Hearing aid technology

Innovative solutions for your hearing

Ongoing innovations in hearing aid technology have led to impressive cutting-edge devices that would look at home in a 1980s sci-fi movie depicting life in 2030. Hearing aids dramatically improved when digital signal processing became mainstream in the late 1990s.

Today, even the most basic digital hearing aids offer far greater benefits than the clunky models of yesteryear. For starters, contemporary hearing aids are digital and far slimmer than the banana-shaped hearing aids your grandparents may have worn. In fact, some wireless hearing aids are so small, they’re nearly invisible. Moreover, advances such as adaptive directional microphones and binaural processing have improved speech recognition, hearing in challenging listening settings, and sound localization.

Basic vs. Advanced technology

Basic digital hearing aids require users to make some manual adjustments in specific settings (e.g. adjusting the volume control or pushing a button to reduce background noise). However, even lower-end models can have a customized frequency response, which relates to amplifying low-, mid- and high-frequency sounds.

In contrast, more sophisticated devices deliver an array of state-of-the-art features, including tiny computer chips that enable customizing sounds to your specific type of hearing loss, smartphone compatibility and apps, and even tinnitus-masking features. 

Did you know?
Digital noise reduction increase your understanding of speech, and improve the listening experience

If you’re using hearing aids with older technology or your hearing loss has gotten worse, this can cause unnecessary frustration. Learning about the latest hearing aid technology can help you make an informed decision when you visit a licensed hearing care professional, whether you’re a first time buyer or you’ve decided to upgrade your 20th century hearing aids. Here are some of the high-tech features to consider when you’re in the market for new hearing aids.

What are adaptive directional microphones (DMs)?

Adaptive DMs, available in single and multichannel versions, help users hear sounds from a specified targeted direction, while filtering out noises from other directions. Although they aren’t typically designed to improve localization, DMs can enhance the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), potentially increasing recognition of desired sounds. SNR is a measure that compares the desired sound signal level to the background noise level.

What is binaural processing?

Binaural processing allows bilateral hearing aids (in both ears) to communicate wirelessly with each other. This provides the potential to coordinate functions for both hearing aids, including volume control, programs, noise reduction, DM modes, and compression settings. Dynamic compression between both devices can better preserve necessary spatial cues to help you hear in noisy settings (e.g. hear someone speaking when there’s background noise). A binaural system also enables localization, which helps you determine where sounds come from.

  • A 2019 study on older adults with age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) impacting both ears, concluded that individuals with accurate fittings and bilateral hearing aids were more satisfied than individuals with unilateral hearing aids. Another insightful finding was that a higher maximum speech recognition rate before the hearing aid fitting resulted in greater hearing aid efficiency and user satisfaction.

What is a telecoil?

Many hearing aids and cochlear implants are equipped with a coil of wire (telecoil) that operates as a miniature wireless receiver. A telecoil works by receiving an electromagnetic signal from the hearing loop and then converting it back into sound, thereby eliminating distracting background noise. It can also be customized to match a person’s hearing loss pattern. Telecoils are often used with other assistive listening devices (ALDs), including induction loop systems, FM systems, and personal amplifiers. Currently, these are featured in European models much more frequently than they are in the United States.

What are the benefits of frequency modulation (FM)

An FM system is a wireless ALD that helps people hear better in settings with background noise or in locations where sound originates from a distance (e.g. auditorium). The unit consists of a small transmitter microphone worn by the person speaking and a radio-frequency receiver. Several types of receivers are available, with the most common one a neckloop worn by the hearing aid user. The receiver can also be attached directly to some hearing aids and implants with an adaptor. FM systems are especially beneficial in restaurants, churches, meetings, and classrooms. In the United States, FM systems are mostly seen in educational settings since their high price makes ownership prohibitive at the individual level. 

How do noise reduction features work?

The goal of noise reduction (NR) is to reduce hearing aid gain for background noises, while preserving gain for speech. Several types of NR features are available.

Impulse Noise Reduction (INR): Impulse noises occur suddenly and unexpectedly. Although they’re brief in duration, the noise is loud in intensity, especially in an amplified ear. This type of NR detects impulsive noise as soon as it occurs, then rapidly compresses it so sounds are comfortable and tolerable.

Wind Noise Reduction: When you’re wearing hearing aids, the sound of wind can be overwhelming and extremely distracting. This feature detects and defines uncorrelated noise as wind between directional microphones, changes the polarity, and then suppresses the sound.

Hearing aids with adaptive features such as digital noise reduction enhance the SNR, increase your understanding of speech, and improve the listening experience. An increase in SNR means the hearing aid effectively reduced distracting noise. A 2018 Chinese study revealed the following insights on NR features.

  • Overall, the utilized NR function resulted in increased tolerance of noise, with more aggressive NR settings resulting in higher tolerance. While increased NR resulted in improved noise tolerance and sound quality, the highest NR setting (20) had poorer outcomes and satisfaction than the level below it. Researchers concluded that improved noise tolerance doesn’t ensure better speech recognition. This finding correlates with a 2015 study that suggested a tradeoff between listening comfort and speech intelligibility. In that study, a small number of participants preferred hearing aids without NR because they reported sentences sounded louder and were easier to follow.

