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Apple and Danish company ReSound have teamed up on a new hearing aid

Can Apple help make hearing aids cool?

CNN News Wire | 3/4/2014, 12:10 p.m.
People wait in long lines and even camp out to get their hands on new Apple devices as soon as ...

People wait in long lines and even camp out to get their hands on new Apple devices as soon as they're available. But they drag their feet, sometimes for years, when it comes to purchasing another piece of technology that could greatly improve their lives: hearing aids.

Hearing-aid manufacturers and audiologists hope a new collaboration between them and Apple will help.

Apple and Danish hearing-aid company GN ReSound last week announced a new hearing aid that's compatible with the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Called LiNX, the device syncs wirelessly with the newest Apple mobile devices and takes advantage of iOS 7's new accessibility options for the hearing-impaired.

At its most basic level, the LiNX acts like a hybrid of hearing aids and stereo Bluetooth headphones. Phone calls, FaceTime chats, music, movies, turn-by-turn navigation or other audio can be streamed directly to a small earpiece. When they're not pulling in audio from a smartphone or tablet, the hearing aids work like normal, picking up in-person conversations and surrounding sounds.

This being Apple, there are plenty of bells and whistles packed in. A feature called Live Listen turns an iOS device into microphone. If someone's in a loud environment -- a busy meeting, a sporting event, a noisy car -- and wants to focus on one person's voice and cut down on background noise, they can get a stream directly from the smartphone's mic to their ears. (This feature has the potential for some fun eavesdropping mischief.)

Using GPS, you can save custom settings for a specific location, say a movie theater or your cubicle at work, and get a pop-up notification on your mobile device asking whether you'd like to switch every time you return to that spot. Don't remember where you left your hearing aids? Use a phone or tablet to locate them.

Apple and the device's makers hope it will encourage more people with hearing loss to get help earlier.

"Right now, people wait about eight years on average between the time they think they have a hearing problem and when they see someone about it," said audiologist Dr. Ken Smith.

More than 36 million people in the U.S. have some hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, but only one out of five people who need a hearing aid actually have one.

Smith attributes this gap to antiquated stereotypes of hearing aids. People still picture the hardware as it was many years ago: large and obvious, making embarrassing whistling and beeping sounds, and ineffective at filtering out background noise.

But today's models are quieter, discreet and more effective. And sprinkling a bit of Apple's magic on the devices could help decrease the stigma of wearing them.

"The association with Apple is going to make a great difference in getting people in the door in the first place," Smith said.

Even the most advanced current hearing aids can still draw unwanted attention when wearers must reach to change the settings. For many hearing-impaired people, the biggest advantage of Apple-ized hearing aids is being able to control the devices' settings directly from a phone.