From the neighborhood to the world: Starkey Hearing Aids
One of the great things about the US is that someone can start a company in a garage or dorm room and grow it into a multi-national powerhouse. That certainly happened with Starkey. Founded in 1970 by Bill Austin,1 Starkey is the only US member of what is known as the “Big Six” international hearing aid manufacturers.
When I was in graduate school in the late 80's Starkey was the “go-to” company for tricky in-the-ear hearing aids, particularly those for people with profound hearing loss. Under Austin's leadership, Starkey was very focused on giving those with very poor hearing the option to wear whatever hearing aid style they wanted.
Many years later, I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with the original “Incredible Hulk” Lou Ferrigno at a Starkey Foundation Gala. I knew that he had severe to profound hearing loss, but I didn't notice any hearing aids. When I asked about it, he pulled out his Starkey multi-speaker CIC's made personally by Bill Austin and that he loved them for public appearances where his usual power BTEs would have been problematic image-wise.
A quick note on the Starkey Foundation.2 Spearheaded by Austin and his wife Tani, this charity travels the globe and the US providing hearing testing and donated Starkey hearing aids to millions of kids and adults every year. Between 2001 and 2006, I worked for a software company within the hearing aid industry and had the opportunity to attend their annual Gala several times. The central focus of all those in attendance, celebrity or Everyman, was and continues to be, helping people hear. For other foundations that help folks with funding hearing aids, see my interview with our Editor in Chief.3
Starkey continues to innovate and now offers a wide range of products. They are distributed through the VA, private multi-line audiologists and dispensers, and also through Starkey-owned stores under the Starkey and Audible brands.
The Thrive platform uses 2.4 GHz wireless and includes Starkey's Livio, Livio AI, and Livio AI Edge products. These products are “made for iPhone” and were designed to bridge the divide between a medical device and wearable consumer electronics.
The hearing aid processing is arguably equivalent to premium products from their other big players. What is significantly different is that this line of hearing aids have sensors that help users “Body” (walking, heart rate) and “Brain” (time in a conversation called engagement) activities using their Thrive smartphone app. It's an interesting way to attract folks like me who are in their mid-50s and spend more time than we should staring at a screen. The research on the benefits of this kind tracking is mostly internal, but if you already track this stuff and need hearing aids, combining them might make sense. Another unique feature in the top of the line product (Livio Edge AI) is fall detection. While this won't help me if I'm the one falling and live independently, I can certainly see a benefit if an elderly relative with a history of falls wore these and I set up the app to alert me.
A final breakout for this line of hearing aids is that Starkey has managed to provide a rechargeable option in all form factors from BTE to ITC. These ITCs have gold charging contacts and like other manufacturers, Starkey provides a high tech black version to appeal to the folks who wear something stuck in their ears anyway and aren't trying to hide their hearing device. For those who prefer, these same products are available with a zinc-air battery.
Starkey offers two different chargers. The standard charger provides an “all-day” charge (about 16 to 20 hours depending on streaming behavior) in a few hours. The TurboCharger provides 3.5 hours of wear time in 7 minutes and has a power bank that can fully charge the devices 4 times per charge. This is very helpful in places like Florida where seasonal weather creates the probability of periodic power outages.
The Thrive line of products is compatible with several smartphone apps as well as few accessories to help with background noise and reverberation.
The Thrive line is compatible with three remote microphones. The Table Microphone has 8 microphones and is designed to capture the primary speaker in a small group, then beam that signal to the hearing aids. They also offer two clip-on mics (Remote Microphone and Mini Remote Microphone). The Remote Microphone captures sound but can also stream audio from a 3.5mm line-in, a standard “Euro Plug” FM receiver like the Phonak Roger X, a Bluetooth connection (helpful if you have an Android phone or tablet) and also includes a Telecoil. By the specs, it sizes up well against the ReSound MultiMic and would be a good multi-function tool.
The Mini Remote Mic doesn't include the Bluetooth or audio input options, so much be clipped or placed very close to the source (around 5 inches) to be effective.
This device connects via an analog or digital cable to your TV or cable box and then streams the signal to the hearing aids. Once connected, these are pretty straightforward and help counteract the negative effects of distance, reverberation, and background noise on TV listening, particularly in large rooms with vaulted ceilings and hard floors.
For those who aren't all about the smartphone apps and have trouble with the relatively small buttons on hearing aids, the Thrive Kiev has a compatible stand-alone remote control. About the size of a business card case, this simple remote is a newer version of a longstanding and successful Starkey Surflink Remote which we'll get to in a bit.
The Synergy platform uses 900 MHz wireless which Starkey has used for many years in their Surflink accessories. The current line up includes all sizes and styles and provides an excellent range of high-quality hearing aids at a good range of prices. Like the Thrive line, the Synergy line is compatible with a Remote Control, (Surflink Remote) and TV streamer (Surflink Media 2) and a remote microphone (Surflink Remote Microphone 2). Also, they offer a small Bluetooth receiver that plugs into the Remote Microphone to provide nothing Bluetooth streaming and background noise control.
I've used Surflink products for years and have always found them to be reliable and easy to use.
Hardware-wise, I have historically found Starkey's build quality to be on par with others. Like others, they occasionally have a design that shows more failures, but I have always found them to be responsive to that both in terms of honoring repair or replacements and in terms of lessons learned for future builds.
Their focus since the early days was on custom, in-the-ear solutions and all-make repairs, which they still excel at. It's pretty common in the hearing aid industry for a manufacturer to only repair their own devices if they are less than 5 years old. They will sometimes deviate from that but usually tack on a hefty price to do that legacy work.
Starkey has always offered to “All Make Repair” and continues to do so. I'm not sure if they buy up all the spare parts when a compensator makes a product obsolete or use their own replacements, but I've always been happy with these services as have my patients.
As far as pricing, Starkey is all over the place. Starkey has always operated proprietary dealerships as well as offering their products to multi-line dispensers and audiologists. As one would imagine, in a closed-loop shop, prices tend to be a bit higher. On the other hand, they work very hard with independent folks to make their products competitive at the wholesale level so depending on the pricing structure of the practice, Starkey hearing aids can be had for prices comparable to other major manufacturers. Starkey also participates in several large buying groups which also keep the wholesale prices down.
They have been one the VA hearing aid contract for several years, so anyone who qualifies for basic VA healthcare can obtain top of the line Thrive hearing aids and accessories at no cost. See more about this and other financing options in my interview with our Editor in Chief, Jeff Hoyt.
Starkey is a great example of the American Dream. Built on the passion and elbow grease of Bill Austin, it's become one of the 800-pound gorillas of hearing aids and continues to push the envelope of possibility in hearing enhancement. Throughout my almost 30 years in practice, they'd always been one of my serious considerations and with very few exceptions, I feel confident in recommending them to my patients.
Thanks to Davie Fabry, Ph.D., Chief Innovations Officer at Starkey for information and images for this review.
As a practicing audiologist since the 1990’s, Brad Ingrao, AuD has fitted thousands of hearing aids to seniors and people of all ages. Brad is the Official Audiologist for the International Committee on Sports for the Deaf and a well-known speaker. Dr…. Learn More About Brad Ingrao