Steve Woolley, Listen Technologies Corporation’s wireless listening product group leader, drills down on the important yet misunderstood world of hearing loop technology.
Q. The audio category is brimming with products for just about every application, including assistive listening. How and when did you notice a need for a new product—loop technology?
A. We’d been offering FM and IR products into the assistive listening market for some time, and frankly were not all that positive about hearing loops. They seemed problematic and costly to install, didn’t sound great, and were not generally well understood. Then about a year ago, something changed; we started getting more calls and, strangely (for the time), they were specifically for loop systems. It behooved us to look into the situation objectively, and then to possibly re-assess our attitudes and approach. So, from dismissing the technology without knowledge, and understanding the European and rest-of-the-world’s acceptance and dominance of Hearing Loops for assistive listening, we had an epiphany. When done right and with the presence of an “audience” of users with T-coil installed hearing aids, hearing loops do a fantastic job; they offer serious benefits and advantages. I, for one, am happy to have been wrong and to have experienced an “a-ha moment.”
Q. Are there misconceptions about this category? If so, how do you address them?
A. There are tremendous misconceptions in this market. Not so in the EU and the rest-of-the-world. I think the misconceptions here stem from a history where a percentage of systems were simplistically conceived, poorly designed, and not set up/commissioned to a reasonable standard of performance. Hearing loops are not “rocket science.” However, they are susceptible to often unseen influences that, unless tested for, can render it more or less useless. Given this history, loops had a less than stellar reputation in the U.S. This is why Listen is being insistent on the right procedures and practices being followed by systems integrators. For example, not just any dealer can buy Loop products. Only those who have gone through a training series are open to buy products. An integrator must “extract” a number of pieces of information from the intended installation before we can consider designing a system and quoting components. The integrator should thoroughly understand the IEC60118-4 standard and be able to install, measure and confirm compliance to that standard, prior to commissioning the system. The benefits a well-installed hearing loop brings to end-users are exceptional. We owe it to those in need of hearing assistance—and to the community—to take every effort to assure a system is the best it can be. A side benefit of this process is that integrators and owners can understand and become involved in the assessment, design, installation, commissioning, and operation of these systems. There’s no place for someone simply selling boxes to a customer and hoping the system will work. The chances of this happening are almost zero.
Q. Are there other challenges bringing this line to the North American market?
A. Other than what we’ve already discussed, not really. Educating a market can be a frustrating exercise, but this one has been wonderful. And despite our early trepidations, we have had nothing but positive experiences with people, from facilities owners to sound contractors/integrators. The willingness to ask questions, learn, apply, and be a part of this process has been phenomenal.
Q. For folks new to the concept of assistive listening, help us better understand your tag line, “Assistive Listening anywhere, anytime.” What are the implications for tech managers and or facility manages across the wide spectrum of commercial AV?
A. Listen’s corporate commitment is to providing quality products and solutions to the Assistive Listening community, wherever there is a need. Be that in a cinema, a taxi, at the Drive-In at your local hamburger outlet, at an airport check in counter, in your House of Worship, on a bus, at home… wherever. Assistive listening to us means providing a compelling suite of products and business practices that transforms the way individuals experience events, communications and life in general. Recent changes in the ADA, effective this year, mandate better solutions for those in need. This is a stimulus to many to quickly become legally compliant. We have found that however grudgingly facilities and tech managers might have been about the ADA and addressing the needs of the hearing impaired, when they understand those needs and the available solutions, the dynamic changes. A significant (and growing) proportion of the population require and welcome those solutions. Not only does it make business sense to support this paying segment of the public, but that it is a noble and honorable cause, too. For facilities to ignore the needs of 17 percent of the American public—which is the shocking statistic for those with hearing impairment— makes no sense. It is not sensible from a positive dollars and cents standpoint. On the other hand, risking negative dollars and cents from legal exposure makes less sense. None of us can afford to ignore even one or two percent, let alone such a large number of customers, who if not supported and catered to, will simply not frequent a place of business. The cost of assistive listening solutions is small when measured against the potential business gain of including these customers over time.
Q. How would you allay potential concerns from AV professionals about reliability and performance of Loop solutions? What about future code or compliance implications? Is the line future-friendly, so to speak?
A. Funny you should ask that. I had an email about ten minutes ago from one of our “star” integrators in California. A hearing loop installation of his had just been flooded under two feet of sea water. The equipment had been on throughout the flooding and subsequent week. Everything continued to work as intended. Again, the technology is not rocket science; it was developed in the 1930s to couple telephones to hearing aids. It is simple to understand in principle, and with the right information, easy to install and set up for standard compliance. The loop driver is basically a specially designed amplifier that can drive a very low impedance load—say half an ohm. Unlike an audio amplifier, it is a current source, not a voltage source. However, the basic technology is easy to understand and mature. The main failures we have seen are from carpet installers cutting the loop wire. We make a stick-down tape for the flat wire option, that has warnings to carpet and flooring installers not to cut through the tape and conductor. I seriously considered putting “Danger 10,000 Volts, do not cut!” on the tape. But we thought not. No, given proper installation, there’s no reason a system should not last for 20 or more years.
Q. What is the distribution strategy for this line? How does the education and training portion of the program work?
A. Distribution is only though certified loop systems dealers/integrators. Successful completion of our two-hour webinar and possession of a certificate opens a dealer/ integrator for consideration as a basic listen loop dealer. Successful completion of our full-day installation and commissioning seminar, with its mix of theoretical and practical lessons, opens a party for consideration as an “advanced listen loop dealer/integrator. Considering the technical expertise required and the potential complexity of a system, we are looking for an appropriate number of qualified dealers who can support and service/maintain their installations and markets. This is a value-added system, not a commodity product, and thus requires quality integrators who can stand by their work for the long term. We strongly recommend that maintenance contracts are negotiated wherein a dealer periodically checks their installation for proper operation and continued compliance. It’s also key to train staff on proper operation, including the dispensing and maintenance, cleaning, etc., of receivers, headsets, and neck loops. Again, we were not sure originally if integrators would think we were being pedantic in making these requirements. Contractors, systems integrators, consultants, et al, are professionals in a complex systems environment and rightfully proud of their capabilities and work. And here’s Listen saying, basically, “you don’t understand Loops.” Well, we were pleasantly surprised. I cannot think of anyone that has resisted the approach. In fact, most have eagerly vacuumed up the instruction and knowledge and asked for more. I think one of the reasons for this is a real sense of each professional in this program feels that they are doing good and giving tangible benefits to the larger community.