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?

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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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75 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?

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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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      • One more question (2 years later!) I’m looking at them and some are bluetooth and some are connected by audio cable. I now have a ci plus a hearing aid. Ci has bluetooth – do you connect by bluetooth? Wondering if any issues with that. I would have to use audio cable.

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      • That is a good question. I use blue tooth to connect the headphones to my phone to listen to music or a movie sometimes, but I don’t know how the CI would impact that. It may be best to do some trial and error to see what works for you. Confirm the products are returnable in case they do not work well for you. They should be. Thanks for your question and good luck!

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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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    • Hearing Technologists need to get creative and think past what is to what can be.

      Instead of why it can’t be .. think how it can be?

      Noise cancellation can work but most likely the frequency cancellation would have to be adjusted to the wearer’s hearing loss to diminish the noise and enhance the desired “hearings”.

      Also .. consider sound ISOLATION versus sound cancellation. Quite a different approach completely. Again, if the frequencies are adjustable the hearings would be radically improved.

      Hearing Technologists would do better understanding Music Technology .. sound boards, EQ, In-Ear-Monitors (IEM), etc than the single aspect of noise cancellation technology.

      If done right a new generation of hearing devices could be developed that not only help the hearing impaired but also keep hearing from BEING impaired!

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    • Hi Alina,
      I very much liked your post. It brings some of the issues to the point! Still I am hoping that good solutions giving us the best of two worlds will come up.

      Cheers, Christoph

      Liked by 1 person

  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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    • I did not mean to imply that everyone can wear RIC or open fit hearing aids. They cannot. There are multiple styles for a reason. Each loss must be fit appropriately for that loss. RIC aids have become more popular because there’s a lot less occlusion however are most appropriate for losses that are normal or near normal in the lows, bad in the highs (again, a generalization that does not apply to everyone). The “best” hearing aid is the one that’s appropriately fit for your own particular ears, loss and lifestyle, which are not the same for each person.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The discussion here has centered on one type of noise cancellation technology that is utilized in headphones today. This requires suppression of external ambient noise, not really possible in hearing aids as they exist.
      However, possibly a more appropriate technology would be the original Carver concept from 1974. Many of used Carver noise reduction products and they do NOT require ambient noise suppression, as in the frequency specific amplification typical in hearing aids, the noise is removed with the Carver technique in band and prior to the gain being applied by the circuit. Perhaps other engineers out there can tell us why the Carver technique would not be appropriate for hearing aid use? For reference, please see the following patents:
      PATENT CITATIONS
      Cited Patent Filing date Publication date Applicant Title
      WO1998047132A1 Apr 7, 1998 Oct 22, 1998 Fender Musical Instruments Corporation Compensation circuit for piezoelectric pickup
      US3989897 Oct 25, 1974 Nov 2, 1976 Carver R W Method and apparatus for reducing noise content in audio signals
      US4658426 * Oct 10, 1985 Apr 14, 1987 Harold Antin Adaptive noise suppressor
      US4733193 Nov 19, 1985 Mar 22, 1988 Jiri Klokocka Arrangement for eliminating signal hum
      US5937070 * Oct 2, 1995 Aug 10, 1999 Todter; Chris Noise cancelling systems
      * Cited by examiner

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  10. Hunters have ear pieces that turn of at 85 disables, then work for normal hearing why do hearing aids have this, would save greater hearing loss?

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    • I think most hearing aids do offer this protection. By noise-canceling I am referring to blocking out repeated background sounds or noise. Things like the roar of an airplane engine, etc. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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  11. I was just looking at the Bose 35’s today and I really want a pair. They not only block out the hubub of noise all around me, they seem to mask or reduce or… My tinnitus symptoms. I havent experienced that much quiet for as long as I can remember.

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  12. So you are saying that (if I understand correctly) you wear your HA’s with the headphones….and can actually
    hear conversation, TV, and birds, etc?
    I’m wearing a Phonak Brio 2 and do not hear conversation well at all. I’m in a classroom daily and it is so frustrating.

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  13. I was looking up this question because I have a friend who is experiencing hearing loss and distortion of sound in one ear due to an injury. I believe that this technology could be made to work, but there’s at least one obstacle. Based on my understanding of active noise cancelling headphones, there are two separate components that allow them to work so well. First, a tiny microphone on the outside of the headphones picks up all of the audio from the room, inverts the phase of the audio, and plays the inverted signal back through the headphones. If you take two audio tracks playing at equal volume, and invert the phase of one of them, it results in no audio whatsoever (the signal is cancelled by its inverted self). While that is happening, a separate signal from a computer or phone is pumped in. Since the ambient noise is already gone, the desired signal is clearer and easier to hear. In order for the principle to work with a hearing aid, it would almost require a separate, tiny, very directional, wireless microphone that could provide the desired audio after the hearing aid cancels the ambient sound. A little bluetooth microphone mounted on glasses frames could work, potentially. I’d like to see this happen. Great post!

