Sweet Sounds New Digital Hearing Aids Perk Up Investors' Ears

Article excerpt

Oticon Holding A/S encouraged investors - and enticed the world's 300 million hearing-impaired people - with an announcement that it has built a digital hearing aid that could revolutionize the industry.

Shares in the Danish maker of hearing aids jumped after the company announced the device, which uses two fingernail-sized microchips to harness digital audio technology in a hearing aid for the first time.

"We're putting the power of a laptop computer in your ear," said Lars Kolind, the company's president.

Oticon, which holds about 15 percent of the $1 billion world hearing-aid market, hopes to introduce the product in the first half of 1996.

The Danish company's technology is the first major breakthrough in a global race among hearing-aid makers to improve the quality of their products, analysts said.

Most hearing aids, by the companies' own admission, are surprisingly low-tech contraptions - squawk boxes in age of mellifluous, digitized audio.

Oticon's product is intended to supersede the analog hearing aid, replacing it with a digital device capable of millions, rather than hundreds, of calculations. Eventually, analysts said, hearing aids may be tailored to individual requirements, giving the hearing-impaired a more nuanced impression of sounds.

Oticon claims that its product begins to do just that, giving people the possibility of 100 different adjustments, compared with 10 in a typical analog hearing aid.

"It's like going from a radio with just bass and treble to a digital recording studio," Kolind said.

It comes at a premium price. He said the product would cost "substantially more" than $2,000, the price of the company's highest-priced analog hearing aid, but less than $4,000.

Analysts said it's too early to say how much of an advance over analog hearing aids the Oticon product, called DigiFocus, actually is.

"The features are similar in some ways to what is in some currently available hearing aids, but implemented slightly differently and probably better," said Brian Moore, a professor of auditory perception at Cambridge University.

The company's own field testing showed that 20 percent of a random sample of hearing-impaired people preferred its top analog hearing aid, the MultiFocus, to the DigiFocus.

Even if the DigiFocus isn't the answer, analysts said, its solutions to the problems that have beset the industry's research should prove beneficial. …