Hearing Aid Technology: Bluetooth & Beyond
Gone are the days of bulky, uncomfortable hearing aids that are only capable of amplifying surrounding noise. Modern technology and advances in design and function mean that hearing aids have vastly improved from past models. Electronics are now miniaturized to the point where designers can focus more on aesthetics and developing hearing aid solutions that are discreet, comfortable, user friendly, adaptable, and customizable.
Very discreet hearing aid models are available in a wide range of styles and colours to suit your personal tastes and degree of hearing loss. Modern hearing aids also boast increasingly sophisticated, innovative features designed to ensure your devices integrate seamlessly with your lifestyle. Below are some examples, however it is worth noting that not all of these features are available with all types of hearing aids (i.e., behind-the-ear vs in-the-ear styles) and that each hearing aid manufacturer develops their own software and brand-specific features. Your audiologist can review all the styles and options available that best meet your lifestyle and budget.
1. Digital signal processing
Modern hearing aids feature digital signal processors (DSPs) which are far more sophisticated than previous analogue technology. DSP hearing aids convert the sounds we hear into a numerically coded signal and, depending on how they are designed, process and refine the signal before turning it back into a sound. This processing and refining allows the hearing aids to be tuned (by your audiologist) to match your specific hearing loss and needs, for example so that they emphasize sounds of particular frequency, or block out unwanted noise in particular situations.
2. Increased Audio Channels
Advanced hearing aid technology incorporates more channels to boost signal resolution and improve your listening experience. People who use these advanced technologies often find it easier to distinguish sounds from one another, hear with more ease and comfort, and ultimately remain engaged with the people and situations they prefer.
All manufacturers offer various options in terms of number of channels available, the major difference between top end and budget hearing aids being the number of channels that the sound is divided into across the frequency range of the aids. The more channels hearing aids have, the more natural the sound quality will be to a patient, which can help improve speech recognition.
3. Binaural Hearing Aids
Modern hearing aids are now able to be fitted to both ears and connected to one another wirelessly. This design (referred to as binaural) mimics our ears’ natural hearing function, and allows each hearing aid to communicate with its pair and make adjustments accordingly. Importantly, critical information for processing speech can be shared between the two instruments and as a result, users benefit from more intuitive and responsive auditory technology that is closer to ‘normal’ hearing.
4. Noise Reduction
Excessive noise can be a problem for hearing aid users, with unwanted sounds sometimes overwhelming your attention and make it more difficult for you to focus on relevant details. Thankfully, many modern hearing aids feature digital noise reduction settings that filter out or control harsh background or impulse noise.
Digital technology allows devices to analyse incoming signals and select more desirable sounds, such as voices and music. These get processed and amplified, while unwanted sounds get tamped down, increasing your listening comfort. There are even hearing aids that reduce the ‘whooshing’ noise of wind blowing across the hearing aid microphone(s), designed to improve listening comfort for people who spend time outdoors, i.e., golfers, boaters, walkers, etc.
5. Dynamic Feedback Cancellation
Designed to improve comfort from annoying whistling, dynamic feedback cancellation technology continually analyses incoming signals and adjusts seamlessly and instantaneously to minimize or eliminate feedback (whistling) that can sometimes occur. Basic feedback systems may reduce the amplification in order to get rid of whistling. Advanced systems, on the other hand, reduce or eliminate the feedback electronically, with no or little effect on the overall hearing aid amplification.
6. Adaptive Microphones
Generally, hearing aids use directional and/or omnidirectional microphones. Directional microphones pick up sound from whatever direction they’re pointing toward, which helps amplify specific sounds rather than general ones but also makes these microphones more susceptible to feedback or sudden disruption from wind or handling. Omnidirectional microphones are less sensitive, picking up noise from all around. While this means there’s less chance of disruption, it can also make it difficult to focus on one sound over another. Fortunately, modern hearing aids can switch between directional and omnidirectional microphones automatically, which makes them more adaptable to your unique sound environment. If you want to have a conversation in a crowded restaurant, the adaptive microphones can automatically adjust so you can hear the speech closest to you. You don’t even need to be facing the person you’re talking to; the adaptable microphones allow you to hear the person if they are behind you, or if you’re undertaking another task while talking to them. Super Directionality, which is the most complex level of directionality, can offer the best hearing in noise in certain situations like at cocktail parties. It provides maximum pickup in a narrow beam in front of you, while offering maximum suppression behind you.
7. Bluetooth Integration with Smartphones
Bluetooth compatibility allows hearing aids to connect to your smartphone or other compatible digital device via a Bluetooth receiver. Then, through an easy to use app on your smartphone, you can adjust everything from the volume settings for each individual ear, to microphone directionality and specific sound settings to suit different environments and based on your preferences.
8. ‘Smart’ Processing & Data Logging
Advancements in hearing aid technology have changed the way hearing aids adapt to their surroundings. Instead of treating every environment the same, modern devices sample the incoming sound to identify your unique surroundings, make a decision about what you may need in the given context, and then adjust noise control and volume levels accordingly, automatically. You don’t have to make manual adjustments, which allows for a more comfortable, intuitive experience with your hearing aids.
