Dr. Clifford R. Olson from Applied Hearing Solutions in Anthem Arizona discusses the 6 main differences between Hearing Aid Technology Levels and what you need to know before buying hearing aids.
Selecting a hearing aid that meets your needs requires two things: first, identifying the style of the device that you need and second, more importantly, the level of technology inside of the device.
Understanding Hearing Aids
Hearing aids function a lot like computers. By this, I mean that you could have two completely identical-looking computers, but on the inside, they may have technology differences. If you’re the type of person who just likes to surf the Internet or go on Facebook, you could get away with the computer that has very basic internal components and software. However, if you’re the type of person who likes to stream a lot of movies, play a lot of games, or do a lot of things that require storage, you might need a computer that has a larger hard drive, quicker processor, etc. to allow you to do those things you need to do on that computer.
Hearing aids are really the same in that fashion. The style of the hearing aid doesn’t matter so much when you look at two different devices. They might look exactly the same, but the level of technology inside of them can be drastically different – and that can control whether or not you have success with hearing treatment.
The Different Tiers of Technology Level
Most manufacturers have three to four different tiers of technology level, anywhere from Premium at the very top all the way down to Basic at the very bottom.
It is important to note that there is no such thing as an entry-level hearing aid. A hearing aid either meets your needs or a hearing aid does not meet your needs. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of treating your hearing loss. The only thing that matters is that the device capable of meeting your requirements.
Unlike computers, hearing aid technology is linked to the software inside the device, rather than hardware differences inside of the device. You’ll have two identical hearing devices, using the same receivers, microphones, push button, or volume control, but at the end of the day, it is the software and the computer chip that’s inside the hearing aid that will function differently and make them perform better or worse for you.
The Six Main Differences to Determine the Right Hearing Aid Technology Level
There are six major differences that you need to look at when determining the right hearing aid technology level for you.
- CustomizabilityA hearing aid amplifies to a certain range, otherwise known as frequency. If you get a hearing aid with a lot of channels, this allows the audiologist to make more precise adjustments with the way the hearing aids amplify sound for you. For instance, if you had a hearing aid with three channels, and you could only raise the bass, mids, and treble, you would get a very crude approximation of your hearing loss prescription. You might feel like you are not getting the precision in your hearing that you hope for.
On the other hand, with premium levels of technology, you can get up to 20+ channels in a hearing aid, which allows you or the audiologist to very specifically finely tune and program the device to your hearing loss prescription.
- Ability to Function Well in Background Noise
As long as hearing aids are wireless, pretty much all of them have the capability of binaural synchronization. In other words, this means that the hearing aids can communicate between themselves, which improves your ability to hear background noise. Instead of having just two microphones per ear, there are actually four microphones to communicate with each other and share the listening landscape. Premium level hearing devices have more features along with this, which helps you perform better in a background noise situation.
For instance, with a premium level piece of hearing technology, if you’re at dinner in a restaurant with your family and friends, you’d be able to hear the person at the table around you better than you would if you had just a basic level of hearing technology.
- Ease of Use
Premium level devices have features and programs that account for many different situations in which you might find yourself. A basic level device might only have a few programs, which you might even have to adjust manually.
Generally speaking, basic hearing aids have around three programs: one that allows your hearing aids to pick up sounds from all directions; a speech and noise program that identifies noise and focuses the microphones toward the person you’re facing and talking to, while reducing amplification of other people around you; and perhaps a music program, which allows sound to come in more naturally.
When you step up to mid-range technology, more programs will be added. For instance, you might have a comfort in noise program, which senses noise in your area and softens all of the background noise. You might have a program that handles reverberation a little bit better, such as when you’re in a big, empty room with hard walls, ceilings, and floors, with sound bouncing around, and you want better control over the sound.
Once you step up to a premium level technology, a hearing aid has programs for pretty much any situation, whether it’s the car, at home, at a restaurant – it doesn’t matter! Over the years, premium level hearing aids have gotten a lot more advanced in how they process sound. They also do things automatically. If you find yourself going into your vehicle and having a conversation with your spouse or a friend, a premium level hearing aid automatically adjusts to a speech in car program, so you can hear them a lot better in that specific environment.
