Hearing Aid Technology

As a New hearing aid wearer, entering into the world of hearing aid technology can be a confusing and daunting experience. What level of Technology is appropriate for my hearing loss? What would these features do for me? This serves to summarize some of the features and technologies to help you understand the different technology features and help you in choosing an appropriate level of technology for your lifestyle, hearing loss and budget.

The development of hearing aids over the last 20 years has been astonishing. Moving from analogue to digital and thus opening the door for amazing new technology and features. At the core, the hearing aid consists of the microphones, a processor, a receiver and a power source. The microphones picks up the sounds in your environment and passes it to the processor. The processor enhances the signal and delivers it to the receiver which delivers the amplified signal to the ear canal. The power source, or battery, drives the system.

Hearing aid technology can be considered either advanced or basic, based on the sophistication of the processor. Even today’s basic digital hearing aids offer far more benefit than the best hearing aids of previous generations.

Hearing aids can be classified into three groups:

Basic: These hearing aids are very simple in the classification of sound and environment. This will require you to make program changes and volume changes in more difficult listening situations. The fine-tuning option for the audiologist in regard to features like noise reduction and speech enhancement is also limited. They are normally in a on or off position.

Business class: These hearing aids are more advanced in the automatic program allowing the hearing aid to classify and locate the different sound sources in your environment. The speech enhancement, wind noise manager, noise reduction and management of sudden impact sounds are also more advanced. These will have settings that your audiologist will be able to set at different levels to allow for the best hearing in more complex situations.

Premium: These instruments will be filled with the most advanced features available from the different companies. The directional microphones and all the features work together to give you the best hearing in even the most difficult situation. The fine-tuning option in these hearing aids are endless and your audiologist will be able to set them to give you a setting that sounds natural and you will be able to hear comfortably in most environments.

As the level of technology increases, digital hearing aids become more automatic and have more features to help you communicate in difficult listening situations. New technologies translate to higher price points for hearing aids and greater benefits. The following features are more likely to be offered in advanced hearing aids.

Hearing Aid Technology

Top-of-the-line sound processing and frequency response
All hearing aids process sound, which means that when sound arrives into the hearing aid, it has to be sectioned into bands of sound (sometimes referred to as “channels”) and digitized before it can be amplified. The better the hearing aid, the more flexibility it has to band sounds that are amplified for your unique hearing loss prescription. For example, if you have only high-frequency hearing loss, a better-made hearing aid can amplify only those sounds within that band, whereas a lower-end model might amplify mid- and high-frequency sounds. This customization of the hearing aid is called its frequency response.

Bluetooth compatibility
Bluetooth compatibility is a wireless feature that enables hearing aids to connect to mobile phones and other devices that use Bluetooth, often through an intermediary device. Bluetooth technology has the ability to improve the signal-to-noise ratio and eliminate feedback from the microphone because the signal bypasses the microphone and directly enters the hearing aid’s processor. A Bluetooth connection is also less likely to experience interference. Some hearing aids stream the signal to both hearing aids and use the microphone of the hearing aid to collect your voice during a phone call. The only negative to this is that due to the extreme sensitivity of the microphone the person listening to your voice will also hear some of the environmental sound around you.

Artificial intelligence
Some hearing aids have a feature that allows them to “learn” your preferences, a type of AI or artificial intelligence. By logging volume control settings and program preferences for certain sound environments, the hearing aids can begin to make these changes automatically when the environment is detected. Over time, this reduces your need to make manual adjustments. You are now also able to create favourite programs on your phone app for specific situations where you are able to change the balance between low and hight frequencies and also make changes to the microphone features of the hearing aid. This will allow for better hearing in specific situations that are unique to your life environment.

Many of today’s advanced hearing aids come with smartphone apps, allowing the user to adjust the hearing aid, contact their audiologist, and monitor battery life. Most importantly, some of them work like assistive listening devices, by routing phone calls or other sources of sounds directly to a user’s hearing aids. This is a feature that is available on even the lowest level of technology hearing aids.

Rechargeable batteries
Increasingly, hearing aids come with rechargeable batteries, allowing a person to charge the hearing aid daily. This takes away the need to change the battery and for patients with dexterity of eyesight problems is a solution to a very difficult procedure. Most hearing aid companies have rechargeable options on all their technology levels.

