Going Digital with Your Hearing Aids

Going Digital with Your Hearing Aids

In Hearing Loss by Aaron Gingrich

If you’re considering getting hearing aids, or if you’ve already got some and it’s time for a new pair, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the options available today. Hearing aids have come a long way, so consider what options might be best for you before visiting your hearing healthcare specialist. With a price range of $900-3,000, hearing aids are an investment, and the more expensive models are feature-packed with options that might not be necessary for everyone. Understanding the options in today’s digital hearing aids is key to making the right decision for yourself.

Analog Technology of the Past

In the past, hearing aids were “analog” devices, similar to the cheap hearing aids you see marketed on television today. They picked up audio, amplified it, and sent it back out through a tiny speaker, maintaining the audio always in the form of an electrical signal. They contained a microphone, a small amplifier, and a speaker. A small computer would change a few parameters, such as how much amplification was applied or the use of a device called an “equalizer” to remove certain frequencies or boost others. This was useful when moving from one environment to another, but the ability of the hearing aids to make the sound different was pretty limited by today’s standards.

Today’s Digital Marvels

Today’s hearing aids are “digital.” They still pick up sound with a microphone, amplify it, and send it back out through a speaker, but there’s an extra step. Rather than using a computer to control aspects of the analog signal, the sound is converted into the digital realm. This means it is no longer an electrical signal, it is data. While it is data, computers can operate on it directly, which greatly increases the processing potential.

DSP and Hearing Aids

The processes that go on in a hearing aid (or movie theater or auditorium, for that matter) are called DSP, or “digital signal processing.” DSP is how today’s hearing aids can do so many amazing things, only dreamt of in the past.

DSP allows hearing aids to analyze the nature of the sound coming in and act on it automatically in most cases. For example, today’s hearing aids differentiate between speech and background noise, so you hear more of what the people close to you are saying and less of the murmur coming from other parts of the room. DSP also helps hearing aids eliminate “feedback,” the whistling sound that hearing aids used to make when they were set too loud for the circumstances. DSP can “see” feedback, and reduce the volume of amplification at that frequency to squelch it.

Using DSP, today’s hearing aids can also be better programmed to match your specific hearing loss. Unlike the past, where a hearing aid simply amplified sound, today’s hearing aids amplify only the frequencies at which you’re deficient. This means the amplification is more comfortable, and with your hearing aids in, your hearing ability can be boosted to near-normal.

Directional Microphones

Hearing aids now come with the option of directional microphones, which is kind of like “pointing” the microphone at the thing you want to hear. You can turn this feature on or off, but while engaged it will emphasize sound coming from in front of you and minimize sound from beside and behind you.

“T Coils”

Short for “telephone coil,” this option allows you to switch your hearing aid’s mode so that it picks up only the sound coming from your telephone speaker, eliminating background noise. All telephones are compatible with this option, by law. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, this could be a good option for you.

T coils are also useful in theaters, auditoriums, and lecture halls– all of which are normally outfitted with a “loop” system. With the loop system, any sound that is amplified in the house’s public address system is also sent to the loop and can then be picked up by your hearing aids’ T coils. Again, any sound that is not part of the presentation will not be amplified by your hearing aids while in this mode.

Some hearing aids also have a switch for a hybrid mode, where the T coil sound is emphasized but other sounds are not completely removed.

Whatever options you choose, you can be sure that the wide range of hearing aids available today will include the features that make sense for you and your life.