Atlanta software engineer and applied mathmatician Rippah Ultmuncher shows in his stinging blog entry that although he is having great success with his Widex Clear 440 hearing aids, the same cannot be said of his M-Dex combination remote control/Bluetooth streamer.
Here at The Hearing Blog, we like to publish First Person Reports from people describing how technology that supposedly looks good on paper isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, such as London flautist and blogress Deafinitely Girly who exposes a major flaw in non-linear frequency compression (NFC) in Hearing aid update: My flute and Paper Aeroplanes. This First Person Report is quite astute, and in fact raises additional points that even we had not discovered with our own M-Dex and Clear 440 Fusions with high power RITE’s.
After the glowing review of my hearing aids and my audiologist, it is unfortunate that I have to be so negative about the other component in question. The M-DEX is a piece of shit — I am a software engineer and architect, and I have never seen such poor interface quality or assumptions about the listener.
First, let’s start with the good things:
- FreeFocus — being able to tell the hearing aids in what direction to focus on. This is very useful.
- Bluetooth pairing with iPad — when I pair it with my iPad to watch a film, the quality is remarkable as I have noted earlier.
- Direct audio input – if I run a cord from my device to the M-DEX, it works well.
- Changing programs — this is moderately useful, though I am able to change it directly on my hearing aids.
However, these are the only positive things I can say about the M-DEX.
- When a Bluetooth device drops a connection, such as my iPhone or iPad doing so when not actively playing sounds, it switches to the Master program, and loudly announces it. So the cycle happens like this: The program on the iPhone or iPad plays, the bluetooth connection is brought up, a beep emanates from my hearing aids. When it stops, it changes back to the Master program. Every time this happens, this announcement is made. Repeatedly.
- Further compounding this issue is that the ‘room off’ which mutes my hearing aids microphones turns off, and unmutes every time the bluetooth connection drops. If I am listening to a movie, and I exit out of the film to check on something, I get the loud announcement, ‘Master program’, and a blast of environmental noise. I then have to re-mute.
- Further compounding the unacceptable state of affairs, it does not work well as a headset or headphones. The Widex engineers obviously did no testing or quality assurance outside of mobile phones. It does not work at all with my Mac laptop or my Mac desktop — when I attempt to play sounds through it, the M-DEX believes it to be a phone call for the duration of the sound effect and then disconnect. This causes the computer to no longer play sound effects through the Bluetooth connection, as it is disconnected. Most of the time, it does not even work — the computer tells me that there was a Bluetooth error.
- The M-DEX barely works with the iPad and iPhone outside the context of a phone call — as I have mentioned before, it works as a hands-free profile, and a headphone profile. But it does not work as a headset with a microphone. Skype on my iPad and iPhone is a no-go due to this — I briefly get a connection and then it drops.
- The microphone quality on the M-DEX is poor — I would have imagined that Widex with its state of the art research into microphone and signal quality, would be able to put some of this technology into the M-DEX. This is a $350 device that is surpassed by a $10 piece of electronics.
- Effectively, the only way I can do phone calls with the M-DEX is as a handsfree headset for phone calls. Which is unfortunate, as my mobile phone quality is far inferior to what I can get over VoIP which is important to me as a Deaf person. I need every bit of call quality I can get, and this device cripples me.
- The user-interface is extremely poor. I am a software engineer, and I get a little confused as to how to get to certain functionality. How is a normal non-geek supposed to use this device?
- Also rage-inducing is the fact that this device only pairs with one bluetooth device at a time. If I have it paired with my iPad and want to use it with my iPhone, I have to go through the whole pairing process. Logitech with its cheap headsets is able to support multiple bluetooth pairings!
It is obvious that the people who worked on the M-DEX have no understanding of people with hearing loss and their actual needs. This is perhaps due to being an entirely different product and project than the hearing aids themselves which are wonderful.
The following naive assumptions were made:
- That other devices would maintain a Bluetooth connection throughout the life of the session. This is only true for mobile calls. In every other context, Bluetooth connections are dropped, to conserve battery.
- That the user would want the program to actively change when the Bluetooth connection drops. Again, this is only true for mobile calls. If an user is using this device for other purposes, the user does not want to hear the loud announcement that the program has changed.
- That the user would only want to use Bluetooth for phones. This shows a shocking lack of creativity, vision and initiative. Bluetooth is much more versatile than that, and they should have expected that an user would want to use this device with their computer or to watch films on a mobile device with.
