The Most Important Hidden Benefit Of Next-Generation Hearing Aids Is Noise Reduction, Not Amplification

It’s important to get the right levels of amplification in your hearing aids, especially in speech frequencies. Indeed, improved clarity of speech and high-frequency sounds is the first thing you notice when you are fitted with a good new pair of hearing aids. But an equally important feature–even if it’s one you never notice–is how well they reduce noise through digital (0r dynamic) noise reduction (DNR).

Everyone knows hearing aids amplify sound. But hearing-aid wearers also know that amplifying all sounds, including unwanted background noise, often makes it harder, not easier, to hear what people are saying. In fact, straining to understand amplified voices that compete with amplified background noise is one of the leading causes of hearing-related fatigue, which can be bad for your health.

The good news is that hearing-aid manufacturers have been steadily improving a combination of technologies over the past decade to deliver a big step increase in noise reduction. New sound processing software with sophisticated DNR algorithms are making full use of powerful digital signal processors (DSPs) to virtually eliminate background noise, such as air-conditioner fan noise in the conference room or road noise in the car, making it much easier to understand what people are saying. And much-improved directional microphones further shield you from unwanted noise while focusing on the voices of the people you are facing.

Taken together, these improved technologies make it much easier to understand speech in noise. That’s what I’m finding in my current search for a new set of hearing aids. I’ve recently been trying out two pairs from Liberty Hearing, a provider of hearing aids to Sam’s Clubs, and I’ve been wowed by the improvement in noise reduction over my previous four-year-old set of hearing aids.

When I stepped out into mid-day traffic in Manhattan, I switched on the “Noisy” program setting, and for once I didn’t feel assaulted by the traffic noise. When I took a ride on the Amtrak train, all the rumbling and track noise disappeared, and I could suddenly hear conversations of people three seats away. At home, a ventilation fan in the hood above our stove that usually drives me absolutely crazy seemed silent. And for the first time in years, I didn’t have to turn off my hearing aids when my wife and daughter turned on the blender to make smoothies.

And while the new hearing aids still don’t eliminate all the background chatter in a noisy restaurant, it’s easier to hear my dinner companions than with my previous hearing aids. Perhaps most important, I’ve been very aware of a reduction in the stress of wearing hearing aids. Because the new hearing aids are reducing the noises that I previously had to put up with to hear other people’s amplified voices, I am am experiencing far less hearing fatigue.

All the major hearing-aid manufacturers promote their digital noise reduction algorithms, and I hope to try out many of them. There’s an excellent review of the Starkey IQ sound processing software’s DNR feature on Steve Claridge’s HearingAidKnow site. Starkey IQ doesn’t just eliminate all the noise in gaps between a speaker’s words, but also reduces noise between syllables, which he is a big help in understanding speech. For more information, go to the Healthy Hearing overview of digital noise reduction authored by hearing-aid technology guru Mark Ross. He wrote it several years ago but it is still the best layman’s summary of DNR I’ve seen.

In the meantime, if you’re shopping for a new set of hearing aids, be sure to ask about their noise reduction feature. When you try them out, take a walk out on the street or through a crowded cafeteria. In addition to noticing all the new sounds you hear, you may also be pleasantly surprised at everything you don’t hear.

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