Recent advances in wireless technology now allow some hearing aid models to work seamlessly with your personal audio devices. Thanks to Bluetooth technology, your television, phone, and music player can now wirelessly transmit music and audio directly to your hearing aids.
If you’ve ever worried that hearing aids my make it a bit more difficult to have a phone conversation or to enjoy your favorite TV shows and music, then Bluetooth-capable hearing aids may be the right choice for you.
Bluetooth is a wireless communication system that uses high-frequency radio waves to transfer data between two or more devices without interference or security risks. Once devices are “paired” they can communicate and stream high-quality movies, music, and other data to each other over short distances (Bluetooth typically has a range of 10 to 30 feet). Bluetooth differs from Wi-Fi, which is used to send much larger amounts of data over much longer distances.
Bluetooth has long been used to stream content between phones, computers, mobile tablets, and televisions. Until 2004, however, Bluetooth hearing aids weren’t possible as Bluetooth would drain battery life too quickly to be of use. Adding to the challenges of creating Bluetooth hearing aids was the fact people often use two hearing aids. The two hearing aids would need to communicate with each other as well as the paired Bluetooth device, demanding even more energy from the hearing aid batteries.
However, 2004 saw the development of Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE. BLE can stream undelayed audio with much lower power requirements than previous Bluetooth technology, and it was quickly adopted for heart rate monitors, hearing aids, and other medical assistive equipment that required regular communication with other devices. BLE also solved the problem of pairing two hearing aids with the same device.
When connected to another Bluetooth audio device, your hearing aids become wireless headphones. You can stream audio signals from music players, televisions, and phones directly to your hearing aid, and easily switch from one device to another. Doing so allows you to hear music, listen to television, and talk on the phone directly from your hearing aids.
If you wear two Bluetooth hearing aids, you can choose to have the streamed signal delivered to one hearing aid, keeping the other aid free to pick up other sounds. This allows you to listen to music without sacrificing awareness of surrounding sounds such as people talking, approaching vehicles, or other noise. Streaming audio to one hearing aid while the other is free also allows you to talk while watching television, and because you’re listening to the television through your hearing aid, other viewers can set the television volume to a level that’s comfortable for them.
It’s possible to connect Bluetooth hearing aids to more than one device. For instance, you could listen to music from an iPod while remaining connected to your phone. If the phone rings, the hearing aid can pause music and switch to the incoming call.
Bluetooth hearing aids can also make it easier to change hearing aid settings using the paired device. For instance, you can use your phone to change the volume or control other hearing aid settings, rather than having to manually adjust the controls on the hearing aid itself. This is really helpful if you're using an in-the-ear-canal hearing aid that’s too small to contain external controls.
Because audio signals are sent directly to your hearing aid, sound quality through Bluetooth hearing aids is excellent, reducing background noise and enhancing your listening experience.
You can use Bluetooth hearing aids with two types of equipment: Apple products and devices called streamers.
Apple has patented its Bluetooth connectivity technology for use with hearing aids. If your hearing aid is marketed as “made for iPhone,” it can communicate directly with an iPhone, iPad, or iPod. Apple has a list of current hearing aids that are compatible with iOS.
If your hearing aid isn’t “made for iPhone,” or if you don’t own any Apple products, don't worry -- you can still link non-Apple Bluetooth devices through a compatible assistive listening device, more commonly called a streamer. Streamers act as middlemen between Bluetooth hearing aids and Bluetooth-enabled devices. The streamer pairs with your hearing aid, then with the audio device you want to listen to. The streamer intercepts the FM signal from the audio device and redirects it to the hearing aid.
Streamers are generally small and designed to be kept in a pocket or worn around the neck. They’re a little more complicated than linking a “made for iPhone” hearing aid directly to an Apple device, but they are quite helpful for use with Android phones and televisions.
As with any type of hearing aid, the pros and cons of Bluetooth hearing devices must be considered. Bluetooth hearing aids are not difficult to use, but they do require a little technical know-how. If you’re not comfortable with technology, or if you just prefer to keep your hearing devices simple, Bluetooth hearing aids may not be the right choice for you.
Pairing Bluetooth headphones with audio devices and streamers will drain your hearing aid batteries faster, especially if you stream music or podcasts frequently. This means you’ll need to replace or recharge batteries more often, which can be an inconvenience.
Basic hearing aids, at present, do not include Bluetooth capabilities, so if you want Bluetooth hearing aids, you’ll need to look at more expensive models. Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids in the middle to premium price range are not significantly more expensive than similarly priced, non-Bluetooth hearing aids.
If you enjoy music, find background noise during phone calls distracting, and are reasonably tech-savvy (or have a family member who is), a set of Bluetooth hearing aids may be right for you. They’re certainly worth discussing with your hearing healthcare provider to see if they fit your lifestyle.
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