Hearing aids have improved over the last decade but they still do not give the user normal hearing. Most hearing aid users need to use strategies to hear their best. Some strategies involve the help from others – like asking family and friends to face them, move closer, use Clear Speech or reducing background noise such as from radio or TV. Other strategies involve optimizing hearing aid features such as switching between hearing aid programs, and keeping most of the background noise rearward of the hearing aids (that way the forward facing directional microphones can do their job), or by directing young children to use their “big” girl/boy voices or by asking that the captions be used when watching TV with friends and family.
Most hearing aid users are also told by their provider that their hearing aids have a limited range. But not all are told how limited of a range and that this not dependent on the sound processing capabilities (level of technology) found in the hearing aid but primarily due to the microphone limitation.
How many proud grand/parents have made video recordings of their grand/children in a school play, only to be disappointed with the sound when they play back the video? The reason for this is that the person making the recording is hearing the live program with his own two ears and brain. Anyone with normal hearing automatically compensates for distance, background noise and reverberation and is are able to separate the sounds he wants to hear over those he does not. The microphone on the video recorder cannot do this. It picks up what is loudest (the crying baby 6 rows away) what is closest (the person sitting beside you coughing or rustling the program paper or the shuffling of feet from late comers to the show) but doesn’t know what is wanted (i.e. the child actor) vs. the unwanted (all the other background) noises.
Users of hearing aids struggle with this same microphone issue. They hear the world through microphones and just like the mics on video or smartphone equipment, these mics are limited in their capabilities. Hearing aid experts and experienced hearing aid users agree that the most effective range is only 3-6 feet. This doesn’t mean that hearing aid microphones cannot pick up sound that is over 6 feet away, but they are unable to separate the wanted from the unwanted sounds.
Yet, hearing aid users want and need to hear. Especially in places that are critical to quality of life: Hearing the wedding vows in an old stone church, words spoken during a lecture at a place of employment, while attending a play at a local theater, at a City Council meeting, asking for directions in a New York subway or understanding the announcements at an airport gate.
Hearing aid users deserve to be informed that in order to overcome difficult listening situations in public places, and the telecoil, found in a high percentage of hearing aids, in combination with a hearing loop, is one of the easiest to use work-arounds to the microphone limitation issue. It is estimated that at least 2 out of every 3 hearing aids sold today comes equipped with a built in T-coil or telecoil, or the telecoil is found in a wireless accessory that can be purchased separately. While other works-arounds for individual use, such as wireless BT microphones, and FM and IR devices deserve mention, none offer the easy, directly-hearing-aid-compatible listening solution for hearing in a public venue, that loops offer.
How does the hearing loop work? A hearing loop creates ripples in the local magnetic field that fluctuate with the sound from a source – this source can be a microphone on a podium, the mic used by an airport gate attendant or a TV. The telecoil can pick up these minor magnetic field changes and translate them back into sound inside the hearing aid. Just like a microphone picks up ripples of the sound waves the telecoil picks up these tiny ripples in the magnetic field.
The benefits of a hearing loop were recently described in a survey published in Hearing Review. In it 866 people were asked to rate the performance of their hearing aids or cochlear implants using a 10-point scale. The average response was 4.9 in a non-looped setting and 8.7 in a looped environment.
How can a hearing loop deliver such a dramatic improvement? Simple. By overcoming the limitations of the hearing aid’s microphone. In a loop the microphone used on the stage becomes the microphone to the hearing aid. The listener gets a direct wireless feed from the sound system with little or no background noise. The result is that the user has access to the cleanest and purest sound possible. And the budding child actor on stage? He’ll be heard ‘in the loop’ with greater clarity than the normal hearing audience is able to hear ‘out of the loop.’
Read my next blog: Four Ways Your Audiologist Can Help You Hear in the Hearing Loop