Hearing aids are a tremendous gift for individuals who have trouble hearing, enabling them to better engage with the sounds around them and participate more fully in conversations. In addition to amplifying sound for people experiencing hearing loss, many prescription hearing aids can also cancel out background sounds, which helps them to hear in noisy spaces. Hearing aids also help to mitigate the symptoms of tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears. Understanding how hearing aids work is a crucial step in discovering the life-changing benefits they provide for people experiencing hearing loss.
In the simplest terms, just like with a PA system, a hearing aid has a microphone that picks up sound waves and sends it to an amplifier as an electrical signal. The amplifier boosts the signal and sends it to a speaker, which converts it back to sound waves and broadcasts the sound to your ear. Fortunately, with advances in wireless audio technology and compact batteries, all of this happens in a very small electronic device discreetly worn in or behind the ear. As described below, hearing aids have many more features and offer digital sound processors to enhance speech clarity and reduce background noise. Based on diagnostic examinations conducted by hearing healthcare providers, hearing aids are programmed by the provider to meet the prescriptive needs of their patients.
How Hearing Aids Improve Sound Quality
Hearing aids have four components that work together to efficiently increase the volume and clarity of the sounds you hear. Let’s look at each of the essential parts of a hearing aid and how they accomplish this task to restore your hearing quality and connect you more fully with the sounds around you.
The small hearing aid microphone picks up the sound waves that come in contact with it and converts those sounds into electrical signals. These electrical signals then travel from the microphone to the amplifier. Depending on the model, a hearing aid may have more than one microphone. For adapting to different hearing environments and the user’s type of hearing loss, an aid may have an omnidirectional mic, a directional mic, an adaptive directional mic, or a combination of these types of microphones.
Omnidirectional Hearing Aid Microphones: Omnidirectional microphones capture sounds from every direction. This type of hearing aid microphone works best in quieter environments, like in homes, because it picks up sound equally from all around it. This also means they may not be ideal for noisy settings with a lot of background noise.
Directional Hearing Aid Microphones: Directional microphones capture sound from a chosen direction. This type of hearing aid microphone is best for noisy settings like restaurants, or large gatherings because it amplifies specific sounds while also reducing background noise. This enables you to have clear conversations and hear people talking to you more efficiently.
Adaptive Directional Hearing Aid Microphones: Adaptive directional microphones automatically adjust the direction it captures sound based on the noise level of the environment you are in. This type of hearing aid microphone can instantly adjust to improve speech clarity and reduce surrounding noise in loud settings, and capture sound from every direction in quieter places. This allows you to move between environments with different noise levels and hear comfortably without interruption.
Digital hearing aids have a computer chip. Almost all hearing aids dispensed today are digital hearing aids. The computer chip receives information from the microphones, and based on proprietary algorithms and the providers prescription, this chip will automatically enhance speech and reduce noise.
The hearing aid amplifier receives the electrical signals from the chip and boosts their strength before sending them to the speaker. Digital amplifiers in hearing devices can differentiate between the sounds and amplify strategically based on your hearing prescription.
The speaker then receives the boosted signals from the amplifier and converts them back to sound waves, and projects the amplified sounds into your ear.
Without power, none of this is possible. All hearing aids are either powered by disposable or rechargeable batteries.
Digital vs Analog Hearing Aids
All hearing aids convert sound waves into electrical signals, but how they do this differs between analog and digital hearing aids. Understanding how digital and analog hearing aids work can help you know which type is right for your hearing health.
Analog Hearing Aids
Analog hearing aids are rarely available in today’s market. An analog hearing aid is designed to amplify all sounds, including speech and background noise, in the same manner. Some analog hearing devices have preset levels that you can toggle between in different listening settings. Since their technology is more basic, analog aids usually don’t cost as much as their digital counterparts. However, analog hearing aids might not perform ideally in all listening environments or provide the best solution for all types of hearing loss.
Digital Hearing Aids
Digital hearing aids convert sound waves into digital signals to produce an identical representation of sound, rather than just simple amplification. This provides more advanced and customizable sound processing in all listening environments. A digital hearing aid can be programed to address your specific type of hearing loss, and can manually or automatically adjust to suit specific sounds and environments based on your needs.
Different Hearing Aid Styles
Hearing aids come in a variety of styles to meet your needs and lifestyle. Practicality and aesthetics should be considered when deciding on the best one for you, but it’s also important to know which styles of hearing aid work best with your type of hearing loss. A hearing healthcare provider will let you know which types will best address your loss and help you choose between those styles based on your lifestyle.
Behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids have been in use for decades and continue to be a good option for many people with any degree of hearing loss. In fact, these are the only type that can address profound hearing loss. These devices have a hard plastic case, which houses the electronics and sit behind the ear. The case connects to a custom-fitted earmold, which fits comfortably and securely in your outer ear.
BTE devices work well for patients with medical issues where drainage is present in the ear canal. Since none of the hearing aid components sit in the ear, the hearing aid will not be damaged due to drainage. The downside is they are bigger and bulker, and not as cosmetically acceptable as other hearing aid options.
Receiver-in-the-canal hearing aids also sit behind the ear but are usually smaller than traditional behind-the-ear styles. They have a discreet, nearly invisible wire that connects the exterior case to a small earbud that is comfortably inserted in your ear canal. This internal speaker design tends to be more inconspicuous, which is appealing to most hearing aid users.
In-the-Ear (ITE) hearing aids are self-contained devices that are molded to fit completely inside the outer ear canal. All of the electronics are housed within hard plastic. These aids are easy to wear and treat mild to severe degrees of hearing loss.
ITE devices come in various styles, some of which lean toward small and discreet, while others are a bit larger, but have room for increased functionality like more powerful batteries and directional microphones. They are listed here, from largest to smallest:
- In-the-Ear (ITE)
- In-the-Canal (ITC)
- Completely-in-the-Canal (CIC)
- Invisible-In-the-Canal (IIC)
Adjusting Your Hearing Aid
Unlike the hearing aids of the past, contemporary models can be adjusted to suit your specific hearing needs, as well as the different situations and environments you are in day to day.
By a Hearing Healthcare Provider
Your hearing healthcare provider programs an auditory prescription into your hearing aids based on your test results. With specialized procedures, they can validate your prescription to ensure it is meeting your auditory needs safely, so it does not cause additional hearing loss. Your hearing healthcare provider will be able to fine tune your device settings to provide the optimum hearing experience. Since your hearing may change over time, returning for exams and adjustments will make sure that your hearing aids continue to provide the best treatment solution for your current needs.
Depending on the type of device, you can make personal adjustments to your hearing aids so they adapt to different environments either by pressing a button on the device or by using a smartphone app.
Choose a Hearing Aid That Works for You
For decades, hearing aids have been giving people greater independence, better quality of life, and confidence. With ever-evolving hearing aid technology, they do it better and more efficiently than ever before. With so many types and styles available, choosing the best hearing aid for your particular hearing loss and lifestyle may feel intimidating without the proper support and care. The hearing healthcare providers at Audibel can help you choose the hearing aids that will give you the best possible hearing experience, so you can better engage with the soundscape of your life and rediscover the joy of hearing.
Our skilled providers will begin with a thorough hearing exam and walk you through the whole process, from fitting to follow-up adjustments. At Audibel, you’re not a customer. You’re a person with hearing loss, who we have the pleasure of liberating with clear, carefree hearing. We love sharing the Joy of Hearing with our patients. Take control of your hearing health today and maintain a healthy quality of life for years to come, by scheduling an appointment at any of our hearing clinics located throughout the United States.