How Absolute Audio Labs Improves Hearing-Aid Performance for both Speech and Music

Friday 7/14/23 02:34am
Posted By Morris Novello
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People with hearing loss often face a tough choice: although hearing aids make it easier to understand speech, they do so at the expense of music enjoyment.

Aernout Arends, the founder of Absolute Audio Labs (AAL) in the Netherlands, didn’t like making that choice. Thanks to his company’s line of software and hardware products developed on the Qualcomm® QCC5100 -series Bluetooth ® systems-on-chips (SoC), he and thousands of hearing-impaired people don’t have to compromise.

The market opportunity in hearing aids

As a performing musician, Arends suffered hearing loss after years of touring. He found three categories of audio products for the hearing-impaired: True Wireless Stereo (TWS) consumer applications, over the counter (OTC) hearing aids, and prescription hearing aids. The founder discovered that hearing aids are designed to improve speech intelligibility in noisy environments, but do little to improve music enjoyment. In fact, most traditional hearing aids produce a thin, flat sound that lacks bass and removes audible layers in the music, resulting in a distorted, unpleasant experience.

Arends, also an engineer, started steering AAL toward a solution for the hearing-impaired that would perform as a high-end hearing aid and deliver high-quality audio. When customer projects were canceled due to COVID lockdowns, the company could concentrate resources internally. They completed the initial version of their PYOUR Audio software in time to launch at CES 2021. In 2022, the company launched the second version of the software with a reference hardware design, winning a CES Innovation Award.

Figure 1: AAL6 TWS earbud reference design

At CES 2023 AAL announced new, turnkey solutions for audio brands and OEMs: the Amadeus line of hearing aids that combine speech enhancement with music enjoyment, and Safesound hearing-protection software.

The switch from DSP to SoC

“Hearing aids are usually built using custom-designed digital signal processors (DSPs),” says Mark Kaal, co-founder of AAL. “We set out to prove that you can also build them with a high-end audio SoC. The market was already evolving toward SoC-based hearing aids and our strategy was to deploy our technology on premium, generic-audio chipsets. We wanted to demonstrate that high-performing hearing aids can run on the same hardware used in consumer TWS earbuds and no longer require a custom-designed DSP.”

As a member of the Qualcomm® Advantage Network (QAN) and its Voice & Music Extension Program, AAL evaluated and selected the line of audio SoCs from the Qualcomm® Technologies. The company developed the first version of PYOUR Audio on the Qualcomm® QCC5141, a premium-tier, single-chip solution optimized for use in earbuds and hearables. For the second version, they switched to the Qualcomm ® S5 Sound Platform series with the reference hardware, selecting the Qualcomm® QCC5171 SoC. That resulted in improved battery life and additional on-chip resources AAL used to improve audio quality.

Figure 2: AAL hearing aid, showing the QCC51XX SoC

Over time, the AAL solution has evolved to comprise three main elements:

  • basic firmware blocks implemented on the QCC5171
  • a mobile app for programming the device and managing communication with the QCC5171 over Bluetooth
  • reference designs for TWS and OTC hearing aids

“We chose the QCC5171 SoC because it’s primarily designed for high-end TWS applications like consumer earbuds,” says Kaal. “Soon, we found out that using it as a target platform for hearing aids required that we re-think and re-structure our firmware blocks. For example, we knew we would apply audio enhancement to the incoming Bluetooth signal. But to support real-time sound for the hearing-impaired, we saw the need to apply all of our algorithms to the transparency signal. That meant big changes in the way we integrated our code on the hardware. Plus, we had to ensure low-latency processing for both voice and music.”

AAL invested time in understanding the deeper vision behind the platform architecture before they started the actual implementation.

The QAN connection
The need to understand that vision behind the architecture led – and continues to lead – Absolute Audio to get plenty of mileage out of its membership in QAN.

“In our development, we quickly understood that we needed to look at the whole system,” Kaal says, “and not just at our firmware. For a small team like ours, there were too many areas to cover. That’s when we started developing partnerships with another QAN member, Sonion A/S, for acoustic components and VARTA for the battery. It’s clear to us that QAN members can find ample opportunity for collaboration on joint solutions.”

More technical innovation than anticipated
Music enjoyment encompasses several elements. For people with normal hearing, a pleasant audio experience calls for appropriate amplification and a proper frequency response over the full spectrum. The hearing-impaired need compensation to restore natural music perception and to optimize speech intelligibility, but those are two different types of compensation. When they listen to music, they want to hear softer sounds without having louder sounds being over-amplified.

Absolute Audio has broken new ground in three areas of hearing-aid technology by:

  • improving speech intelligibility in noisy environments to the level of a normal-hearing person
  • delivering the necessary level of amplification through a method of instant, wideband compression that provides a stable, artifact-free response within the hearing range of the listener
  • using artificial intelligence to manage feedback

Their software personalizes those algorithms for each user, and their hardware ensures the algorithms work well together at very low latency. Kaal points to an unanticipated win along the way: “Our goal was to compete with the best hearing aids in the market. In the area of music performance, a clinical study supported by Dutch universities showed that our Amadeus RiC Hearing Aids are quite far ahead of the competition. As for speech intelligibility, another study showed that our products are on par with or better than competing hearing aids.”

Figure 3: Amadeus RiC hearing aid

An added surprise was the boost in battery life, thanks to the low power consumption of the QCC5171 and Absolute Audio’s collaboration with VARTA. Absolute products show power saving even on a battery with only half the capacity of a battery in a normal TWS earbud.

What’s next?
“Our R&D team is currently working on the third generation, PYOUR Audio 3.0, which will launch in 2024,” says Kaal. “Look for longer battery life and more algorithms based on AI and machine learning.”

The co-founder reflects on the overall direction of the industry: “The speed of innovation in the TWS market is much higher than in the hearing aid market. We believe that, within five years, large hearing aid manufacturers will have moved away from developing custom DSPs in-house. They’ll embrace the superior audio and wireless performance of SoCs, especially now that the US market has a new category of OTC hearing aids. That will attract large, traditional hearing-aid companies and consumer audio brands.”

Find out how you can use the Qualcomm 5100 series of audio SoCs in developing your audio products. And learn about becoming a member of the Qualcomm Advantage Network.

Snapdragon - and Qualcomm -branded products are products of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. Qualcomm Advantage Network and Qualcomm voice and Music Extension are programs of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.