More advanced technology also utilizes data logging, which can help your audiologist determine what sound environments you are regularly in and what changes or adjustments might be beneficial so that your performance and benefit can be maximized. Your audiologist can also create a set of different customised programs for specific listening environments, tailored to your lifestyle and needs.
9. Increased Durability
Many hearing aids now stand up to harsh environmental factors, which ensures fewer repairs, better performance, and in some cases, longer life. Water and dirt resistant models also reduce the risk of damage so you can go longer without needing repairs.
10. Rechargeable & Longer Life Batteries
Recent advances in hearing aid battery technology have been revolutionary for the industry. Phonak, Unitron and Widex have all released hearing aids with rechargeable batteries, allowing users to enjoy better hearing without the everyday hassles. The Phonak Lyric hearing aid, which is the first 100% invisible extended wear hearing aid, has exclusive battery technology and moisture protection so it performs 24/7, for months at a time through daily activities like showering, exercising and sleeping.
Latest Hearing Aid Products
Oticon has recently released their most advanced hearing technology, the Oticon Opn. Oticon Opn is a new kind of hearing aid, different from traditional hearing aids that isolate one speaker and suppress all others. The OpenSound NavigatorTM technology in Oticon Opn opens up a full soundscape, allowing you to listen to multiple speakers in noisy environments, focus on what’s important to you, and switch attention if you want to. Oticon Opn improves your ability to understand speech even in challenging environments by scanning the full 360° sound environment more than 100 times per second, removing noise and balancing sounds so you can focus, switch attention and distinguish speech from noise. This means your brain can make sense of sound with less effort. Also available in Opn miniRITE, a popular small behind-the-ear style featuring a smart, single-push button for easy and intuitive operation of volume and programs.
The world’s first internet-connected hearing aid, Oticon Opn connects wirelessly to your smartphone, radio, TV and laptop, streaming audio directly to your hearing aids. And, for the first time ever, you can connect your hearing aids to the internet via the If This Then That network. You can link your hearing aids to a range of IFTTT-enabled devices used in everyday life, including door bells, domestic lighting systems and home appliances.
Phonak Audeo-B & Virto-B
Phonak’s next generation hearing aid product platform ‘Belong’ includes pioneering lithium-ion rechargeable battery technology providing 24 hours* of hearing. Specially designed to empower people with hearing loss to keep up with their lifestyles, the Belong range includes the new Audéo B Receiver-in-Canal (RIC) products and the first of its kind lithium-ion rechargeable hearing aid, Audéo B-R, which represents the quickest charging, longest lasting rechargeable hearing aid ever produced. More recently, Phonak have introduced a device called the Audeo B-Direct, a revolutionary hearing aid that connects to any Bluetooth enabled mobile phone and offers true hands-free calling, providing direct connectivity to mobile phones with no extra body-worn streaming device required.
Also available on the Belong platform is the Virto B, the world’s first hearing aid with Biometric Calibration that takes your individual ear anatomy and hearing needs into account. When worn, the Phonak Virto B hearing aids will identify over 1600 biometric data points in and on your ear, customizing sound performance exactly for you, thereby giving you access to a better hearing performance with better noise reduction and directional hearing.
Phonak have also further enhanced their cutting edge AutoSense OS (designed to accurately capture and analyze the sound environment, then precisely blend feature elements from multiple programs in real time to provide a seamless listening experience), adding an innovative pre-calculation, and extending features including the adaptive SoundRecover2 and a new way to treat expansion for better soft speech intelligibility. In addition, symmetrical gain settings for asymmetrical hearing loss provides more comfort for first-time users.
*Expected results when fully charged, and up to 80 minutes wireless streaming time.
What Level of Hearing Aid Technology Do You Need?
Hearing aid technology is progressing at a rapid rate and new hearing aid products and platforms are being released year after year. Already this year GN Resound have introduced their latest Made For iPhone hearing aid range, the LiNX 3D, Siemens/Signia introduced a brand new Made For iPhone hearing aid, Phonak have introduced three new product ranges, Unitron has introduced a whole new platform, Oticon has expanded their Opn range and Siemens/Signia have introduced a new instant fit CIC (completely-in-canal) device on an existing platform.
So what hearing aid product should you choose?
Manufacturers often rate their hearing aid products at different levels, with the products deemed ‘lower level’, or ‘basic’ having less features compared to the ‘higher level’, or ‘premium’ models. Models with basic technology usually require the user to make some manual adjustment of settings. In addition, these models are more likely to have fewer processing channels, meaning that they lack the fine-tuning possible with more advanced models. Premium hearing aids incorporate more advanced technology and generally have more channels, offer a higher resolution of signal processing, and boast other features including automatic and customisable settings and features.
Hearing aid manufacturers create their own range of hearing aid products, which vary greatly in terms of technology, features, and benefits. For example, Oticon uses BrainHearing to create the best possible sound with the help of your brain (a technology that will only be found in Oticon hearing aids), and Phonak provides a Speech in Car feature, which amplifies the sound of voices for easier hearing during car rides.
Choosing a model that suits your specific requirements depends on your lifestyle, budget, as well as the listening environments you usually find yourself in. Do you tend to spend time at home, meaning you won’t be exposed to frequent noisy environments? Then a more basic model might be for you. If you spend more time socialising and often find yourself in noisy environments such as cafes and shopping centres, then a premium hearing aid with more features will likely suit you better.