May 17, 2012

Ask the Audiologist – Why do digital hearing aids sound so different than my analog hearing aids?

By Janet Liddicoat, Au.D., CCC-A
Audiology Consultants, P.C.

Why do digital hearing aids sound so different than my analog hearing aids?

New digital hearing aids have computer technology that processes the sound. With this technology, your audiologist is able to tailor the sounds and your comfort levels to your specific hearing loss. This cannot be done with analog hearing aids.

The difference between analog and digital hearing aids starts with the microphone on your hearing aid. The sound is initially received through the microphone, where distortion and noise are added to the sound. This is done because the microphone is noisy. With analog hearing aids, the sound with the added distortion and noise is passed on to what you are hearing. This makes you feel that you are hearing more sound than you do with the digital hearing aids.

With digital hearing aids, the distortion and noise are added from the microphone but the sound is then cleaned up before it is sent to you. After the sound is cleaned of as much of the noise and distortion it can be, it is sent to the amplifier. At the amplifier is where the hearing decides how much power to add to the sound in order for you to hear it. The sound is then sent to the receiver or speaker unit, where it is cleaned up again. This point is also where the hearing aid checks for feedback or whistling and works to cancel it before it ever begins. Through this process, the hearing is changing levels of the sound for your particular hearing loss and making sounds comfortable and speech easier to hear, especially in noise.

That all makes digital hearing sound great, but why do you still not like them? There are two categories when it comes to digital hearing aid users, new users and previous analog users. With new users to hearing aids, they often don’t like their digital hearing aids due to improper fit. Sounds may be too loud or even overwhelming. At that point, they need to see their audiologist and have the hearing aids adjusted to be more comfortable for them. Even though the computer programs the hearing aids for the user’s hearing loss, it is not always exactly right. It is expected to make adjustments for each individual user. Sometimes it takes a few different visits to get the sound exactly right or even changing manufacturers. Each manufacturers sound quality is just a little bit different. Another reason a first time user of hearing aids may not like them is because of unrealistic expectations. Hearings are meant to help you hear better, not return your hearing to your original quality. This is also a time to work with your audiologist to find what works the best for you.

For those switching from analog to digital, it can be a challenge. Over time, we learn what we like and dislike. For example, many people may not like a certain food when they are young, but learn to like it when they are older. It is something we all call developing a taste for it. The same thing applies when switching from analog to digital hearing aids. Sometimes it needs to be a slow introduction to the new sound quality and the different sounds your brain is going to hear. Your brain has become used to hearing sounds and speech in a particular way, and it can be hard to change that. When you put your first pair of digital hearing aids on, they may seem to have a brighter sound quality and may be overwhelming. Because of this, you may instantly not like them. At this point, there is one of two mistakes that can be made. You could tough it out and try to get used to them, or you could give up.

Toughing it out may actually make you dislike them more. This is because you are hearing way too much way too fast. And your brain cannot handle the overload of different sound quality and all the different sounds it hasn’t been hearing. And giving up on the hearing aids doesn’t help anyone. The longer you wait to switch to digital hearing aids, the harder the transition will be.

What can be done to help make the transition easier? You and your audiologist will work together to help you transition as easily as possible. The first thing to do is to tone the hearing aids down to be comfortable for you. Many times this includes taking away some of the higher pitches you haven’t been hearing. Then over time gradually start to introduce more sound through small adjustments. This may take several visits, so make sure you are comfortable with your audiologist, as you will be spending a lot of time together.

Another reason analog users don’t like digital hearing aids is because of the noise reduction. You are used to hearing all the noise around you. In the beginning, your audiologist may turn that feature off, but then later, slowly add it in after you have gotten used to how the hearing aid sounds.

One feature of the digital hearing aids that is liked is the feedback cancellation. Most digital hearing aids are able to almost eliminate feedback. Some feedback will still be normal, but not nearly what it is like with the analog hearing aids.

When you are ready to transition from analog to digital, or would like to try it again, contact your audiologist and discuss what would work best for you. The most important thing to remember is that you will need time and patience to make a successful transition to digital hearing aids.