Imagine a hearing aid being able to do that in any situation in which you’d find yourself and putting you into the best settings that you need to hear in any environment. This means that you don’t have to constantly click a program button to find the right setting for you. In fact, research has shown that premium level hearing aids can identify the program that’s right for you better than what you can, as a human, in trying to identify that situation.
- Comfort in Sound
When you find yourself in different environments with different types of harsh sound such as wind or background noise, premium level hearing aids have different digital features to get rid of those annoying sounds, whereas a basic level device might not have all of those features or have them functioning to their full capacity.
For instance, with wind features: if you find yourself out on the golf course, you might have wind coming at you from all directions. With a premium level device, it will be able to identify when there is wind coming in and block out that wind. A basic level device won’t have that type of digital feature to remove wind sounds, which results in you struggling to hear more in a windy or noisy setting than with a premium level device.
While this is not always the case with premium versus basic levels, connectivity with a phone or other Bluetooth devices means you’ll need the higher levels of technology. That being said, most of the companies do have some kind of Bluetooth connectivity, all the way down to their basic levels.
This also includes the issue of rechargeability. Rechargeability is something that has been coming out strongly recently – most of the companies offer rechargeable devices but do not give you access to rechargeability unless you’re in the upper levels of technology. In other words, if you want to have good connectivity and rechargeability, you’ll want to go with a premium or mid-level device.
Yes – if you want that premium level technology over that basic level, you’re going to have to spend more money to get it. By this, I mean that it will generally cost you $1,000 more for a premium level piece of technology than it does for a basic level piece of hearing aid technology.If you take a minute to break that down, what does that cost you annually to go with a premium level piece of technology versus a basic piece of technology? Broken down, it costs about $250 per ear, per year. Generally, if we’re talking about an extra $2,000 split over four years, you will be paying $500 a year additionally for the more premium level of hearing technology.
Is it worth it? It is, if you need or want those features to be able to hear better in all of these varities of environments that you find yourself in. However, if you’re someone who sits at home all day, watches TV, and has quiet conversations with one or two visitors at a time, then you’ll probably be okay with the basic level technology. However, most of us find ourselves in complex listening environments at least one or two times a week, whether that’s going to church or a restaurant or a family get-together. If you have basic level technology when you find yourself in those complex environments, you will not perform as well.
Comparing Technology Levels
From a research standpoint, researchers haven’t been able to specifically identify how much benefit a premium level device gives you over a basic level device. If you look at it from a macro, broader level, you won’t be able to find studies that actually indicate that premium level technology does any better than basic level technology.
However, when you start working on a one-to-one basis with patients, I see it all the time: if you move someone from a basic into a premium, they notice the difference immediately. This is likely due the fact that we can customize it better for their hearing loss, that they get these digital features enabled to allow them to hear more in a relaxed situation, that it requires less hands-on adjustment from when they find themselves in a tricky situation, and that the hearing aids just flat out function better. I have never seen a case where someone has used a premium level device and switched down to a basic level device, because the differences are just too large.
It may seem overwhelming that there are so many different types of technology and levels. How do you find the one that’s right for you? Really, that is the responsibility of the hearing care professional that you see. By spending time with you and finding out your lifestyle and the situations you find yourself in regularly, they should be able to recommend you the right level of technology.
In other words, don’t be surprised that they recommend a premium piece of technology if you go in saying that I want to hear when I go to my son’s baseball games, or I want to be able to hear in restaurants, or I want to go family gatherings and have no issues. They know that you’ll be hearing better with premium level technology than you would with a basic level hearing device.
And finally, here’s a secret: it really doesn’t matter what level of technology you get, if the hearing care professional doesn’t fit it well to you. When I say “fitting it well to you,” I mean programming the devices using real ear measurement or real ear verification. This is the way to make sure that a hearing aid is fit to your prescriptive levels. When done properly, all of the great features that come with really nice, premium level hearing aids start to come out, and you start to perceive that benefit.
I can tell you one thing: a basic level device fit and programmed properly to you will perform better than a premium level device that did not use real ear measures and was not appropriately fit to you.