Hearing aid technology - A beginner's guide

Think about the first time you went to an electronics store to buy a computer or a television. Remember the seemingly endless options, features, and functionality that the salesperson demonstrated to you? At the end of the day, you likely wondered which features were essential and which were simply unnecessary add-ons designed to sell a product.

Buying a hearing aid can be a lot like that experience, except now you are relying upon this device to make a real impact on your quality of life. It’s more important than ever to understand what you truly need in a hearing aid and what you don’t. Unfortunately, many hearing aid retailers make the process just as confusing as trying to buy that first computer or TV. Instead of explaining the basics of their products, they offer up confusing jargon and showcase hundreds of different models from dozens of major manufacturers.

To help, we’ve put together some tips to remember during your shopping process.

Learn the basics behind hearing aid technology.

As a consumer, one of the first steps you can take is to educate yourself about the basic components of hearing aid technology. It’s helpful to start with functionality that’s common amongst all devices, then learn more about additional customization and add-ons.

For example, two terms you’ll likely see during your shopping experience are “channels” and “programs”—most hearing aids have them, but that doesn’t mean all the hearing aids you consider are equal.

“Since a consumer might have to pay more for hearing aids with a greater number of channels, this not only becomes a question of performance but of cost,” according to Dr. Mark Ross, who has studied hearing loss for Gallaudet University.

Let’s start with the “channels” on a hearing aid, which refer to the range of frequencies that can be detected by an aid. Some hearing aid dispensers will insist that you choose an aid with the highest number of channels possible, but it’s important to remember that quantity does not always equal quality.

Researchers have found that hearing aids with more than 20 channels can actually garble speech or make sound harder to decipher. So while it may be a benefit to have a higher number of channels, at a certain point increasing the amount of channels won’t help your hearing—in fact, it may actually make it harder to hear.

Another sometimes misunderstood feature of hearing aids are the “programs” on the device, modes that hearing aids use to compensate for background noise or to adapt to a different noise level. Some hearing aids are equipped with programs that help the user hear better in a crowded room or even turn down the volume in quiet moments. But on many aids, the user has to manually adjust the settings, which can be tricky when trying to operate such a small device. Others, including Embrace Hearing models, eliminate the need to switch programs altogether by handling the switching automatically.

When shopping for a hearing aid, don’t forget to ask about devices that make switching between programs easiest for you.

Be honest about your comfort level with technology.

If you’re an early adopter of all sorts of new technology in your life, from smartphones to smartwatches, then you will likely want a hearing aid that also comes with a full suite of advanced features. On the other hand, if you find feature-laden devices confusing or complicated, it’s best to stick with a simpler option.

For example, consider the use of BlueTooth in hearing aids. A wireless technology that allows a user to connect their hearing aid to another device without any additional cables or connections, BlueTooth is essentially a radio wave connecting one device to another.

In the case of hearing aids, BlueTooth connectivity enables you to connect your aid directly to the sound output of your TV or mobile phone, improving your listening experience. Deciding whether to invest in BlueTooth capability will depend largely on how much you interact with technology, such as talking on a cell phone, watching television, or listening to music on a portable digital player. If those are important aspects of your life, a hearing aid with BlueTooth capabilities should be on your list. If that level of technology makes your head spin, it may not be worth the extra investment.

“Even if they had Bluetooth programming technology available to them, [many clients] are not...capable of embracing that kind of technology easily,” Bettie Borton of the American Academy of Audiology told the New York Times.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Perhaps the most important aspect to remember when shopping for a hearing aid is that you are making an investment in improving your own quality of life, so don’t let a dispenser or salesperson talk you into a hearing aid model that isn’t right for you. Don’t shy away from asking questions and making sure you are equipped with the knowledge you need to make the appropriate choice for you—and if you aren’t getting the answers you need, take your business elsewhere. Remember that while technology can do many wonderful things, it only works if you understand it.

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