Digital hearing aids can do wonders for faded hearing. However, other devices can help, too, as audio technology adds new options to help people converse at a noisy restaurant, or talk quietly with a pharmacist at a crowded drugstore counter.
Richard Einhorn, a composer who suddenly lost much of his hearing two years ago, relies on his hearing aid for general use. However, when he is meeting friends at a busy coffee shop — where his hearing aid is not always good at distinguishing their voices amid the clatter — he removes it.
He has a better solution.
He pops on a pair of in-ear earphones and snaps a directional mike on his iPhone, which has an app to amplify and process sound.
“I put the iPhone on the table,” he said. “I point it at whoever’s talking, and I can have conversations with them. Soon we forget the iPhone is sitting there.”
Einhorn’s ad hoc solution to restaurant racket is a feasible one, said Jay Rubinstein, a professor of bioengineering and otolaryngology at the University of Washington.
“It makes sense when you need to capture a speaker’s voice in a noisy environment,” he said. “A system that gives you a high-quality directional mike and good earphones can help people hear in a complex setting.”
A new version of the directional microphone Einhorn uses, Blue Mikey, is available for US$99.99. One app he uses is soundAMP R, which is US$4.99. For earphones, he likes the in-ear Etymotic hf5, at US$149.
Every hearing situation has its own solution. When Einhorn leaves the restaurant and wants to make a cellphone call, he might switch from his iPhone setup to his hearing aid and a companion device worn around the neck that receives Bluetooth audio from the phone and transmits it to the hearing aid.
Once home, he might take advantage of a tiny, inexpensive component in his hearing aid called a telecoil, or t-coil, that can pick up sound directly from a simple wire loop that he has connected to his TV. As long as he sits within the periphery of this loop in his living room, the t-coil receives the transmission.
“It’s crystal clear,” he said of the broadcast.
The loop comes from Contacta. It attaches to the TV audio output and can either run around the edges of the room or just be placed inside a mat that sits beneath a chair, or in a pad that tucks under a cushion.
None of the various technologies he uses are perfect in all situations.
“It takes time and practice to learn where they work well and to switch from one device to another,” he said.
The range of options Einhorn deploys for dealing with hearing loss is not unusual.
“There are many combinations of technologies possible now for people who need hearing assistance,” said Stephen Bowditch, an audiologist and faculty member at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Before someone commits to a device, Bowditch advises a hearing test.
“Every hearing loss is different, and we know in audiology that one size does not fit all,” he said.
Modern digital hearing aids tend to be costly — they can run US$6,800 a pair and more, and are rarely covered by insurance. However, the t-coil, the tiny internal copper component in Einhorn’s hearing aid, is gradually becoming an inexpensive way to broaden and refine the reach of hearing aids. These t-coils are now standard in most of the hearing aids that Bowditch installs.