How do hearing aids mask tinnitus?

All newer hearing aids offer supplemental sound masking functionality (white noise or other artificial ambient sound played directly into the ear). They also can mask the sounds of tinnitus by augmenting the volume of external noise. This helps the brain focus on outside ambient noises, thereby making it more difficult to focus on distressing tinnitus sounds. Individuals who have hearing loss in the same frequency range as their tinnitus benefit the most from this technology.

The intriguing origin of rechargeable hearing aid

Believe it or not, the origins of silver-zinc technology, the latest innovation in rechargeable hearing aid batteries, harkens back to 1800, although usable batteries weren’t available until World War II. That’s when the U.S. military started using silver-zinc non-rechargeable batteries to power submarines, torpedoes, missile propulsion systems, and other devices. Around the same time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was using the same type of batteries to launch systems. By the 1960s–70s, NASA was conducting experiments to extend the life of these batteries, a precursor to making them rechargeable. Despite progress, the advent of nickel-cadmium and lithium-ion rechargeable batteries put silver-zinc battery technology on a backburner for many years.

In 1996, the company ZPower was founded for the sole purpose of bringing rechargeable silver-zinc batteries to the consumer market. In late 2013, the company released its first major rechargeable batteries and they were soon available for select hearing aids. ZPower batteries can operate a wireless streaming hearing device for a full day, recharge in a matter of hours, last at least one year, and be used interchangeably with zinc-air batteries. Unlike an estimated 1.6 billion other hearing aid batteries that end up in landfills every year, silver-zinc batteries are fully recyclable and a green source of energy. The two other rechargeable batteries currently available for hearing aids are nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion. The only downside is that not all style hearing aid styles work with rechargeable batteries.

Transforming the hearing aid landscape: bluetooth streaming

With 2.71 billion smartphones worldwide and an estimated 4 billion new Bluetooth devices shipped in 2019 alone, it’s not surprising hearing aid models featuring Bluetooth connectivity have become extremely common. In most cases, the Bluetooth connection is wireless, however, small in-the-ear devices require the use of a streamer worn around your neck or placed in your pocket for hand-free use.

Although newer hearing aid technology is typically highly effective, it’s common for a whistling sound to accompany sound processed from mobile phones. Bluetooth hearing aids solve this problem because they wirelessly receive the signal directly from a device (e.g. a mobile phone) for processing and deliver it directly to the hearing aid, thereby bypassing ambient audio signals in the room. Bluetooth technology also allows the small components inside the hearing aids to digitally communicate with each other, creating a more coordinated and clearer auditory experience. 

Connected hearing aids & Next Gen.

Smartphone connectyvity & Apps

Smartphone-connected hearing aids can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth to smartphone technologies. This technology enables users to conveniently personalize and adjust their hearing aid programs (e.g. gain, frequency response) in any listening situation via a smartphone app. Made-for-smartphone hearing aids are prescribed for an individual’s specific hearing loss and programmed by a licensed hearing care professional.

  • A 2018 study compared user satisfaction between conventional hearing aids, made-for-smartphone hearing aids, personal sound amplification products, smartphone app with wireless earphones, and smartphone app with wired earphones. The made-for-smartphone hearing aids scored the highest for overall satisfaction (e.g. far better than conventional hearing aids), while the smartphone hearing aid app used with wireless earphones scored the lowest. The only type of device that scored above average for usability was the made-for-smartphone hearing aid.
  • Made for iPhone hearing aids are based on a Bluetooth technology designed by Apple. Among other benefits, these hearing aids allow users to control audio levels from their iPhones, so it’s easier to have conversations in loud places like restaurants.
  • Connecting your hearing aids to a smartphone app also allows you to digitally track their location, similar to the commonly used ‘Find Your Phone’ functionality. With hearing aids being small and easily misplaced, the ability track their location has become exceedingly popular.

Although hearing aid manufacturers develop and offer apps specific to their devices, other companies also offer apps. A recent search on Google Play uncovered 248 diverse hearing-related apps made for androids. From connecting your hearing aids to smartphones to tinnitus relief, if you’re looking for an app related to hearing loss, one likely already exists or will soon.

Artificial Intellingence: Next Generation

Artificial intelligence (AI) is currently being developed by one hearing aid manufacturer, resulting in incredibly amazing benefits and a personalized listening experience. AI provides the ability to:

  • Control volume and stream the signal to one or both ears
  • Connect to multiple devices and switch listening from your TV, phone, and computer with ease
  • Control device remotely, an especially helpful feature for older adults who struggle with adjusting controls on small hearing aids
  • Automatically adjust functionality to your environment, such as filtering out distracting background noise so you can focus on conversation
  • Understand foreign languages through real-time, in-ear language translation
  • Accurately detect when you fall by matching data from both ears and sending an alert to up to three pre-programmed personal contact names

If you’re intrigued by the hearing aid technology advances discussed in this article or you’re struggling with old hearing aids, consider upgrading. Schedule an appointment with a licensed hearing care professional to see firsthand how these great features work and learn more about the best options for your hearing loss.

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