Are you having problems understanding speech against background noise? It’s a common problem for most people with hearing loss. Coping with background noise has also traditionally been a real technical challenge for older style hearing aids. Fortunately, modern technology is making exciting changes to the way hearing aids adapt and respond to background noise.
Older style hearing aids were sometimes ineffective because they used omni-directional microphones that amplified everything. So, if you were in a restaurant and trying to have a conversation with your partner your hearing aid would amplify your partner’s words but would also equally amplify the conversations around you and the clash of cutlery and all the other unwanted noises too.
Background noise not only makes it hard to understand other speakers but it can be exhausting as well. So, can today’s hearing aids completely shut out background noise? No, they can’t but modern technology uses a number of tools to filter out background noise and significantly reduce its impact including:
- Directional microphones
- Digital signal processing
- FM and wireless technology
You may find that when you first get hearing aids, the amount of noise you can hear is a little unsettling. You may have even forgotten these sounds exist. Different brands and models have specific technologies to deal with background noise. That’s why it’s important to visit an expert audiologist who can help you with choosing the right hearing aid for your needs and adjust it to suit your lifestyle.
Can directional microphones help with background noise?
Directional microphones can significantly reduce the effect of background noise by focusing the amplification only in a certain area—usually within your visual range. This allows the hearing aid to amplify the people speaking directly to you without amplifying the sounds to your side and behind you.
With some hearing aids it’s possible to narrow this area of amplification still further. Christopher Frink calls this ‘beam-forming’ technology and it allows you to focus only on the person speaking directly in front of you.
Most modern hearing aids can adjust the band of amplification automatically in response to challenging conversation situations. However, there may be situations where you still want to hear what’s going on around you and you may like to retain manual control of this setting. Some hearing aids offer this feature so talk to your audiologist about the right hearing device for you.
Wearing two hearing aids with binaural processing to balance the sound input into both ears can also help reduce the impact of background noise. It allows you to identify sound direction more easily and more easily decide which sounds you want to focus on.
What about digital signal processing?
Digital signal processing is an important technology that can make background noise much easier to cope with. According to Starkey, advanced mini-computer chips in your hearing aids are making as many as 40 million calculations each second about which sounds are helpful to speech understanding and which are not.
In fact, some of those additional background noises give you important clues for understanding so you don’t want to cut them out completely. Fortunately, the good news is those 40 million calculations are all taken care of automatically and the complex algorithms can make really smart decisions about enhancing speech sounds and reducing unhelpful noise. In fact, smart generation hearing aids such as the Widex Evoke are learning from your responses all the time as you alter settings.
The simple fact is that modern hearing aids are very effective at making speech easier to hear and understand against background noise. The research is there to prove it. Starkey calls its smart noise reduction system ‘Voice IQ’ and that really says it all; hearing aids are simply getting smarter and smarter at reducing unnecessary noise and enhancing speech comprehension.
More channels please?
An important part of the way hearing aids deal with background noise comes down to the number of channels that are available for sound processing. The microchips in the hearing aid can process each channel separately and decide whether to amplify the sound on that channel or reduce it.
Having more channels allows the hearing aid to amplify finer frequency ranges and preserve more of the speech sounds while reducing amplification on background noise. Some lower budget hearing aids might only have four channels whereas some more expensive premium models might have as many as 20 channels.
However, more is not always better. Having more channels can increase the complexity of adjustment required and you may simply not need or want that complexity. And, according to Second Sense Hearing.com, most people won’t notice the sound quality difference with more than 8 channels anyway. Widex, on the other hand, feel that the optimal number of channels is 15.
Too many channels can also take up too much CPU processing power. This may result in inferior performance in other important hearing aid features such as noise suppression. Talk to your audiologist; they will be able to help you choose the right hearing aid and find the right performance balance.
Will FM technology help?
FM compatibility and other wireless technologies such as Bluetooth mean your hearing aid can connect directly to other devices such as external microphones. This method can dramatically improve hearing in noisy settings because the signal passes directly to the hearing aid processor bypassing the microphone.
Phonak, for example, offer the exciting range of Roger microphones that are ideal for noisy settings such as:
- Meetings and conferences
- Mixed multimedia settings
Phonak claims improvements in understanding against background noise are 61% better using Roger technology.
A close fit for less background noise
Hearing aids that sit in the ear canal and block the ear also tend to reduce background noise more effectively than open ear type hearing aids. Again, you need to discuss this with your audiologist. They can help you understand your specific type of hearing loss and outline what types of hearing aid will help you most with background noise.