Easy Listening: Hearing Devices for a Muffled World

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

5 min read

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.

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.

Telephone amplifiers are also an inexpensive solution. They amplify the volume of incoming calls, yet block feedback and background noise. Cost: $50 or less.

Remote signaling devices act as alarm systems when the doorbell or phone rings, a house alarm or smoke detector goes off, or your infant cries. You are alerted - even if you're asleep. Some signaling devices use a strobe light (including special alarm clocks). Some are connected to vibrators that shake your mattress, pillow, or wrist. Cost: About $50.

Personal FM listening systems can help in a noisy environment like a conference room or restaurant. The low-tech versions involve setting a small mic on the restaurant or conference table, or your companion can wear it, and the sound is transmitted directly into your hearing aid. Cost: $150.

The advent of directional microphones in hearing aids has been a big boon - but it has not solved everyday problems, says David Fabry, PhD, an audiologist formerly with Mayo Clinic for 15 years. He is now the director of clinical research at Phonak Hearing Systems in Warrenville, Ill., a company that specializes in wireless communications devices.

To screen out background noise -- and bring the speaker's voice right into your ear -- you can definitely find high-tech solutions, he tells WebMD. "In fact, FM wireless systems have been used effectively in classrooms for years. The challenge is to bring them into the boardroom, where adults can use them in business situations."

Personal FM systems are being integrated with conventional behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids - with minor modifications, Fabry says. "If you want to run your iPod, cell phone, or stereo through your hearing aid, it is possible to do that. Tomorrow, it may be possible to do that with a standard BTE or even an in-the-ear (ITE) hearing aid -- without the need for any modification. Cost: $1,000 or more.

Cell phones and amplifying devices are a high-tech marriage. If your hearing aid contains a T-coil (telephone amplifying coil), with certain cell phones you can plug in a Loopset (which is like a headphone but is worn around your neck). This will reduce or eliminate the static that you might get from a cell phone because you have a hearing aid. Mini-sized BTE hearing aids and wireless Bluetooth technology are also a hot combination. "These hearing aids are much smaller than they used to be, but they're large enough to contain the circuitry of an ALD device. The hearing aids can take sound from the cell phone and feed it into your ear through a very narrow tube," Fabry explains. Cost: $100 for the Loopset; $1,500 or more for the BTE hearing aid/Bluetooth.

Baby boomers are latching onto all this latest technology "because we're techno freaks, we're not as stigmatized by having something on our ear," says Fabry. "My mother would be terrified of it, but we're not. We'd rather have the better sound quality. And it looks very cool, very high-tech."

Also, the high demand of Bluetooth in general is driving down the cost of the hearing aid, he adds. "Our ability to piggyback onto general consumer electronics (like Bluetooth) is lowering the cost to the patient."

Low-end assistive listening devices can be purchased at stores like Radio Shack and online, but the high-end wireless devices must be dispensed by an audiologist. Typically, assistive listening devices are not covered by insurance. Also, for people who can't afford amplified phones, it is possible in some states to obtain them from the local phone service provider.