- That the user would not care about his own voice quality with the shoddy microphone — sometimes, those of us that have hearing loss need every bit of clarity that can be transmitted to the other party, due to accents or inflections. Did they actually test the microphone as a deaf person?
- That they do not need to put thought or effort into the user interface of the device — the paths to some of the functionality are simplified to the point of being un-simple to use. Any good human interface person would have spotted these issues.
It is extremely unfortunate that with all the careful engineering and thought that Widex put into the hearing aid instruments, to see them fumble so severely with the M-DEX. The whole experience is basically like getting a flawless one-hundred yard pass for the touchdown, and then suddenly fumbling and going back thirty yards.
The Hearing Blog Editor replies:
Our single biggest complaint with the M-Dex is in the 10.6 mHz antenna design for the link from the M-Dex to the hearing aids: It is extremely sensitive to angular position, i.e. twist it more than about 20 degrees, or turn your head to the side, and it drops out in one ear or the other, i.e. it is anything-but isotropic. As any antenna engineer, or even Ham radio hobbyist will tell you, this is one hell of a feat to pull off in the 28 meter band, but somehow the Widex engineers accomplished this dubious feat. What this means is that the wearer must slide the M-Dex 6-8 inches up the lanyard, and then button the bottom of the lanyard into the shirt… Or safety-pin it for a pullover shirt. This means that once it is buttoned or pinned into place for streaming, it has to be unpinned to lift it up to see the display and keys. Granted, some of this is due to the antenna design in the hearing aids themselves, as the instruments also communicate with each other; but nonetheless it is still a poor design… And one the TV-Dex does not suffer as badly from.
Another issue: We saw one report that the M-Dex can handle as many as 8 pairings; but this does not seem to the the case with iOS 6.1.2, as we have to re-pair it when we switch between our iPod Touch 4 and iPhone 5.
Also, even though the M-Dex presents as an A2DP headset to the sending device, in fact (and unlike the TV-DEX) it only transmits a channel mixed monaural signal to the hearing aids. Worse, the headphone audio input jack is monaural, only sending one of the two stereo channels to both hearing aids: This we can tell because there’s a particular Color Beautiful commercial that is (annoyingly) played every hour on a particular DFW broadcast station where the speech audio switches between channels: We only hear half of the words when our iPod is plugged in via stereo cable.
Even worse, when we went to the Widex Clear training session in August 2011 (and wearing a pair of Clear440 Fusion instruments with our M-Dex), we explicitly asked if there would be a firmware upgrade to enable stereo transmission and/or using the USB jack for digital audio input; and we were informed:
- The M-Dex is not capable of firmware updates, which I found out a year later that it’s due to them using ASIC architecture instead of FPGA architecture (probably to save battery drain and also to deal with their proprietary digital signal transmission protocol);
- The USB jack only has two pins connected for charging, and is not capable of accepting any digital data.
Another complaint we have is that the size of the M-Dex is huge, compared to the ReSound Phone Clip Plus:
That being said, the Clear uses a 33k sample/second rate in the ADC connected to the mics with a 107 dB input dynamic range (IDR); and 22k sample/second rate for the digital audio signal path, both industry-bests. UPDATE: The new Dream has a maximum input before saturating of 113dB SPL (re 20µBar).
However, severely deaf and power junkie users will gag at the downright fuggly power Receiver-In-The-Ear (RITE) assemblies, which are built even if the patient has a large canal: Starkey can get their AP70 RIC into a canal mold with the same receiver. Although we can see the RITE earpiece being used for the Output Extender plumbing (which is negated anyway when the Sensogram is used… Duhhh), it being supplied for standard earpieces is dodgy at best. What’s more, we have repeatedly asked that a Libby Horn bore be made for extended high frequency response — Which is a trivial task in the CAMISHA process — with the wax filter being placed at the throat of the horn. At present, we have to take a Dremel grinder to make this vital acoustic modification; however when this is done, the wax filter is lost.
Here’s a picture of the downright fuggly Widex Power RITE:
Although somewhat quirky, and with a lack of programming granularity with everything tied to the Master program, the Widex Clear, Super and Dream hearing aids offer good performance, especially with music. However, if you’ll be a heavy user of audio streaming, we recommend the ReSound Verso instead, as their Unite wireless accessories work much better, especially the Mini Mic and new Phone Clip Plus.
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