Karen McGrane

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.