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Easy Listening: Hearing Devices for a Muffled World

Whether your taste is low-tech or wireless, plenty of gadgets can make hearing easier.
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WebMD Feature

Is the TV volume edging its way upward? Are you straining to hear on the phone? You may be ready for an assistive listening device (ALD) - a gizmo that amplifies sound to help you hear better, whether it's a TV, phone, lecture hall, or noisy restaurant.

"These ALDs are for people who have mild hearing loss, but choose not to get a hearing aid," says Angela Loavenbruck, PhD, a former president of the American Academy of Audiology who is in private practice in New City, N.Y. "They're also for people who need to augment what their hearing aids can do. In some listening environments, a hearing aid is simply not the best option."

Any listening environment is comprised of two elements: the speaker you wish to hear and everything else that interferes. "A hearing aid cannot filter out everything you don't want to hear," she tells WebMD. "If you're in a group situation, a hearing aid doesn't know which people you want to hear."

Compensating for hearing loss is complicated, she explains. "People want to believe they can purchase a hearing aid and it can be programmed to magically amplify only what they want to hear. But that's not possible because you're wearing the microphone, so it will amplify the sounds nearest you - as well as what's being said on stage 50 feet away -- and everything else in between."

An audiologist can help you figure out what works best for your lifestyle and level of hearing loss - whether you need hearing aids, assistive listening devices, or both, Loavenbruck says.

For theaters and other public buildings, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that earphone listening devices be provided on-site. "Those devices use infrared light waves or an FM radio signal to transmit sound from the performers' microphones," she notes. "That means you're only going to hear what they're saying. It's like putting the performers an inch from your ear. Those devices really are wonderful."

For other difficult-to-hear environments, a growing number of personal assistive listening devices can be very helpful - and often, very affordable. And the most cutting-edge consumer electronics, like Bluetooth wireless technology, are being integrated into some of these systems.

Low-Tech Assistive Listening Devices Still Boost Hearing

Every amplifying device has three parts - a microphone, a mechanism to amplify sounds picked up, and a speaker that alters the sound and transmits it to you, Loavenbruck explains. While traditional hardwired assistive listening devices are still popular and inexpensive, wireless technology is getting the biggest buzz. However, a low-tech and low-cost listening device is often the easiest solution.

TV amplifiers are a good solution "when someone says the TV is their major problem, and they don't have any other listening difficulties, says Loavenbruck. "For that person, a hearing aid is a very expensive -- and not very effective way -- to solve their problem." Cost: $150 to $200.

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