Hearing aids have made some great technological advancements in the past few decades. Today there is a wide variety of premium hearing devices utilizing these new technologies for the convenience and betterment of those afflicted by hearing loss. While this is certainly beneficial for the vast majority of hearing aid users, picking from the wide array of choices and deciding which features (such as Bluetooth capability, rechargeability, smartphone connectivity) would be beneficial for them can be a daunting decision. When selecting the best hearing aid that is right for you, it is important to consider the specific needs of your lifestyle, as well as your budget and what type of hearing loss affects you. The following should be considered a basic introduction to the various advances in hearing aid technology available today.
How Hearing Aids Work
The basic elements of a hearing aid device are the microphone, processor, receiver, and power source. Sound is picked up by the microphone and passed on to the processor which amplifies the signal and sends it to the receiver. The boosted signal is then sent from the receiver to the ear canal and the whole system is driven by the battery, or power source. Typically the level of complexity of the processor is what differentiates advanced hearing aid technology from being basic. A more premium hearing aid can be expected to have state of the art sound processing along with greater frequency response characteristics.
Some of today’s popular advanced features are featured in digital hearing aids that come with rechargeable batteries, tinnitus masking features, and smartphone apps. Hearing aid apps on smartphones can allow you to do things like directly adjust your hearing aids, check the battery life, and save personalized program settings - all from your phone. But maybe you don’t need all those extras. In that case, an analog type device might be a good choice. Analog aids work by continuously amplifying sound waves whereas digital aids convert those sound waves into digital signals to then be processed and replicated. This creates an even richer and clearer sound. Analog hearing aids are an adequate basic option for many, especially if price is a limiting factor in your decision making. Digital hearing aids offer an extra level of precision and advancement for those that want their hearing aid to be fine-tuned to suit their specific level of hearing loss. They are also typically more power efficient - resulting in better battery life.
Bluetooth compatibility is another feature that distinguishes top-notch hearing aid devices from the more basic models. Bluetooth allows you to connect your hearing aids directly to your mobile devices, tablets, and other electronic devices that have Bluetooth support. This means you can directly stream music, phone calls, and audio from any show or video you watch on an electronic device to your hearing aids. Besides convenience, this feature also helps the signal-to-noise ratio (the measure of the desired signal level compared to the background noise) by eliminating microphone feedback since the signal is able to enter the processor directly and completely bypass the microphone.
One of the most technologically advanced, and continuously evolving, features is artificial intelligence (AI) in hearing aids. Essentially, a deep neural network (DNN) works to simulate the brain’s neural habits and mimic how your brain would normally process sounds and speech. Hearing aids that utilize AI lessen the burden of “listening effort” in that users do not need to spend as much time attempting to consciously make sense of the noise around them. Instead, the DNN does it for them through its digital circuitry. It does this by analyzing sound elements from the input and recognizing what’s going on, ultimately producing a clean and balanced output uniquely suited for the user’s specific type of hearing impairment. AI is still a relatively new and developing technology in hearing aids, but it looks to be a very helpful feature as costs and complexity come down in the future.
Ultimately, the answer to the question, “What is the best hearing aid technology available today” is simple. It is the one that best suits your needs and budget. Almost any quality hearing aid today will provide hearing improvement for the vast majority of people who suffer normal, age-related hearing loss in the mild-to-moderate range (which is most of us). So the question back to us should be: “what features would I prioritize from the options available to me - size, convenience, cost?” So start as realistically as possible - with a price range in mind. From there, choose the features that matter most to you. At a basic level, most will want digital, rechargeable technology for the convenience of not having to deal with (and pay for) tiny disposable hearing aid batteries. Next, choose a form-factor that makes sense for you. Glasses and facemask straps getting in the way behind your ears? Then look into In-the-Ear type devices. Smartphone connectivity via Bluetooth and customization apps important to you? Then look to Bluetooth capable devices. Keep building from there and keep educating yourself on what is available today and coming tomorrow in order to make the best decision for yourself.