Wireless connectivity: What it is and why it matters


All electronics used to require wires to conduct sound until 1989, when Swedish conglomerate Ericsson Mobile created the short-link radio technology we now know as Bluetooth(R). Applications for this groundbreaking invention quickly expanded and Bluetooth became the standard wire replacement protocol due to its comparatively low power consumption and broadly effective communication system. Today, it’s used to untether hearing aid wearers from audio sources by effectively transforming these medical devices into wireless headsets. Here are some of the challenges wireless hearing aids can help wearers overcome.

Challenge #1: Telephone conversations

Some wearers find their hearing aids whistle when they hold a phone receiver to their ear. Others find it hard to follow conversations. Hearing aids that use Bluetooth streaming enable wearers to route telephone conversations directly into their hearing aids. This is often accomplished through an intermediary accessory that pairs hearing aids to smartphones. The wearer can then hear a caller’s voice through both hearing aids for greater speech understanding, even if they’re outside or in noisy surroundings.

As for landlines, more advanced hearing aids have programs that are activated by a magnetic signal as soon as you hold a receiver against your ear. The hearing aid worn in the ear next to the receiver picks up the speaker’s voice and transmits it wirelessly into the hearing aid in the other ear. Again, the wearer can hear the speaker’s voice in both ears, which makes it clearer and easier to understand.

Challenge #2: Single-sided deafness

Some people have no hearing in one ear but hear normally or partially out of the other. Wireless solutions known as CROS and BiCROS can help amplify hearing. Here’s how they work: a hearing aid transmitter is worn on the unaidable ear, which then detects sound and wirelessly transmits it to the hearing aid on the ear with better hearing, allowing wearers to hear sounds from both sides (a CROS solution). If some hearing loss is also present in the aidable or “better” ear, the hearing aid will receive sound from the unaidable side, mix it with its own input, and amplify the combined signal (a BiCROS solution). With either solution, the signal is processed to promote speech clarity, sound quality and spatial perception.

Challenge #3: Hearing announcements and alerts

Even with perfect hearing, deciphering announcements made via public address (PA) systems is challenging. Those who are hard of hearing often find it impossible, which can lead to missing trains, going to the wrong gate at airports, or worse — missing emergency alerts. The US is sadly behind on using induction loops in transportation hubs. These sound systems use a loop of wire wrapped around a building to produce an electromagnetic signal to transmit sounds. An induction loop enables hearing aid wearers to use their hearing aid's telecoil (T-coil) setting to pick up PA announcements wirelessly through their hearing aids.

Induction loops can also be found in auditoriums, concert halls, movie theaters, places of worship and similar venues. Hearing aid wearers and others using handheld or wearable devices (usually offered at looped locations) can tap into the transmission and hear lectures, music, soundtracks and other audio clearly despite crowd noise or being situated a distance from an audio source.

Challenge #4: Utilizing apps

Most manufacturers now offer smartphone apps that can be used as remotes for controlling volume, switching audio sources and changing other hearing aid settings. Apps provide an extra level of discretion, as to others it appears the user is simply checking their texts.

Even more exciting are telehealth apps that allow wearers to connect to their hearing care professional, who can make minor remote hearing aid adjustments or answer questions via chat, thus reducing the need for in-office appointments. Telehealth apps also help wearers adapt more quickly to their hearing aids with the use of gamification, usage tracking, subjective ratings of listening experiences, and much more.

Challenge #5: Direct connection without intermediary devices

Not all hearing aids require accessories for wireless connectivity. Some now use Bluetooth to connect wearers directly to their iPhone(R) and other electronic devices. Advantages include enabling hearing aids to react to the wearer’s changing environment through the use of iPhone sensors that register the wearer is in motion. The hearing aids automatically adjust to better hear a conversation partner at the wearer’s side or from the back while maintaining awareness of sirens and other environmental sounds, which improves listening comfort and safety. Calls and music can also be streamed directly into hearing aids for greater convenience and clarity.

Wireless technology allows hearing aid wearers to stay connected to their favorite electronic devices, listening environments and people. If you’re in the market for a pair of wireless hearing aids, talk to your hearing care professional about all the advanced features available.