Tinnitus masking features
Most hearing aids come with tinnitus masking features. An audiologist or other hearing care provider can program them to emit sounds that mask the tinnitus or ringing in your ears. (But for many people with tinnitus, simply amplifying the sounds you’ve been missing with a hearing aid can help minimize tinnitus, which often develops when a person experiences age-related hearing loss.) It is important for you to speak to your audiologist about this condition to ensure a correct diagnosis and treatment for your tinnitus is found.

Binaural processing
This feature is often (but not always) available on basic hearing aids, too. Binaural processing means a pair of hearing aids communicate wirelessly with each other. This technology mimics the brain’s ability to process information coming from both ears and helps reduce manual adjustments. It is most commonly used to keep the hearing aids operating synchronously (such as switching from program 1 to 2 at the same time) or to stream auditory signals from one hearing aid to the other. This also assists in the analysing and classifying of the sound in your environment to allow for the best result in more noisy environments.

Directional microphone systems
Directional microphone systems are designed to boost sounds coming from the front of the wearer and reduce sounds coming from other directions. Different system designs block out more or less of the sounds coming from behind the wearer. These systems improve speech understanding in background noise. Satisfaction is higher for hearing aids with directional microphone systems than for hearing aids without them. In some of the more advanced hearing aids you are also able to change the focus of the microphones to the back (for passengers in the back of a car) of to the either side (for a person sitting to the side of the driver). The advances in the technology allows the wearer to cope in situations that has historically been very difficult to solve.

Digital noise reduction
Digital noise reduction systems analyse the signal to determine if it contains unwanted noise. If this unwanted noise is detected, this system reduces the level of noise. This feature can be adjusted by your audiologist to allow for more noise reduction in different situations. This feature makes the background or environmental noise less annoying and increases your listening comfort.

Impulse noise reduction
Similar in purpose to the digital noise reduction, impulse noise reduction improves listening comfort. This system detects any transient loud noises, such as car keys rattling, typing on a keyboard or dishes rattling, and softens them instantly.

Wind noise reduction
Although fairly specific in its application, wind noise reduction can make a world of difference for those who spend time enjoying outdoor hobbies, like golfers and boaters. Wind noise reduction detects the impact of the wind blowing across the hearing aid microphones and avoids or reduces the amplification of it.

Feedback management systems
Feedback management systems combat the inevitable feedback (whistling) that occurs in a hearing aid. These feedback loops create an annoying whistling sound that can get in the way of your comfort. Feedback management algorithms can be implemented differently for basic hearing aids or advanced hearing aids. Basic feedback management systems may reduce the overall amplification to remove the whistling. Advanced feedback management systems reduce or eliminate whistling without affecting overall amplification of the hearing aid.

Data logging
Data logging is a feature that stores data about the listening environments in which you wear your hearing aids and your preferences for programs, volume levels and other features. The information can be accessed by your audiologist when you return for a follow-up appointment. The information gathered by your hearing aid about your listening situations and the amount of time spent in them, will provide your audiologist with valuable information to enable her to change the settings of your hearing aid to optimize your hearing in those situations.

What are the real-world benefits of these features?

Imagine sitting in a typical busy restaurant, having dinner with friends. Sounds are coming from all directions, such as dishes clanking, people talking and laughing at other tables and waiters rushing about. You’re wearing your new hearing aids and listening to a friend who is sitting across from you at the table. She’s telling a joke. Your hearing aids are simultaneously reducing impulse noises like silverware clanking onto a plate (impulse noise reduction), reducing the noise of the air conditioning (digital noise reduction), suppressing the voices of the people at the tables behind you (directional microphone system) and storing information about the listening environment to be saved for later fine-tuning (data logging). They are doing all of this automatically while amplifying and shaping the speech signal from your friend. You are free to relax and enjoy the punch line.

This is just one of many situations where your new hearing aids will enable you to have a conversation without effort and enjoying company of friends and family. The success of your hearing aid fitting is dependant on choosing the correct level of technology for your hearing loss and lifestyle. A healthy expectation of what the hearing aid can do and a positive and committed outlook will ensure you reach your goal of improving your hearing.

Please contact your audiologist to start this journey to better hearing by making an appointment for a full hearing test.

– By Carien de Jager