Years ago, those suffering from the loss of hearing had to use bulky analog hearing aids that did little good, were difficult to program, and certainly weren’t fashionable. Now, we have sonus complete, and digital hearing aids that took all the positives of analog hearing aids and made the negatives better to ensure a better hearing for anyone. With so many digital hearing aids on the market, though, where does one start?
Four major manufacturers of digital hearing aids exist in the US: Siemens, Beltone, Starkey, and Phonak. Each manufacturer provides a number of options for digital hearing aids with varying degrees of strength and accuracy dependent upon the user’s needs. My father has used a large variety of digital hearing aids, and even some analog hearing aids and sold digital hearing aids for four years, which provided him both a user’s and a seller’s perspective of digital hearing aids. In the course of that time, he discovered that not all digital hearing aids were created equal.
In general, as expected, my father found that the more one spent on digital hearing aids, the better those aids served him. More expensive digital hearing aids provide more options and more channels, and usually better quality. Digital hearing aids range from around $500 to $2000, with some very high-end digital hearing aids costing as much as $5000 or more. Some insurance companies cover all or part of this cost, but coverage varies widely.
From my father’s experience, the models of digital hearing aids varied less than the brands for quality. He currently wears only Starkey digital hearing aids and owns three different pairs. In the past, he has also used Beltone digital hearing aids, but found those to be “more hype than quality.” In addition to the superior quality of Starkey digital hearing aids, they were the first in the industry to provide warranties and trial periods. Recently, Starkey has implemented Bluetooth technology as an optional ($300) addition to their digital hearing aids. Users of this technology receive cell phone calls directly to their digital hearing aids, bypassing the often-troublesome problems of regular cell phones.
His hearing loss is sizable at the higher frequencies (women’s voices pose particular problems for him) and his ability to hear in crowded or noisy environments has been a struggle for quite some time. Behind the ear digital hearing aids, though less fashionable, provide the greatest ability to normalize his hearing. These can come in a variety of colors. Flexible, smaller sized behind the ear technology is available from Starkey in the form of their Destiny hearing aids, which utilize nanotechnology instead of digital technology, but most digital hearing aids can be a bit bulky, though technology has allowed them to become increasingly smaller and less noticeable. Due to the increased size over other forms of digital hearing aids, as well as the less desirable appearance, behind the ear digital hearing aids tend to be less expensive than other types.
Despite the better quality of his behind the ear digital hearing aids, my father prefers to use in the ear canal digital hearing aids. Forays into completely in the ear canal digital hearing aids (which are the least noticeable) have found them particularly uncomfortable and itchy. They are not easily noticed by other people and a bit more comfortable for him to wear. These types of digital hearing aids are more expensive and the batteries need to be replaced more often, but stigmatism based on hearing aid wear discourages him from wearing the larger but more practical behind the ear hearing aids. My mother has countered that she prefers him to wear the behind the ear digital hearing aids when she wishes him to actually hear what’s going on.
Most digital hearing aids can be purchased from audiologists or from hearing aid shops. When my father sold hearing aids, many people balked at the cost of digital hearing aids and turned to analog hearing aids purchased from catalogs as an alternative. These people almost invariably came in a short time later to “upgrade.” Some hearing aids that can be purchased very cheaply (some are available for only $100) can actually stimulate more hearing loss, as they are largely just amplifiers for sound. Digital hearing aids can be fine-tuned by computers to a greater degree than analog hearing aids and adjusted to an individual’s hearing loss.
The Starkey Cierra hearing aid is one of the lower end digital hearing aids. It has only two channels and three memory settings (to be adjusted based on location and environment) and costs between $1500 and $2100, depending on seller and form: this digital hearing aid is available in all forms from behind the ear to in the ear canal. Although basic, this hearing aid was not subject to the “tinny” sounds that some other brands produce and can be given an optional add-on of telephone awareness. Telephones often create problems with digital hearing aids, and this optional addition avoids some degree of that, though my father was not pleased with the degree to which it helped.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Starkey DaVinci hearing aid is available only as a behind the ear hearing aid. At $1800 to $2800, depending on the seller, this digital hearing aid has increased bandwidth and directional technology that allow for a much-enhanced version of the traditional digital hearing aid. This digital hearing aid performs well in any environment but really demonstrates its power in noisy or crowded conditions, where those conditions can be virtually negated so that only the conversation the wearer wishes to hear is heard.
Recently, my father had “the pleasure to wear” a very expensive Starkey hearing aid. This hearing aid, costing $5000, would be a “no-brainer” if he had the funds to purchase it: The Destiny. With nearly absolute control over background sounds and increased normalization abilities, the Destiny permitted him to hear someone talking at a normal volume in the next room, which he has not been able to do in many, many years.
Overall, there’s no one digital hearing aid that works for everyone. Individual shops may have brand preferences that differ from that of my father and his shop, but licensed audiologists are able to help determine what type of digital hearing aid is right for the individual. With the advent of warranties and trial periods, which are now available through most major manufacturers, users can try different ones and determine which one works best for their situation. The upfront cost may seem high on most digital hearing aids, but the price of poor hearing is much greater in the long run.