Hearing Aids

How to buy a hearing aid

Do you know someone who needs to buy a hearing aid, but hasn’t yet? I do.

I talk to people all the time about the decision to acknowledge their hearing loss and invest in hearing aids. I know how hard it is for people to come to terms with that decision. While I can’t make the emotional decision any easier, I can offer some advice on how to shop for a hearing aid.

1. Shop for an audiologist

The most important decision you make isn’t which hearing aid brand or model to buy. It’s who will be your audiologist—the person who will dispense and fit your hearing aid.

Your audiologist is like a combination of your family doctor and a salesman at Best Buy. They’re going to evaluate your hearing, but they’re also trying to sell you a piece of technology.

The good ones have all the best qualities of both: able to explain complex concepts, don’t talk down to you, patient with your questions and struggles, give you the information you need but still let you make up your own mind. The bad ones have all the worst qualities of both: patronizing, brusque, use too much technical jargon, become impatient when you don’t do what they want you to. I mean no insult to the many good audiologists out there when I say: I’ve seen some bad ones.

Meet with more than one audiologist before you decide to work with one. Find someone who you’re comfortable talking to, and who seems like he or she will take the time to make sure you get the right fit.

2. There’s no best brand, only the brand that’s best for you

People ask me all the time: What brand should I get? The answer is: I don’t know.

There are many different hearing aid manufacturers: Widex, Siemens, Oticon, Phonak, and Starkey, just to name a few. In the same way that some drivers love Ford and hate Chevy, are passionate about their BMW, or only buy Hondas, audiologists and hearing aid wearers get attached to a particular brand.

Different manufacturers are known for different things. Widex has good noise suppression technology, and they offer a program that may help tinnitus sufferers. Phonak and Oticon offer Bluetooth. Starkey emphasizes its CIC (completely in the canal) model. Each manufacturer has different R&D priorities, so what they’re good at may change over time.

When talking to audiologists, ask them which hearing aid brands they dispense, which ones they prefer, and why. Hearing aid fittings are done using software provided by the manufacturer, and often your audiologist will be better at using one application than another, so it’s good to buy from an audiologist who is experienced with your particular model.

3. Buy for how you’re going to use it, not how bad your hearing is

You might be thinking “I don’t need an expensive hearing aid right now, because my hearing isn’t that bad.” Or you might think “Only the best for my mother! I want her to hear as well as she can.”

Like computers, hearing aids come in different price points. Make your decision about how much to spend based on where and how you’ll use the hearing aid. Buy a high-end hearing aid if you plan to use it in noisy environments, but don’t buy more power than you need.

Someone who mainly stays home and watches TV or has conversations in quiet environments doesn’t need a top of the line hearing aid — any more than someone who uses a computer mainly to surf the web and answer email needs a quad core Mac Pro.

On the other hand, if you’re relatively active, you will place more demands on your hearing aids. Crowded restaurants, conference centers, baseball games and airplanes all require your aids to work harder to filter out background noise and focus on what people are saying to you.

4. Don’t get seduced by features

I have fallen into this trap too. Bluetooth! Tiny! Colors! What you want is the absolute best hearing aid for you in terms of sound quality, noise suppression, and fit. Everything else is just decoration.

Personally, I do not believe it is worth it to get hearing aids with Bluetooth right now. I’m about as tech savvy as they come, and I wasn’t happy with my experience. This area is worth keeping an eye on, but don’t choose a hearing aid just because it has Bluetooth.

As a long-time hearing aid wearer, I also don’t think it’s wise to focus on size over other hearing aid features. I know first-time hearing aid wearers are sensitive about people knowing they have hearing loss, and I am completely sympathetic. But tiny hearing aids can have big problems with wax and moisture. You may also find that changing tiny batteries several times a week is a chore.

5. Try different earmolds for fit

It’s likely that you will consider a behind-the-ear hearing aid. While opinions vary on this, I personally prefer BTEs—I think they’re more comfortable and spend less time in the repair shop than in-the-ear models.

With a BTE, the hearing aid sits behind or at the top of your ear, and a plastic piece sits inside your ear. There are many different configurations for this earmold. You can get a little rubber dome (shaped like a gumdrop). You can get a custom made mold, fitted to the shape of your ear canal. Custom earmolds come in different shapes and can be made from different kinds of hard or soft plastic.

Which earmold is right for you depends on your degree of hearing loss—but it also depends on which feels most comfortable. Ask your audiologist to tell you about the options, and you may need to try different molds in addition to different hearing aids to find the right fit.

Buying hearing aids is not a great experience. The industry could do a much better job of focusing on what consumers need. Take advantage of the trial period offered (here in New York it’s 90 days) and plan to spend 6 months (or more) trying different models.

You will be better off in the end.

