one, and all hearing aid makers please take note, it doesn't look like a dour medical device. The Virto Black is custom molded to sit in your ear canal, but the small external part makes it look more like a pair of true wireless earbuds. Given that half the challenge seems to be getting rid of the stigma around this category, I'm relieved we're starting to see more and more devices that won't make you self-conscious.

But looks are only a small part of it. Hearing loss is a frustrating condition that afflicts as many as 40 million Americans. That's a lot of people asking, "Sorry, what was that?" or cranking up their TVs to the maximum. It doesn't matter what it looks like if it doesn't do the job. Thankfully, the Virto Black does do the job, and very well.

I've tried several hearing aids in the past couple of years, and they've ranged from ineffective to helpful. Even the better ones still remind you they're there, as the sound often has that "phone call" quality to it. I hadn't tried one that made me feel like I had actual normal hearing -- until the Virto Black. The custom fit means it's incredibly comfortable (even the tiny Eargo will tax your lugholes after a long spell). But it's the natural sound that seals the deal for me. The result is that I almost forget I'm wearing it, as the good fit and the balanced sound never pull me out of the moment.

Phonak Virto Black

The Virto Black uses Phonak's own Marvel platform, but all you really need to know is that there are several sensors that feed into algorithms so that the hearing aid can seamlessly adapt the sound to your environment. Cheaper products often only have a few presets, or maybe none at all, that you have to manually activate. You can do that on the Virto Black too, but most of the time you won't need to.

As I walked through different environments (that noisy casino, a relatively calm taxi and then a trade show floor), I could sense the Virto Black adapting to my surroundings. Conversations were easy in all of these scenarios, with little to no annoying, sharp background noises. The companion app is comprehensive, allowing you to adjust settings per ear or universally. You can create your own presets and save them for later.

I did notice that certain situations were prone to generating feedback. In our temporary office here at CES, I could hear the left hearing aid whining in my ear during some of our team meetings. I asked colleagues if they could hear it, and they said no, but it was a semi-noisy environment. Maybe if it had been quieter, they might have caught it. When it got particularly bad, a quick reseat of the left bud usually fixed it.

Sometimes after I used the Roger accessory (more on this later), the hearing aids didn't switch back to their default mode as they should. It only happened once or twice, but it required me to restart each ear to kick them back into life. It's hard to tell at this stage if these are teething problems, but they were only minor inconveniences.

At this point I was already excited about the Virto Black, but there are a few more things that make it a more compelling device. First there's music streaming and call handling. These two features aren't uncommon, but in my experience, they're often limited to iOS only. The Virto Black supports Bluetooth Classic and LE, so it'll pretty much connect to anything, be it an Android or a smart TV. Let's be clear, the audio won't rival your dedicated headphones, but it's fine for quick, casual listening -- especially as you're likely wearing them already, so it's almost like you have the ability to stream anything directly to your head.

The fun really starts with the aforementioned Roger accessory. It's a small wireless puck laden with microphones. Simply place it somewhere within around 30 feet of yourself and you'll hear what Roger hears right in your ears. The legitimate use for this could be anything from attending meetings to letting a friend wear it like a pendant (it can detect if it's flat or vertical and switch the microphones accordingly). The less legitimate use is -- well, I'll leave that up to you. But know this: It'll make you feel like you have superpower hearing, picking up detailed conversations from across the room.

Roger charges over microUSB (unlike the Virto Black, which requires 312-size batteries). There's also an optional dock for both charging and connecting Roger to other audio sources -- including optical outputs, so you could pipe your TV directly into that for private listening. There are other products with similar accessories but none as fun and as versatile as Roger. Usually, they are single-purpose devices for the TV or mobile connectivity.

All of this technology does come at a price. It'll depend on your insurance (or location), but hearing aids rarely come cheap. The Virto Black will be in the range of $6,000 and maybe more if you want the Roger accessory. As pricey as this may seem, anyone who's in the market for hearing aids will know this is at the higher end of the going rate. But these are devices that can improve your life in many ways, so it's hard to put a price on that. For those interested, they'll be available toward the end of February.

Follow all the latest news from CES 2020 here!

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