What If Hearing Aids Were Noise Canceling?

I love my noise canceling headphones. I wear them to the movies, on planes and at concerts. A flick of the switch and extraneous sound recedes. It is heaven. Sometimes I wonder why this feature is not built into hearing aids. The technology obviously exists. Imagine that same flick of a switch at a restaurant or a noisy cocktail party. The background hum would disappear leaving only the voices loud and clear. Seriously, why does this not exist?

Living With Hearing Loss | A Hearing Loss Blog

I recently met with a leading manufacturer of hearing aids as part of a focus group they were conducting on a new hearing aid app. We spent most of our time working with the app, but the conversation eventually turned to hearing aid features that people would like. Background noise reduction is always a priority for hearing aid wearers. How do you block out the sounds you don’t want so that the sounds you do want are easier to hear?

The perfect example of this is restaurants. Sometimes it is easier to put my hearing aids in sleep mode which will reduce the overwhelming buzz of the background scene. While I won’t hear the voices as loudly as I would like, I can use my lipreading skills to augment what I do hear. The overall experience is more pleasant than struggling to pick out the important sounds from the noise salad.

“Why don’t hearing aids utilize noise canceling technology?” we asked the representative from the hearing aid company, “It already exists in other consumer electronics products.” He did not know, but agreed it was a fair question.

As a hearing aid wearer, I wish that hearing aid companies and consumer electronics manufacturers could work more closely together. The complementary skills and technologies could combine to create innovative and highly responsive products for people with hearing loss.

Perhaps recent moves to establish an over-the-counter (OTC) category of hearing devices for people with mild to moderate hearing loss will make this a reality. Senators Warren and Grassley introduced a bipartisan bill in December and according to their recent article in  JAMA Internal Medicine, they plan to reintroduce it in 2017. Their bill is in reaction to the National Academies of Sciences report published in June 2016 that recommended a new FDA device category for over-the counter wearable hearing devices.

While a new class of devices would need to be developed carefully to insure safety standards, the innovation it would create in both hearing related products and aural rehabilitation services would be a big win. For everyone.

Readers, would you like a noise canceling feature in your hearing aids?

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44 thoughts on “What If Hearing Aids Were Noise Canceling?

  1. I’ve always felt that if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates had a hearing impairment, we would have much better hearing aids. It seems like the hearing aid manufacturers live in a parallel universe from the rest of technology.
    I’ve never tried noise canceling headphones – I am severely hearing impaired. Do you use them with your hearing aids?

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    • I do use them with my hearing aids and the combination works well for me in a variety of settings. It would be great if the feature was built into the aids! Thanks for your comment.

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      • How does that help you, wearing hearing aids and the noise canceling headphones? Do the headphones allow you to still hear people or does it cancel out everything? I work in an office that also has a copier and the noise from the copier drowns out voices. It is something I struggle with daily.

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      • I use them mostly on airplanes and in movies and that type of experience. I think they would work well in the car too. I will need to try it. I find that blocking out the background noise lets me focus better on the voices and when I combine it with lipreading it works for me. I hope that helps.

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      • I too am very hard of hearing. I wear a hearing aid in one ear and I have just had my cochlear implant activated. Would noise cancelling headphones work for me? Also how do you choose them. It seems there are so many kinds out there, and I don’t know what features to look for.

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      • I use Bose Noise Canceling headphones and love them. You may need to try them to see if they work with your particular hearing aids and CI. I don’t see why they would not. There is just one feature in mine – noise canceling on or off – which is controlled by a switch on the side of the headphones. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. Yes, that would be great. “Noise” and “Focus” programs on my hearing aid, and “Restaurant” on my cochlear implant, help only a little. Still, the 3 most difficult problems I have are noise, noise and noise.

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  3. Yes! If we could marry the research branch of hearing aid companies with the business model of consumer electronics, maybe a new “hearing electronics” industry can emerge. (This would be a great thing, as long as the best traits of each come to the table, and we don’t end up with the business model of the hearing aid industry, coupled with the research branch of the electronics industry!!)

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  4. ‘A noise salad’! that is exactly what I am experiencing everyday, especially in restaurants! So so much background noise! I’m struggling to remember how I used to hear in this kind of noise before i lost the hearing in my left ear. It seems impossible now!…By the way, I have looked at the noise cancelling headphones you recommended, and am saving up for them – they look perfect! Take care. Carly

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  5. The big reason why noise cancelling headphones work better than noise cancellation in hearing aids is because noise cancelling headphones *completely cover your ears* allowing them to fully block the outside sound. People who wear hearing aids do not like the feeling of being plugged up all the time, so we must let air and thus ambient outside noises inside the ear to prevent the occlusion effect. Want to know what the occlusion effect is? Pop your fingers in your ears completely plugging them and then talk or chew some potato chips. Hear how you hear your own voice so strongly and all the chewing noises are so amplified inside your head? That’s what happens when we fill your ear completely with an earmold or hearing aid, and people reject hearing aids that feel this way. This is a big part of the reason why the RIC hearing aid style has become so popular, because it eliminates the occlusion effect and feels more open and natural.

    Furthermore, most people with hearing loss do not have hearing loss across all frequencies. The most common type of hearing loss is good hearing in low tones and poor hearing in high tones (as a broad generalization that does not apply to all hearing losses). This means that you hear well in low tones which is where a lot of “noise” happens, and also that we are not amplifying low tones because it is not needed. We *cannot* filter any noise from an area that is not being amplified.

