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Sounds good

Andrew Raguskus isn't sure how technical he wants to be when he talks about the difference in hearing aids.

So he tells the listener to think about much-loved music. Think about listening to it on an old-fashioned record player, where the only thing over which there's any control is the volume.Now think about how much better music began to sound when treble and bass controls were put in.

Hearing aids today, he says, can be like having a graphics equalizer. You can accurately control the nature of sound to correct for individual hearing loss.

At least that's true, he says, if you have a Sonic Innovation hearing aid, marketed as the Natura.

"We can really personalize the fit," said Raguskus, president and CEO of Sonic Innovations.

There's no doubt that hearing aid technology has just passed a new milestone. It doesn't use the 30-year-old analog technology that had been the industry standard for so long. It bypassed the modest advances of the past decade.

Instead, the heart of the Natura is digital and programmable - using a computer chip that's smaller than a fingernail in a hearing aid casing that is smaller than the average fingertip. It has nine channels instead of the usual three, and trained audiologists can fine-tune the Natura hearing aid using special software with a popular Palm Pilot device. They can even program it for two distinctly different environments, like for crowded situations and normal conversations.

The technological turn to something new began in a lab at Brigham Young University. There, Douglas Chabries, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology, developed a new algorithm for processing audio signals. His mathematical formula was based on a new understanding of how the human auditory system relates to sounds.

Then he joined forces with Dr. Thomas Stockham, the man who invented digital recording, and Dr. Carver Mead, professor of computer science at the California Institute of Technology. The result of that collaboration is now imbedded in the itty-bitty computer chip that runs the Natura.

The next step was forming a private company to market the technology. Venture capital has come from several private groups, giving birth to Sonic Innovations, located at 5330 S. 900 East in Salt Lake City. Sonic Innovation has the exclusive license to use the BYU-created technology. And they're funding research, too.

No one passing the brick office building would believe that it's where workers install what Raguskus calls the "tiniest, most powerful computer chip ever for a hearing aid."

One-tenth of Americans have hearing losses that make it hard to understand normal speech in everyday situations. But of the 25 million Americans with hearing impairments, only slightly more than 20 percent of those who could benefit from a hearing aid have bought one. High cost, disappointment with the sound produced, even the stigma of needing a hearing aid are powerful disincentives, said Orlando Rodrigues, vice president of marketing for Sonic Innovations. It doesn't help that only half of those who have gotten hearing aids are happy with them.

The industry breaks downs something like this, he said. Some of the hearing aids are inexpensive, some are small, some have fairly good sound quality, some are comfortable, some are easy to dispense and some require little service. Most can't boast more than two of those features.

But Rodrigues thinks Sonic Innovations may be able to turn the industry on its head.

If this all sounds interesting, bring money. No hearing aid is inexpensive. But Jill Ames says the Natura is worth every penny of its roughly $5,000-a-pair price tag.

When Ames was in her early 40s, she had to do something about her hearing loss. It had deteriorated so much she was no longer able to ignore it or to pretend she could understand that joke that made everyone cackle.

Her first hearing aid was an analog, and it was a real improvement over not hearing. But if you amplified anything, you amplified everything, which was sometimes pretty painful. And with that even-handed amplification, unwanted sounds were never filtered out.

A year ago, she got fitted for a digital hearing aid from a different company. "I was blown out of the water; they were wonderful. Loud noises weren't so loud."

She wasn't much interested when her audiologist mentioned that Sonic Innovation was doing beta tests and clinical trials of the Natura. But she decided to check it out.

"It's life altering," she said. "I did not believe it could do more than the hearing aids I had were doing. But there's a big difference. Now I remember what music used to sound like. What natural hearing is like. Things all sound better."

The tiny design also appeals to her vanity, Ames said. "I wear my hair short, but the hearing aids are so little most people still don't realize I'm wearing them."

She thinks she got a promotion because of her newfound hearing. "I had been sitting still in my previous business life because my hearing was limiting me. Having the better hearing aid has made all sorts of differences."

"It's like your dad walks out when you're 16 and says, `Here are the keys. Have fun with your new car, son'," said William Cottrell, another happy customer. "They walk out and give me some hearing aids and say, `Have fun.'

" . . . I can hear low tones, I can hear whispers and I don't miss the conversation that I have been missing for many years. It's much more enjoyable. I feel like I'm a human being."

That is, after all, the goal of hearing aids, said Rodrigues.

"The compelling reason to buy them is to understand human speech. To re-engage in human dialogue."