Hearing Aid Technology


Some new hearing aid features can be confusing because of the specialized terminology used to describe them. Different options include: wireless, blue tooth, programmability, multiple frequency bands, multiple listening programs, digital signal processing, and remote controls. These are available in most styles of hearing aids, including the tiny “Completely in the Canal” aids, and the powerful “Behind the Ear” aids. Just what are these features?

Bluetooth is today’s cutting edge technology
Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids and streamers have greatly elevated the hearing aid users experience. It’s an example of using today’s wireless hearing aid technology in a smart way that truly provides convenience for the individual with hearing loss.

Bluetooth technlolgy in Hearing Aids

Older Hearing aids often limited the use of many personal audio devices such as mobile phones and music players. For instance, in order to use a music player while jogging, the hearing aid user had to remove his hearing aids to accommodate a pair of earbuds. However, today’s wireless hearing aids make it possible for the hearing impaired individual to connect with personal electronic devices and stream signals directly to the hearing aid through the use of Bluetooth.

What is Bluetooth?

Developed through collaboration of leading technology firms, Bluetooth is a wireless communication platform that allows for the transfer of data between two or more electronic devices. The technology uses radio waves set to a high frequency to transmit data without interference or security risks. A wide variety of products incorporating Bluetooth connectivity have been developed, including mobile phones, music players, computers, tablets and televisions.
Are there Bluetooth hearing aids?
Manufacturers of wireless hearing aids long ago created a clever solution for accessing this prevalent wireless standard. Wireless hearing aids can use compatible assistive listening devices, often called streamers, to provide a communication link between the wireless technology in the hearing aids and any Bluetooth-enabled device. More recently, Apple has patented a specific Bluetooth connectivity with hearing aids so that certain hearing aids can communicate directly with the iOS platform that runs iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices. This technology is designed to allow the devices direct connection without extreme stress on the battery power. Several hearing aid manufacturers have released hearing aids that implement this Bluetooth technology, marketed as Made for iPhone™.

How does Bluetooth work with wireless hearing aids?

During the initial consultation about hearing aids with a hearing care provider, patients should discuss their needs for wireless connectivity. If there is a desire to connect with a mobile phone, tablet, computer, music player or other Bluetooth-enabled device, the hearing care provider will recommend a set of wireless hearing aids and if appropriate, a compatible streamer. The wireless hearing aids can either be paired directly to an Apple device (if labeled as Made for iPhone™) or be paired with the streamer, and then the streamer can be paired with external devices. When it’s all set up, the streamer will pick up the Bluetooth signal from your phone, for example, and send it to your hearing aid via an FM signal or electromagnetic field, depending on the manufacturer’s design. Usually the streamer is worn around the neck or placed in a pocket for hands-free operation.

What are the benefits of streaming via Bluetooth?

Although you often must carry an additional device in order to access your mobile phone or music player, a streamer provides many opportunities that were previously unavailable to a hearing aid user.

Personalized listening experience

The audio signal can usually be set to stream to one or both hearing aids and the streamed signal can be amplified and shaped to match the hearing aid’s personalized settings. The volume of the stream may be controlled by the streamer or the hearing aids, depending on the manufacturer’s design. In the case of a music player, the hearing aids can become a set of wireless ear buds. For a phone, it may be desirous to stream the signal to just one hearing aid so as to keep the other one accessing the other sounds in the room. This hands-free solution sure beats trying to position the mobile phone receiver close to the hearing aid microphone!

Blue Tooth Remote control of your hearing aids

Commonly, there are also capabilities for remotely changing the volume or program from the streamer. This is especially useful if your hearing aids are too small to accommodate external controls. Last but not least, Bluetooth is an electronics industry standard protocol. It’s not unique to a particular hearing aid or hearing aid manufacturer, so there is uniformity in the way that it works across all devices. The platform has been tested and refined already, as it’s been in use for many years in the mobile phone industry. As stated above, the Bluetooth connection is secure and there’s no interference.

Programmability

Programmability refers to the ability of your audiologist to change the parameters of your hearing aid in the office without sending it back to the factory. Some programmability has been available for a long time using potentiometers (variable resistors) built into the hearing aids. These resistors can be adjusted by screwdriver, however the number of parameters that can be adjusted is limited by the number of potentiometers that can be put in a reasonably sized hearing aid.

The programmable hearing aids getting most of the attention now are programmed by computer in your audiologist’s office. This allows many parameters to be changed, even in tiny hearing aids like the Completely in the Canal aids. Also it allows the audiologist to let you try several listening programs, and to be able to go back to the program you like best, even a long time after the first adjustment was made. These aids also allow your audiologist to adjust the sound of your hearing aid as your hearing preferences change over time.

These hearing aids are sometimes called “Digital” because they are programmed by digital computer. They are just analog hearing aids inside, however.

