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

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 your ear, 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 TV's to the maximum. It doesn't matter what it looks like if it doesn't do the job. Thankfully, the Virto Black does, and very well.

I've tried several hearing aids in the last 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've yet to try one that makes me feel like I have 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 pulled me out of the moment.

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.

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 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.

sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more

The fun really start with the "Roger" accessory though. 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 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 , but none as fun and as versatile as Roger. Usually, they are single-purpose devices for the TV or mobile connectivity.

All 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 also, 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.

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