‘Made-for-iPhone’ hearing aids’ (MFi)

… and other mobile phone hearing aids

MFi was/ is a licensing program for developers of hardware and software peripherals that work with Apple’s iPods, iPads and iPhones.

The term MFi is more colloquially recognised now as ‘Made for iPhone’, but ultimately means for iPhones, iPads and iPods (and Apple Watches).

The MFi program covers various device connectors including the headphone jack, original dock connector and the newer Lightning connector, as well as Apple AirPlay support. Companies joining the MFi program and passing certification tests are able to display certain MFi-related logos on their product packaging, like the “Made for iPod” badge.

So, ‘MFi‘ is an Apple specific certification.

Smart phones became ubiquitous in the late noughties (true smart phones as we now know them that is), and it was soon obvious to hearing aid manufacturers that their digital hearing aids would have to be designed to be able to be directly linked to our mobiles phones in order to make them more functional, effective, and appealing.

It was Apple who took the lead in working with leading hearing aid manufacturers despite Android being the more widely used platform.

Made-for-iPhone (MFi) hearing aids were first introduced by ReSound in 2014 (with the LiNX hearing aid), followed very shortly by the Starkey ‘Halo’. There are now a five or so leading global hearing aid manufacturers offering premium spec hearing aids with made-for-iphone technology.

It should be first noted that you do not have to use an iPhone to use ‘made-for-iPhone’ hearing aids.

The main two benefits of MFi hearing aid technology are:

  • Direct wireless audio streaming without the need for an intermediary accessory – phonecalls, TV, phone apps (such as Google Maps sat nav)
  • Direct remote control functionality

There are other benefits of MFi hearing aids which are detailed in the drop-down section below.

MFi hearing aids can also be connected to some Android phones, but with less functionality (i.e remote control use, but not for audio streaming – not yet anyway). Compatibility links can be found in the brand links in the drop down section below ‘Who makes MFi hearing aids’.

You may also now come across the term ‘made-for-ALL-phone hearing aids‘ (MFA) – see the drop-down section below.

The big question, especially from avid Android phone users, is why is this technology limited to Apple iPhones (the streaming technology that is). Which is a very valid question being that Apple only makes up between 15-20% of global market share of mobile phone distribution.

One reason stated is that it is purely hardware driven. iPhones are a closed architecture (which some would say is an advantage and some would say is a disadvantage), but Android is open architecture, which means every single model by every different manufacturer essentially runs a slightly different version of Android to work with their specific ever-changing hardware. As a result, if a manufacturer were to put in a lot of Research & Development on making a Samsung Galaxy 7 able to stream without an intermediary streaming accessory, most likely it would not work on any other Android device, including a Galaxy 6 or Galaxy 8. Chances are, that until a manufacturer or manufacturers agree to a closed standard, we will not see direct streaming of an Android device without an intermediary device.

Another reason given lies with an Apple strategy to make their devices more accessible to a wider pool of consumers. They stole a march on Google’s Android – their most competitive operating system available for mobile phones – and worked with ReSound to develop a system to connect hearing aids to their phones. Google does intend to make similar features available on Android phones, but it must now find a way to do that navigating around the patents that Apple has filed.

MFi does use the generally available BLE technology – Bluetooth Low Energy – but also uses several additional system calls and tweaks that enable enhanced functionality. At least that’s what Apple says, but we suspect the primary objective is to make it hard for Google to hitch onto the standard without running foul of patent protections. In practice, the hearing aid is forced to pair with a special interface on the device, and not with the general, standard BLE interface; thereby locking out app developers and Android.
ReSound and Apple did a good job of marketing the initiative fast enough to get it adopted by other hearing aid makers, so that the methodology has become the industry standard.
The bottom line is that it is hardware / technology that prevents hearing aids from connecting with Android for the moment. Apple moved much more quickly than Google and has managed to establish a commanding competitive lead and there are barriers that will slow Google’s efforts to catch up.
However, it’s only a matter of time, given that the iPhone’s market share lies at about 15-20%, compared with Android’s nearly 80%, and the day of “Made for Android” hearing aids seems to be getting closer. Recently GN Hearing (ReSound) and Google have announced a new technology partnership that will make GN Hearing the first manufacturer to enable a full spectrum of unrestricted direct audio streaming from Android devices to hearing aids

Phonak and Unitron both launched a ‘made-for-all-phone hearing aid‘ (MFA) in 2017/18

These hearing aids both allow audio streaming connection to any mobile phone with Bluetooth connection, but with the limiting factor that the audio signal can only be streamed to one hearing aid (as opposed to binaural streaming with iPhones)

The reason for this limiting factor is that they have had to use the older ‘Bluetooth Classic’ technology to allow streaming across both Apple and Android platforms. Whereas made-for-iPhone hearing aids use the newer Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology for streaming.

(Note: MFi and MFA hearing aids both use BLE technology for remote control functionality).

MFA hearing aids DO however allow binaural stereo streaming from televisions, using proprietary TV streaming technology, i.e. Phonak ‘AirStream’.

IMPORTANT NOTE – made-for-all phone hearing aids by Phonak and Unitron have to sacrifice some of the advanced speech-in-noise technology that is available in their hearing aids to cater for MFA technology features.  In other words one benefit (connection to mobile phones) sacrifices other benefits (stereo-zoom and auto zoom). Choose your hearing aids carefully, or contact us for advice.

The ability to link a phone app to your you hearing aids adds a high level of personalised control.

Everyone has different preferences and therefore we as Hearing Aid Audiologists can only do so much to set the hearing aids up to suit you. Having more control allows you to fine tune your hearing aids in different environments.

You have basic remote control functionality – such as programme changes, volume control, and mute.

More advanced control of the hearing aids such as wind noise reduction, directional focus, speech clarity settings.

You can save your settings to your own favourite programme, and / or set a programme to automatically turn on when you reach a destination, such as a local cinema (using GPS location tracking technology).

You can find lost hearing aids using the GPS locator.

Streaming your calls and apps – i.e. using a foreign language translator to translate what someone says to you, and hear it direct in your hearing aids; or using google maps sat nav app and hearing directions crisper in your hearing aids whilst driving.

MFi hearing aids

ReSound Oticon Widex Signia Starkey

MFA hearing aids

Phonak – Unitron

MFi and MFA hearing aids are available as medium sized receiver-in-canal hearing aids

ReSound and Oticon now also offer  ‘full shell’ or ‘1/2 shell’ in-ear MFI hearing aids

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