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20 thoughts on “How to buy a hearing aid

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Karen, for saying what needs to be said – clearly. Imagine that. Sage advice from someone who wears the buggers (as do I).

    Now, if only I can get my fellow professionals in the field to communicate with their patients in the same manner as you, instead of using the same old drivel from 20 years ago they is “repost” to Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and call it “new”……

  2. A list. 1 to 5. Doesn’t get better than this. I’m a lot more in control than I was 5 minutes ago. Unknowing is paralyzing. Knowing push us forward. Thank you, Karen!

  3. I love what you have to say about UX AND the hearing industry. Oddly my passions lay in the same two categories.

    I am a web designer with a passion for user experience design and I work for an exceptional audiologist, Dr. Barbara Jenkins. A few years ago I redesigned her site and just the usability and professionalism of the site increased her referrals 200%.

    This post is such a breath of fresh air as the hearing aid industry is often perceived as a money stealing, out-dated group of sales people trying to sell you the most expensive device.

  4. Karen, this is an Excellent Article! There are a couple of minor points I’ll address in a follow-up comment this weekend; however especially with respect to your comments about Bluetooth (BT), the teething problems you experienced with your Oticon Streamer have been sorted out; with Widex, GN ReSound, GN Danavox (EU), and others having it now; and still others (including cochlear implant (CI) manufacturers Advanced Bionics, MedEl, Cochlear andNeurelec) are all scrambling to add compatibility to their instruments.

    ————————————

    I’d like to add to your article that the missing ingredient when buying hearing aids is often auditory rehabilitation (AR), especially for those who are sold hearing aids for mild to moderately severe hearing loss like we have. AR is typically given along with speech therapy for hearing impaired children, and is especially important. AR is also (usually) included at some of the 250 CI centers in the US, and at all 23 CI centers in the UK:

    * To underscore the importance of what happens when AR is not done, one need only watch the superb and touching HBO documentary “Hear and Now,” as filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky accidentally documents what happened when her parents did .NOT. get the AR they needed. Please see my detailed review on the Amazon.com “Hear and Now” page for a more extensive discussion of this issue.

    * My friend Tina Lannin in London has one of the top hearing and deafness blogs in England. She has an extensive article listing online and offline auditory therapy resources from the English-speaking world.

    * Well-respected Univ. of California-San Francisco (UCSF) audiology professor Robert Sweetow has the very good Neurotone “LACE Listening Program” AR (auditory therapy) DVD and Web based program with many dozens of exercises. I have received good reports from audiologists, including one who dispenses hearing aids and includes it in her package. There are sample exercises you can download on the Neurotone website.

    Dan Schwartz
    Editor, The Hearing Blog
    Cherry Hill, New Jersey

  5. I’d like to add to your article that the missing ingredient when buying hearing aids is often auditory rehabilitation (AR), especially for those who are sold hearing aids for mild to moderately severe hearing loss like we have. AR is typically given along with speech therapy for hearing impaired children, and is especially important. AR is also (usually) included at some of the 250 CI centers in the US, and at all 23 CI centers in the UK:

    * To underscore the importance of what happens when AR is not done, one need only watch the superb and touching HBO documentary Hear and Now, as filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky accidentally documents what happened when her parents did .NOT. get the AR they needed. Please see my detailed review on the Amazon.com Hear and Now for a more extensive discussion of this issue.

    * Well-respected Univ. of California-San Francisco (UCSF) audiology professor Robert Sweetow has the very good Neurotone LACE Listening Program AR (auditory therapy) DVD and Web based program with many dozens of exercises. I have received good reports on LACE from audiologists, including one who dispenses hearing aids and includes it in her package. There are sample exercises you can download on the Neurotone website.

    Dan Schwartz
    Editor, The Hearing Blog
    Cherry Hill, New Jersey

  6. Chuck2 says:

    Another missing bit of information in your discussion is “User programming” hearing aids. After several experiences with audies both professional and academic. I decided to look for aids which I could adjust using software and my computer. I bought aids over the internet from HearSource (http://www.hearsource.com/)with a receiver in the ear (RITE) and t-coil options for $1200.00/ear. The interface between the aids is a HearSource ‘MiniTec’ which connects to one (1) computer USB port and to each aid using wire. HearSource programing software is loaded on the computer (I use Windows Xp SP3 OS with Intel dual core CPU). I looked at several aids from audies in the $3000.00/ear range. HearSource aid work and so does the software. I am looling for an app which I can load on my phone and adjust my aids wirelessly. Haven’t found it yet.
    I am also searching for a streemer which I can connect to my PC and TV using MI technology (http://www.freelinc.com/company/). Haven’t found the streemer either.
    Great Blog!

