Listen Up as Assistive Listening Category Gets More Competitive

Published: June 8, 2016

It’s one of those categories that might be referred to as “niche.” Indeed, most manufacturers have left assistive listening—the concept of integrating a personal device with a venue’s audio system that usually amplifies sound to help hearing impaired people follow along—to the companies that have established presence in that category.

Listen Technologies and Williams Sound are names that spring to mind as established assistive listening solutions providers, both of which are showing off their wares at InfoComm 2016.

Elsewhere on the show floor are new competitors in the assistive listening category. Both Media Vision, an established provider of conferencing solutions, and Audio Everywhere, a relatively new maker of streaming solutions, are targeting assistive listening and taking aim at entrenched competitors in their own ways.

Media Vision spent much of 2015 focusing on product development before announcing two new business divisions during Integrated Systems Europe 2016, one focusing on streaming and one on assistive listening, said CEO Fardad Zabetian in early 2016.

With Media Vision already providing conferencing solutions for large meetings (think massive conference rooms) and addressing linguistic challenges (think United Nations hearings), providing assistive listening solutions to customers is a natural progression,  Zabetian said, but he views the foray as something that will complement existing projects and enhance integration partners’ offerings as opposed to targeting the product category. “It’s a product based business model for conferencing and adding assistive listening,” he says.

However, Zabetian does view Media Vision’s assistive listening solution (read about it here) as more targeted toward integrators than competitors’ are. “We’re coming from a systems integrator point of view,” he says.

“This product isn’t going to be available through distribution, the rep side or online, which is the case for our competitors. It’s a project based. It’s exclusive to integrators.”

“This is a growing marketing for us. We have the expertise within our channels to be successful at it. We felt that the existing companies out there have been doing this the same way for many years and so we came in with a fresh perspective. We developed a product that is nicely designed, feature rich and affordable – between 25 percent and 60 percent lower than medium and high ranges of our competition. We want to offer this to our systems integrators. This is a complementary product for our existing products.”

Related: Listen Technologies’ New Solutions Are Changing the Discussion Around Assistive Listening

Audio Everywhere, for its part, sort of stumbled into the assistive listening arena. Since hitting the market a couple of years ago with streaming device and app that allows people to listen to content from TVs or digital signage, for instance, via an app on their phone in venues such as health clubs, founder Lance Glasser has gotten plenty of feedback from customers.

“Early on we didn’t really think of it as an assistive listening solution, but recently we’ve come to the conclusion that that’s not right,” he says. “It does work there and it’s also superior [to competing solutions] for all the same reasons it works great in fitness centers.”

Glasser says Audio Everywhere provides a step up versus inductive loop, RF, FM and IR or what he calls “twentieth century analog technologies that we’re delighted to compete against.”

Since Audio Everywhere can be app-based and work via the phone most people have in their pockets, Glasser says it makes sense that the product has grown in the fitness center category. The same principle holds true in the house or worship and education markets, too, he says, since most attendees and students already carry a phone.

“We got into this by doing what companies are supposed to do, which is listening to customers. We weren’t pushing assistive listening but people were coming to us anyhow.” 

Here’s how Audio Everywhere’s ExXtractor system works (via a blog by Glasser):

The Audio Everywhere ExXtractor system is an appliance that converts line-level sound from a mixer or pre-amp to streaming digital audio. The ExXtractor is connected via Ethernet to the local Wi-Fi access point. A free App on Android and iOS (Apple) phones takes over the role of the specialized receivers.

… In a complying venue, there will generally be a combination of the public receivers mandated by the Sections 219 and 706 of the guidelines/standard and personal devices carried in by hard of hearing people. According to the Pew Research organization, 68% of adult Americans have smart phones as of 2015.

… And of these, according to Gartner, 98% are either Android or iOS (Apple) devices. This doesn’t mean that 66% of hard of hearing people have Audio Everywhere compatible smart phones, but it does suggest that it might well be over half. From the venue’s perspective, people who use there [sic] own devices are unlikely to accidentally walk out with or break the devices provided by the venue. People who do have such devices are more comfortable using their own device rather than going through the inconvenience of checking out a publicly available device. Indeed, there are iPhones and Android phones today that connect directly to hearing aids or even cochlea implants, clearly making these devices the preferred receivers for these people with these systems.

Audio Everywhere provides the most affordable solution at almost any scale. Audio Everywhere attacks affordability a couple of ways. First, in a venue that has Wi-Fi installed for public use, a large fraction of the cost of the transmission has already been paid. A hidden advantage of this is that the system is likely to be more available because, unlike an assistive listening system such as an inductive loop, when the Wi-Fi goes down, everyone is clamoring for it to be repaired. The loop is also very expensive to install.

Even when the Wi-Fi does not already exist, it is inexpensive to procure when compared with a typical specialized rf or ir system because of economies of scale. There is $15B worth of Wi-Fi equipment built every year. The Audio Everywhere appliance is also affordable because it is made out of the same computer parts as a high-end smart phone. And the Audio Everywhere receivers?

The least expensive receivers are actually smart phones with the SIM chip removed. An entry level Android smart phone running Google’s new “Lollipop” operating system is about $52 on Amazon. Smart phones are inexpensive because there are 1.4 billion of them made per year. A non-profit could probably collect old iPhones and Androids for free from their members. If one wants to go top-of-the-line, there is the iPod Touch from Apple for $199. It supports numerous accessibility features too. For the 25% of these receivers that need hearing aid compatibility by law, look to add a solution such as the $35 Williams Sound NKL 001 neck loop or, at the high end, a Clear Sounds CLA7-v2 for about $65.

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