    So, in order to get the noise cancelling features like you get out of the headphones, the ears must be completely occluded. This is one of the big challenges in filtering noise as you would wish it. Now, if you could just get it to feel pleasant for everyone to have ears completely occluded at all times (meaning no outside ambient noise can get into the ear), then we’ll be able to do a better job of controlling the background noise for you. Basically, if we could get the hearing impaired population to accept a hearing solution like wearing those gigantic noise cancelling headphones all the time, this would be great and make your noise cancelling wishes much closer to possible.

    Also, everyone complains about noise and wants not to hear it. This would be analogous to wanting glasses to filter out the colors yellow, green and purple because you don’t like those colors. Vision doesn’t work like that and hearing doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately, these sounds exist in our environment and normal hearing people *do* hear them, they are just better able to selectively focus on sounds they want to hear because of their normal hearing mechanism. Furthermore, what one person defines as noise another defines as music or as pleasant. The request to never hear noise is simply an unreasonable one that has more to do with what we wish we could do with our hearing because our hearing mechanism is damaged than with what is possible in the real world with the technologies that exist today.

    I’m speaking both as someone who is a half-deaf Bi-CROS hearing aid wearer that also struggles in busy, noisy environments as well as a hearing instrument specialist who is familiar with the technologies available and how the hearing mechanism works. I’m not trying to burst any bubbles here, as I share your frustrations… but the truth is what we want is normal hearing, and what we have to work with are hearing aids that are very helpful but do not heal the damage to our auditory system which continues to exist despite the best technologies that we have today.

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  6. I used to have hearing aids that shut down when I was exposed to sudden large noises. I don’t remember how many models back that was, maybe some Phonaks ten or twelve years ago. I would notice it happening on the subway sometimes, or passing a work site with drill equipment.

    ~ Carolyn

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    • Yes, mine do that sometimes too. I was hoping more for the removal of the background humming noises like air conditioners, the buzz of background conversation in restaurants, etc. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  7. Noise canceling circuitry is an ingenious concept that takes up space not usually available in tiny HAs. It takes an image of the targeted sound and reinserts it at 180˚ out of phase so as to effectively “cancel” the offending sound. Even so, as you suggest, Shari, hearing instruments will in time employ this or similar technology. Some HAs already have programs that focus on a narrow audible “speech” band while attenuating everything else. I have high hopes!

    Perhaps the next best thing available now is listening rehab. Training which CI users understand but many HA users do not use or even know about – I suspect. l have run an informal survey of HA users and not one knew about aural rehab or listening training that is readily available. Disclaimer: I live in the jungles of Maine so my sample might not be representative of the general population. 🙂

    The point is, listening exercises do help and can benefit anyone. Resources are available on-line for anyone with a digital device.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great suggestions Jerry! A great source for Auditory Rehab exercises available to all would be LACE: Listening and Communication Enhancement https://www.lacelistening.com/

      Those who have Starkey or Audibel brand hearing aids can sign up through their specialist for auditory rehab provided through the manufacturer at no charge. If you are a Starkey or Audibel wearer, ask your hearing care provider to sign you up for Ready Set Hear to gain access.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. i have the same Bose noise cancelling headphones. They are great on a plane or a long car ride. If i am riding in the car with someone, conversation will come through but not the road noise. I haven’t tried them in a restaurant yet, but I might attempt that (no matter how silly it might look). But if you try to use them with your phone (at least with an iPhone), only one side will work, which is unfortunate and makes them almost useless to me for phone listening, since i need the bi-aural input. in that case i need yet a second pair of over-the-ear headphones that are not noise cancelling to use the phone.

    Responding to the writer who talks about people losing the more common high frequencies and most of the noise being in the low ones; as someone with a reverse slope loss (and little to no technology to address that) it is the high frequencies that I can hear in restaurants – like clattering silverware, high chatter and laughter and tinny music – that is overwhelming. i don’t know if it is electronics as much as genetics that is going to help us in the future. hope to see it in my lifetime….

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    • Do I understand you correctly – when you use them in the car, you are not connected to any device? The noise cancelling eliminates the road noise and allows you to hear the other person in the car better?
      I’ve been following this blog today and reading about the devices. I’m trying to figure out why these are better than using the Phonak Compilot I use today for hearing TV and my cellphone. Your comment added something new I didn’t expect.
      This has been very informative today!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I wear them in the car when I am a passenger, not plugged into anything . I can still hear conversation but not the wind and tire noise.
        When I am the driver i don’t wear them because I don’t want to get pulled over, even though they actually help me while driving. In that case I shut off my hearing aids if on a long trip because the incessant road noise renders me even deafer by the time I reach my destination.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. As I read through the responses to Shari’s article on noise cancelling headphones, I couldn’t help noticing the response from alinaphoenix. She was comparing the occlusion effect with the headphones. She mentioned that the RIC hearing aids were very popular. It must be noted that not everyone can wear the RiC or open hearing aids. My first hearing aids were in the canal and I had the occlusion effect big time. The Audiologist kept saying I would get used to it but I didn’t and I could not hear well. When the open hearing aids came out, I was excited and told the Audiologist I wanted those hearing aids. To my dismay she told me that I couldn’t wear them because of the nature of my hearing loss. I then got a second opinion and was told the same thing and ended with the behind the ear with a mold. Fortunately, they are better than the ones I had. All the pictures of hearing aids show the RIC open hearing aids. One is lead to believe that everyone can wear those and that should not be.

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