Monday, August 16, 2010

Guest Post: Why Hearing Aids are Starting to Sound Cool

The following guest post is from Stuart Spencer of The Hearing Company. All images in this post were provided by The Hearing Company. For information about guest posts on Hearing Sparks, please see here.
The Hearing Company is a UK based hearing care retailer which has been dispensing hearing aids for more than 50 years. 

Over the same time period there have massive advances in all things technological and the humble hearing aid is no exception.  

While to many the stereotype of a cumbersome beige coloured earpiece denoting old age persists, manufacturers are doing their best to make modern hearing aids both advanced and desirable.  

A recent model from Starkey offering wireless integration into Bluetooth compatible devices was even profiled in Time magazine as part of a report on Coolest Inventions. 

So where did this journey begin and what have been the milestone achievements in hearing aid design along the way? 

If asked to picture an early hearing aid most of us would recall the metal ear trumpets used by our 19th century ancestors, yet the first artificial hearing aids can actually be dated back to some 2,000 years before when the ancient Greeks used sea shells to assist those hard of hearing.   

Hearing aid development was slow – in fact, very little had really changed between the ancient Grecian shell and the 19th century trumpet.   

With a few slightly updated, although no less unwieldy, models during the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is the last 60 or so years which have seen the hearing aid transcend its bulky origins to become the high-tech, near invisible hearing aids of the present day.

A brief history of the hearing aid 1950 – present day 

1950s: The transistor hearing aid
1950s ear piece
The 1950s was a golden era for hearing aid technology.  Mass production and the revolution in consumer advertising meant hearing aids became cheaper and more widely worn by both sexes.  Gone were the horns, trumpets and tube-like devices of previous decades.  
Thanks to the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s (which amplifies electronic signals and replaced the valve in most electronic devices) hearing aids of the 1950s were smaller – roughly the size of a hand – and more powerful.  Nevertheless, they were still worn outside the body with power packs tied around the waist or strapped to the leg.  

1960s: The Behind The Ear (BTE) hearing aid
1960s battery pack
While those with a hearing impairment in the 1960s still had to carry their hearing aids about their body, they were at least getting smaller and lighter. By the end of the decade they were even small enough to be placed directly behind or above the ear.  

1970s: The analogue ‘NHS’ hearing aid
Probably the image that springs to mind when talking about hearing aids, this beige number, first made available in the UK through the National Health Service in 1974, was the decade’s main contribution to hearing aids. 

Although smaller in size than earlier models, they were still a chunky, analogue (manual) apparatus that sat behind the ear.  While aiding people with a hearing impairment, patients suffered considerable interference (feedback making a whistling noise) and had difficulty hearing in noisy social situations. 

1980s: The In The Ear (ITE) hearing aid
Still an analogue device, the hearing aid had shrunk so much in size that it was now possible to fit the unit inside the external ear.  Although not a wholly attractive model, the ITE hearing aid was more cosmetically appealing than previous chunkier ones worn outside the ear. 

1990s: The Digital hearing aid
The 1990s marked the digital revolution.  The analogue hearing aids of the previous decade were at first replaced by ‘hybrid’ models (part analogue and part digital) and eventually replaced by fully digital models in the late 1990s.  

The crossover was like the transition from vinyl to CD; the digital models were programmed to meet each sufferer’s individual requirements and offered a cleaner, distortion-free signal. 

2000s: Multifunction hearing aids
Although great for improving your hearing in the home, hearing aid users have always struggled when faced with a less than ideal acoustic environment, such as background noise, the theatre or a busy restaurant. 
Multiple ‘memories’ which allow the hearing aid to perform differently in particular situations go a long way to remedying these difficulties.  Additionally, Bluetooth wireless technology allows the user to communicate using telephones and other similarly equipped devices whenever and wherever they want without interference and feedback. 

2010: Hearing aids made cool?
Hearing loss is one of the oldest of the known disabilities and attempts to amplify sound go back centuries.  But while poor vision is widely accepted across the generations, hearing loss remains stigmatised and associated with the elderly. 

Like short-sightedness it is, however, a problem which affects people of all ages and this is something that modern hearing aid manufacturers are successfully addressing. 

The latest In The Ear hearing aids are so discreet they are essentially like contact lenses for ears.  No one apart from the wearer themselves would know that they are using one. 

Hearing aid technology has come so far since the company I now work for first began trading, from bulky boxes worn around the waist to tiny electronic devices worn inside the ear.  

It is almost impossible to predict where we will be in another 50 or even ten years time.  Even now there are hearing aids on the market that use artificial intelligence, recording and storing hearing patterns of the wearer and automatically adjusting to any discrepancies. 

What is really important though is for the industry to work collaboratively on trying to improve the public image of hearing aids.  In the UK we have more than nine million people suffering from some degree of hearing loss, but only two million actually seeking professional advice. 

The introduction of better quality and more socially acceptable hearing aids will result in a new generation of people looking after their hearing as they should.


  1. Informative read about hearing aids,Hearing aids help many people hear better and hearing aid can notably improve a person's quality of life by making surrounding noises more audible.

  2. Thank you for this very useful resources section with other useful information about choosing and living with hearing aids. unitron hearing aids

  3. This is just one of the main reasons why I really love visiting this blog. I am always waiting for this guest post just like this one. This article is just so good and very interesting.

  4. This article gives the impression that hearing aids have gradually shrunk over the years, from box type body worn aids to tiny discreet ITE aids that can hardly be seen. Whilst that may be the case for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. Those of us with more severe losses are still having to wear large, usually beige, BTE aids, not unlike the early one in the picture. If is about time the HA industry designed something more discreet for super power users too.

    1. Anonymous, although we're getting better with anti-feedback processing, buying over 20dB more gain, we still can't get around the basic physics of sound avd vibration.

  5. Anonymous - thanks for your comment. I have a severe to profound loss in both ears, so I am a "super power user." My hearing aids are not large, or beige. They are tiny and delicate, and are white and purple (I had my choice of colors). They are Oticon Epoqs.

    While I agree the tech for more powerful hearing aids isn't the same as lower powered aids, I don't think we have to suffer with beige monstrosities anymore. A lot of companies have come out with nice, stylish aids for severe/profound losses. And I definitely appreciate it :)

  6. Megan, thanks for your reply. I live in the UK therefore I'm stuck with what our National Health Service provides. Unfortunately for super power users, like myself, that means large beige BTE aids.

  7. This is definitely a cool advancement in hearing aid technology... from an aesthetic/functionality standpoint, these designs below are even more on the futuristic side:

  8. Hearing loss is one of the most common chronic conditions affecting Americans. As an August, 2010 article in USA Today points out, hearing loss can even be common in young people, affecting nearly 20 percent of American adolescents. When a person loses enough of their hearing function, they may gain significant benefit from sound amplification. For that reason, physicians and audiologists frequently prescribe hearing aids to help improve their patients' hearing. Hearing aids come in multiple varieties to fit different hearing abilities and preferences.


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