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  14. Active noise cancelling hearing aids are mandatory for me. My hearing is worthless in a restaurant. In theory it would be relatively easy to do. I have a Bose noise cancelling headset. You can flip a switch and it gets instantly silent. Then you can hear music very well, and not missing the higher tones. An active noise cancelling hearing aid could accomplish this in two parts: 1) Attenuate all background noise, and 2) Use an amplifier to amplify the higher tones in a human voice, as well as the spectrum of speech, and retransmit it into the ear canal.
    Also, I have tinnitis. I know from my work in the radio frequency field that if you generate a similar frequency sound wave as what is generated by tinnitis, except with opposite polarity, it will cancel out the tinnitis tones and you’ll hear only silence. Why is something like this not produced? Small adjustments could be made through a smartphone to allow the tinnitus tones to be cancelled with both volume and opposite polarity. Yes, I’d pay more for such a device. It’s like you can buy “invisible” hearing aids, and that’s touted as the best feature. Sure it’s nice, but if you don’t address the noise cancelling issue, they’re worthless. I’m better off with nothing, or at least, no worse off without the hearing aids.

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  15. There are already on the market noise cancelling headsets which to a significant degree can help the person who is hard of hearing. Bose, for example, make the Hearphone which has always-on noise cancelling combined with features which allow for alteration of the bass/treble balance, amplification, and incorporate directional microphones to help filter out the sounds you don’t want to hear and focus on those that you do. They also have high fidelity ear pieces which give sound quality that the very tiny loudspeakers in a hearing aid cannot match, irrespective of price. How effective the Bose is can be seem by the number of positive reviews on Amazon by people including those who have retired their much more expensive hearing aids! The Hearphone can’t be marketed as an hearing aid but outperforms most. Where the hearing aid does score is its ability to boost fairly exactly the range of frequencies that the individual has lost and this is something that for many people is necessary to have. When people like Bose include this too, traditional hearing aid manufacturers will have some very serious competition on their hands!

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  16. Thank you for your helpful site.
    I need some advice.
    I had surgery on my brain 2019, opened skull for 8-9 hours on Oct. 29th, then on the 30th rested then had
    9 hours of open skull brain surgery on the 31st for tumor. They got 60%. I lost all hearing in my right ear.
    I was told about the Phonak cros and the Widex cros hearing aids. I’ve been researching both and they sound good but have been told that they do not help me hear in groups, restaurants. Do you wear any cros aids and do they work canceling background noise?
    Thank you
    G’ma

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    • Thanks for your question. I am not familiar with cros aids but I imagine they will face similar background noise challenges as typical aids. For restaurants the Bose Hearphones which does have noise cancelling might be worth a try. Your audiologist might have other suggestions. Good luck to you!

      Like

  17. I attend a gym and listen to music and podcast streaming through my Bluetooth hearing aids (HA’s).
    They should suffice but the loud ambient music of some nearby excerize classes makes this an impossibility.
    I do own the Sony Noise-cancelling HEAD-phones and they are great but they are far too cumbersome to wear at the gym over my HA’s.

    Here are 2 solutions I’ve come up with:
    1. Test out dedicated noise cancelling earbuds and remove your HA’s in such situations.
    2. For Hearing Aid wearers: I am testing Widex Evoke HA’s and their app has a feature dedicated to a version of noise-cancelling called Sound Mixer. As soon as you begin streaming music/podcasts to the HA’s the app allows you to dial up/down the amplification of your streaming and also the amplification of your surroundings.
    It actually works except that my HA tips are open ended allowing the ambient noise to filter through.
    Unless you can switch out the earbud tips to closed tips each time you use this noise-cancelling feature, you will be stuck with the ambient world.
    So for now, choice #1 works best for me.
    Good Luck!

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  18. Hi Shari,
    thanks for this thread and articles of yours I have read. I very much agree with your whish for noise reduction. While I practically don’t hear anything anymore above 3.5kHz, my main wish is to reduce surrounding noise to better focus on what I want to hear. While hearing aids are great for me in moderate and quite situations (perfect at work in meetings), bars and cocerts are impossible.
    Half a year ago, I have purchased Bose Hearphones. Wow! I can tune down the volume at load concerts, I use it the car, in noise public places, in the canteen. And the microphone directivety works well for me, especcially as noise from behind can effectively be blocked.
    However, I see a big issue with the product. Opposed to a proper hearing aid, there is no MPO that can be set. This can be a big issue when for example a train stops and noise is so loud, that the input stage of the hearphone can not handle it. Then the Hearphone generates a distorted signal at high volume, which adds up to the already high level noise. I don’t know whether this is up to a dangerous level, but it is cerainly not something I would like to have. And then of course it does not have hearing aid features I would need for normal conversation (specifically dynamic compresseion and frequency compression). And in the end they are still bulky and battery life time is limited…
    So I am wondering, whether hearing aid manufactures do provide active noise cancellation by now. Naturally only with closed (maybe vented with filters) ear pieces and not with open supply.

    Are you aware of any such advances in the field or links on the matter?

    What I am considering for myself now is using a “regular” modern hearing aid with an ear piece with linear passive attenuation (around 9dB to15dB across the “full” frequency range, depending on filter chosen).

    However, it would be nice to combine that with active noise cancellation to get even more attenuation of unwanted noise in really loud environments.

    Thanks again for your postings!

    Christoph

    Like

    • My understanding is that many hearing aids offer noise cancelling features, but that they unfortunately do not mimic the true noise-cancelling of the Bose products. Hopefully one day. With the advent of OTC hearing aids soon, new features may become available across all types of hearing aids. Thanks for your interesting comment.

      Like

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