Multiple Frequency Bands

Some hearing aids have multiple frequency (pitch) bands, with different parameters for each band. For example, your ear might find loud mid-frequency sounds more objectionable than loud high-frequency or low frequency sounds, and a three frequency band programmable aid could be adjusted to accommodate this by having different gain settings in the different bands. Each band could have its own amplification, compression limiting, or dynamic range settings. The audiologist can adjust the position (edge frequencies) of each band as well as the other characteristics of some of these aids.

A simple version of this could be an aid with two bands, one high frequency and one low frequency. The aid might have automatic volume controls set to cut the amplification in the high frequency band in the presence of loud noise without changing the amplification of the low frequency band. This would be good for many noisy situations. The industry name for this kind of circuit is “K amp” and it is available in many different brands of hearing aids.

Multiple listening programs

Some hearing aids have more than one group of settings. A simple one-program hearing aid can be set for the listening situation that bothers you the most, or perhaps the one where you spend most of your time, such as near a noisy air conditioner in your office.

Multiple-program hearing aids can be switched between programs whenever you like. For example, you might have one program for quiet conversation or music, and another for noisy situations where communication is difficult. Some hearing aids have many different programs. More programs are not necessarily better however, because switching between them and keeping track of which program you are using can be a bother. You switch between programs by pushing a button on the hearing aid or by using a remote control.

Remote Controls

Yes, even hearing aids can have remote controls, just like your television set. The remote controls typically are about the shape of a credit card and as thick as a pencil and operate by infrared light or radio signals. The radio control units can stay in your pocket or purse while you operate them.

These remote controls typically control loudness, and listening program (such as “for noise” or “for music”). Some even have tone controls and telephone switches in them. One brand has a zoom feature that can focus the listening field to the front when you want. Most can adjust both hearing aids at the same time.

Digital Signal Processing

True “digital” hearing aids have just entered the market in the last few years (and are described in more detail on another page of this web site). The word “digital” has been used with hearing aid marketing for some time, but in the past it referred to the ability to program the aid “digitally”, not that the aid used digital signal processing. Now, some new hearing aids do use digital signal processing to improve the signal to noise ratio and to process the sound signals. The real breakthrough was in being able to manufacture dsp chips that are able to operate on tiny hearing aid batteries for a reasonable amount of time.
Wireless

Recent hearing aids include wireless hearing aids. One hearing aid can transmit to the other side so that pressing one aids program button simultaneously changes the other aid and both aids change background settings simultaneously. FM listening systems are now emerging with wireless receivers integrated with the use of hearing aids. A separate wireless microphone can be given to a partner to wear in a restaurant, in the car, during leasure time, in the shopping mall, at lectures, or during religious services. The voice is transmitted wirelessly to the hearing aids eliminating the effects of distance and background noise. FM systems have shown to give the best speech understanding in noise of all available technologies. FM systems can also be hooked up to a TV or a stereo.

Recargable

Phonak’s Audeo B-R, powered by the new Belong Platform, is the newest solution for rechargeable hearing aid batteries. Using a lithium-ion battery, Audeo B-R gives wearers unfettered 24-hour listening on a single overnight charge. For those on the run, a 30-minute charge will last 6 hours. Audeo B-R is equipped with Phonak’s best features, while addressing the consumer call for a fast and reliable rechargeable battery solution.

Binax

The next generation of BestSound® Technology, simulates the effects of binaural hearing and brings these advantages back to the wearer. It is the world’s first hearing aid technology clinically proven to outperform normal hearing in challenging environments. Automatic features deliver exceptional directivity for improved speech recognition, while preserving spatial awareness. Despite all of these advanced features, binax technology has minimal impact on power consumption.

The Future

These features are available in hearing aids now. The first nearly invisible “Completely in the Canal” aids appeared just a couple of years ago, and now nearly all manufacturers offer them. Two manufacturers introduced digital signal processing to hearing aids about 3 years ago. Now many more brands offer true dsp hearing aids. You can expect hearing aids to continue to get smaller, to have more features, and to provide better hearing. Hearing aids are really better now than they were just a few years ago.

Cochlear implants, which are a form of hearing aid, are gaining wider acceptance in spite of their cost and long training requirements. A Cochlear implant is a bundle of tiny wires that is inserted surgically into the inner ear. The electrodes are connected to a processor by a transformer-like connector and magnet implanted behind the ear. The signal processor (usually mounted on the patient’s belt and connected to the ear by a wire) drives the electrodes using sounds picked up by a microphone near the ear. With training, people who have lost their hearing after first having at least some hearing early in life, can learn to interpret the stimuli as sounds and some seem to be able to hear quite well. Two manufacturers have announced models that put a simplified processor in a BTE-like case over the ear, eliminating the need for signal processor on the patient’s belt.

Hearing aids are far from perfect, and people with hearing loss cannot expect to hear as well as people with good hearing, even with the best hearing aids made. You should always try to protect your hearing, because technology cannot fix lost hearing, not now, and probably not in the future either.