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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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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