Karen McGrane

Bionic Hearing Basics


Wearing hearing aids is just like wearing glasses, except for the part where they cost as much as a used car and you wear them inside your head.

As such, buying hearing aids is complicated and nerve-wracking. I’ve had lots of practice: I’ll be buying my 8th pair of hearing aids sometime this summer. These are the basic features I’m looking for in hearing aids:

1. No Tubing

My primary source of frustration with behind the ear (BTE) hearing aids is the need to have them re-tubed. In older model BTEs, the plastic tubing that runs from the hearing aid to the earmold (the part that sits inside your ear) gets brittle and dried out. When it’s too old, it can crack, separate from the mold, or get stiff and uncomfortable. Usually, BTEs need to be retubed 3 or 4 times per year, which means too many trips to the audiologist for me.

2. Moisture Controlled

The biggest cause of hearing aid repairs is moisture. Humidity can easily build up in the tiny workings of the hearing aid. For my most recent hearing aid purchase, I opted for in the ear (ITE) aids because they wouldn’t need to be re-tubed. However, ITE aids are much more sensitive to moisture because their electronics sit inside the ear, where they’re more exposed to wax, sweat, and other moisture. While having ITE aids did reduce the time I had to spend getting the aids re-tubed, it greatly increased the time my hearing aids spent being serviced by the manufacturer for moisture problems. Moisture will always be a problem, but BTE models are better, and newer hearing aids control moisture buildup.

3. Large Batteries

If I giving advice to anyone on what to consider in purchasing a hearing aid, the first thing I would tell them to consider is battery size. Size is important not just because it determines how often you have to change the batteries, but also because of how physically challenging it is to swap the batteries out. Tiny hearing aids use tiny, tiny batteries, which have to be changed frequently and can easily be dropped. I like to imagine myself as the sort of person who would only change my hearing aid batteries at a table over a soft cloth. In real life my hearing aid will die just as I’m late for a meeting, and I’ll find myself replacing the battery while standing on a street-corner waiting for the light to change. So the battery has to be large enough to be easy to manipulate (and hopefully last longer so I have fewer intersection exchanges.)

4. Wax Guards

Wax guards in my ITE aids changed my life. A previous pair of ITEs was in the shop constantly due to wax buildup in the tubes. Newer hearing aids have little plastic wax baskets that sit in the tubing, and can be flicked out and replaced when they get full of gunk. Genius.

5. Digital

Oh, yeah. The biggest revolution in hearing aids in the past few years is also the last on my list. My current set of hearing aids is my first digital set. The difference was life-altering. New digital hearing aids do a much better job of focusing the sound and filtering out background noise than older analog models. Analog just amplifies everything it hears, while digital focuses on speech and reduces static. I remember getting my first pair of digital hearing aids and going out to a noisy, crowded restaurant for the first time. Imagine what it feels like to go from having to struggle to hear anything in a noisy room to being the person who could hear better than anyone else at the table.

That’s the promise of bionic hearing.