    • I’d also like to know what others think of buying hearing aids online. I bought from http://www.my-hearingworld.com and i’m now able to program them myself. I’m an electrical engineer by training and it’s a pretty simple task even at my age. The one piece i’m curious about is how others feel about it? I’ve gone to several audiologists in my area and was surprised by the prices of buying two devices! So, of course, I started researching that brand recommended by the Dr. and found that I could save on the cost by purchasing online. Then I found the above site and the appeal of being able to adjust myself. So, any thoughts?

  7. PatA says:

    Karen, Thanks for the well written and very informative article. I have a seven year old set of Oticon CIC aids that never helped my high pitched hearing loss. Hearing people speak is very difficult in noisy situations and if they have a soft voice in a quiet environment. I think my loud tinnitus makes it harder to hear, also. I’m looking for an aid that can really help me hear. Tinnitus reduction would be very nice but probably not available at this time. Like everyone else I don’t want to pay big bucks for nothing.

  8. Thanks for this post. I’m a little surprised I haven’t come across this blog before. I have a set of Oticon Epoq XW’s with the streamer. I have to say I’m actually pretty happy with the Bluetooth streamer, in spite of its clunkiness. Have not had any reliability problems with it, and it’s so much easier to talk on the phone with it.

  9. Sandi Alonzo says:

    I just got 2 BTE aids. The color matches my hair and no one notices I have them. I am in the 30 day trial period and like them. I have tile and granite in my house and find that I get an “echo” in my home. Outside is better. But I am still getting used to using the aids. I had to go to a specific store who dealt with my insurance. Glad to have coverage! I would have liked to try another place, but I am happy with the hearing aids. Good to know that you will NEVER get your hearing back to what it was, but very nice to hear people and TV!

  10. Although very small, hearing aids are very expensive to make. Think about everything that goes into making them work, a little electronic device that actual improves human hearing. Hearing aids are still very new in technology, technically. For more information on hearing aid or hearing loss checks out this website Advice on Hearing Aids. Really great site, loads of great info.

  11. Veronica Gabanski says:

    Hello Karen, first of all, you have a great writing style: tells you what you need to know and human in its tone. Thank you.

    I’ve just got to the point where I need some help with my hearing. So, trotted off to the audiologist I saw about 5 years ago when my hearing first took a dive. Before going it alone, he was the head audiologist at our local hospital (UK). He was recommended to me by a consultant at the hospital as someone very capable and not a shark, ‘He’ll loan items to you and he won’t push you into buying anything.’ True. The audio saw me, measured my hearing, talked to me in terms I could understand but which acknowledged I had a brain, saw me maybe three times once very six months at £25 a go, and then said it was up to me if I wanted to continue seeing him, but I could save my money and leave it until I felt the hearing was much worse and I needed more help. I’m at that point now. Saw him yesterday and he measured the hearing again, did the behind the ear and in front of the ear tests, looked in my ears for blockages. I’d emailed him a bullet-pointed list, so as to save him time, with what my particular problems were – tinnitus, sound distortion, low sounds difficult, driving getting worse because of not hearing when to change gear (most uk cars are not automatics) etc. He said that yes, my hearing had degenerated considerably and I was now at the point where it could do with some help. I teach 16-19-year-olds, so anything which will improve my hearing is welcome. His recommendation was the Widex Clear BTE. I’ve read up on them, so I can see why he knocked back my initial preference – for a CIC model. Your point about not being coy about hearing aids is fair enough. For years, I’ve hated the idea, and when I told my colleagues at work, I got so cheesed off with the reply I invariably got, ‘They do some quite nice ones now’, that I fired back: ‘Oh yeah? So how come you don’t want ‘em? You mean like you can get some really groovy glass eyes, and cute prosthetic limbs?’ People with perfect eyesight say they’d like to wear glasses, and many do, because it’s a fashion thing. Not come across, ‘Hey, you know what? I’d l think I’m going to pretend I’m deaf. Then I can get a HA to change my image from time to time. To look more studious, yeah? More uber-cool?’ But you’re right. There are a great many worse things that could be happening. It’s just a shock in the first instance, and for a woman ………let’s face it, there’s a reason that all those ‘mature’ female newsreaders look like babes and the older guys can go right ahead with their chubby chins and saggy-baggy eyes, cosying up next to them like they’re their grandad. That said, I’ve decided if I’m having a HA, it’s going to be a coloured one, and I don’t mean those yucky so-called skin-tone browns. The more people who go for not trying to hide it, like it’s something to be ashamed of, the better. Loud (ahem!) and proud.
    I’ll let you know how it goes.
    Best wishes, Veronica

  12. Agree with everything you said. I also wear hearing aids from HearSource and enjoy doing my own sound adjustments with my own computer. I have enjoyed this approach to fine tuning my own hearing aids.

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