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Personal audio enhancer helps you hear in crowded situations

By Jim Bray
August 1, 2013

A new device from VitaSound promises to help people hear better, and maybe even relax or sleep better – and it seems to work quite well.

Some people can find it hard separating voices from background babble in a loud room. It could be an airport, restaurant, pub, whatever (okay, maybe not the traditional library), but such loud environments can lead to folks nodding in feigned understanding when someone they can't really understand is opining or informing them.  

The situation sure has raised its ugly head in my life; I have the dickens of a time hearing people talk under such circumstances, even if I'm right next to them. That's why when I received the press release about VitaSound's PAE-300 I hit my e-mail program's "reply" button to see if the manufacturer was making samples available for review.

Vitasound says the Personal Audio Enhancer is designed for people "who want to hear more clearly when watching TV, conversing in crowded rooms, talking on the phone, or need temporary relief from tinnitus." Obviously, it was the crowded room scenario that really appealed to me; the other features could be compelling, too, depending on your situation, but for me they were gravy.

And, as hoped, the audio enhancer really can help in that crowded room situation – though that facet of its performance comes with one very big caveat: since you use the PAE-300 with little ear bud headphones, you have to sit or stand there in conversation, with the buds in your ears. That can give those with whom you're conversing the impression that you're listening to music on your little box, instead of paying attention to them. And they may find that rude.

It's kind of like those cool folk who insist on wearing sunglasses inside. You never really know what they're checking out.

You can get around this potential misunderstanding by explaining to everyone that you're using a PAE-300 – and telling them why – but I daresay this would get old quickly. Perhaps you can wear a stick-on name tag with the explanation scrawled on it...

Thereby cementing a reputation for nerdiness, if nothing else.

The manufacturer calls the PAE 300's patented technology a Neuro-Compensator it claims is the World's first neural-based hearing solution, which sounds kind of like it burrows into your brain like some alien parasite. This probably doesn't happen, however.

The PAE-300 looks a lot like a portable music player, and it comes with a wireless dock whose inputs you can hook into your TV. Do that, and you're accessing another of its nifty features: you can use the earbuds to listen to the TV's stereo audio output wirelessly.

Well, there are still wires running from the TV to the wall socket and the transmitter/dock, as well as from the receiver to the buds, but the "connection" between the receiver and transmitter is wireless, and that's what really counts.

As for the Enhancer's "Talk" mode, it does work quite well – though it doesn't exactly sound natural. What it does is bring the voices into a kind of sharper focus. You still hear the background chatter and other stuff from around the location, but voices do come through very clearly and they are easier to understand. It's quite an interesting experience.

Everything sounds kind of digitally robotic, though, and thanks to you having ear buds jammed in, you hear yourself from the "outside" rather than the "inside" you do normally. If you've never heard your voice recorded, you're in for an "ear opening" experience.  

There are four EQ modes for this feature: Normal, Low Frequency Boost, Medium Frequency Boost and High Frequency Boost, but the differences must be pretty subtle because they all sounded pretty much the same. Pick the one you like best and forget it, keeping in the back of your mind the fact that you can try other settings down the road if you want to.

 "Relax" mode gives you recorded loops (of reasonable sound quality) of the nature sounds (there are four different ones from which to choose), and it works as advertised. I can't imagine lying in bed with ear buds in, though I could see it being nice if you're in your favorite easy chair, kicking back with a good book. I have an iPad app that purports to do the same type of thing, but – and maybe it's just me – I find quiet music more soothing than looping sound effects. Real rain and thunder, fine! But canned stuff, especially if it loops audibly, forget it.


Of course, your mileage may vary.

"Listen" mode is the one you hook into your TV, which could be handy if you live in a boisterous family; you can stick in the ear buds and shut out the world! This can also be a wonderful feature if you have trouble hearing the TV from across the room, because you can control your own volume separately (via preset positions), without having to crank the TV itself and thereby annoy anyone else in the room. Unless you want to!

You can also shut off the close captioning, if you use it, and free up some more real estate on the TV screen.

It works well, and you can add a second receiver so a pair of you can use the feature, each controlling his own volume. Imagine the fisticuffs that could save!

The last mode is "Listen," which the company says "provides enhanced audio when talking on a cell phone or listening to music through an MP3 player." This can be handy in a noisy place, or just a handy convenience if you're using the PAE-300 when someone calls in; you don't have to swap out the ear buds. A nice touch is that there's a mic that's built into the buds' cable, for phone use.

As for it being a music player enhancer, it works as advertised but, as a self-professed audio/video snob, I want to hear the pure signal from source to destination. VitaSound says that, since the PAE-300 enhances speech frequencies and reduces surrounding noise, "voices and music are more distinct and distinguishable, making them easier to understand." It's fine for most TV sound, except perhaps for concerts and the like, but for Tunes? Never!

Again, your mileage may vary.

The PAE-300 also raises the issue of whether you shouldn't just head to your friendly, neighborhood ear doctor if you think you have hearing problems. You might not – I've had trouble hearing in noisy places for years, yet when I had my ears tested a year or so ago the doctor said my hearing was better than hers, despite decades of loud music and movies, including some time in a rock band (mumble) years ago.

My dear wife says I have a distinct listening problem, but that isn't part of the PAE-300's mandate.

The receiver/handset has a very small footprint – kind of like some smart phones – and is very light, so packing it around is no big deal.

It would be nice if the ear buds were wireless, to add a bit of subtlety to their "Talk" mode use in public places (maybe then the buds would fool people into thinking they're hearing aids), but that would raise the question of where you'd put the microphone.

The PAE-300 lists for $399, which ain't cheap. It's a pretty compelling product, however. Just remember that you might come off as if you aren't really paying attention when people are talking to you.

On the other hand, that could work to your favor – a nice way of detaching yourself from boring conversations! You could just walk away as if you really are listening to music and didn't hear a word said!

Maybe that's an extra capability they should market! In that case the PAE-300 could actually prove to be quite a value!

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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