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Hearing Aid Issues for the Hearing Impaired Audiophile

Part I

June, 2006

Wayne Sarchett

 

Introduction

So, you're an audiophile, huh?  The hearing ain't quite as sharp as it used to be  . . . ehhhhh?  You're thinking it might be time to consider buying hearing aids?  You check the websites of the major hearing aid companies and read "CD quality sound" or something similar.  Not very encouraging, but maybe it isn't that bad?  Well brace yourself, it's worse. They are not even close to CD quality sound!  The pair of $6000 hearing aids you're thinking of buying will make your Hi-Fi stereo sound worse than a $25 table radio.

This is NOT an exaggeration. Read about my findings.

I am a hearing impaired audiophile. That may seem like a contradiction, but it is not.  I was not always hearing impaired.  There are many of us in the world, due to loud noise, loud music, too intense through our ear buds/headphones, and our numbers are increasing every day.

It is my observation that the subject of hearing impairment issues has been swept under the rug in audiophile circles, as it seems nobody wants to tackle this subject.  For those of us who are only slightly hearing impaired, we just increase the volume of the music.  Then, as we get older and hearing diminishes some more, we use headphones.  Finally, as the curve on our audiogram becomes steeper, usually with an increasing loss of high frequencies, hearing aids (HA) become mandatory. 

For the hearing impaired audiophile, hearing aids are the most important component in his or her hi-fi system equipment chain.  This review deals with the sound quality of various hearing aids and may be a first to appear in the audiophile media.

By the way, all of us will be hearing impaired to some extent as we get older, so if you think this article does not apply to you, and you are at least 25 years old, take a look here, and read about "Hearing Loss Due to Age".

Background

For many years, I listened to music on my hi-fi system through headphones or turning up the volume.  In 1989, I purchased the first hearing aids that were a technological breakthrough in terms of sound quality and realistic reproduction of music.  These were manufactured by ReSound, a new hearing aid company established as a result of extensive research by Edgar Villchur, the genius and founder of Acoustic Research, in collaboration with AT&T Bell Labs, and the inventor of the AR turntable and acoustic suspension speakers. 

The ReSound hearing aids used an integrated analog circuit that was programmable in order to compensate for an individual's unique hearing loss. This resulted in a nearly flat frequency response across the frequency spectrum for the user, a technical breakthrough at the time.  These were the first hearing aids I used for serious listening to music and they were superb at reproducing an audio/musical event.  In 1998, ReSound introduced a new and improved programmable analog hearing aid, the model CC4, which I had the good fortune to participate in the alpha clinical trials for this improved technology.  These are my current reference hearing aids.

At about this same period, manufacturers began introducing the first all-digital hearing aids.  Words can't describe how awful these sounded.  I tried a pair before purchasing the ReSound CC4 and wore them a total of two hours before returning them.  The all-digital hearing aids have improved considerably since then. However, to my chagrin, when it was time to replace my ReSound CC4s two years ago, I discovered that the CC4 had been discontinued.  This led me on a search for new hearing aids only to discover that the programmable analog technology is being discontinued by the hearing aid industry.  Since 1997, I have auditioned and evaluated about 20 different brands/models of hearing aids, including all-digital, programmable analog, and analog.

If you visit the websites of the major HA manufacturers, you will be overwhelmed with information that is peppered with marketing hype and terminology, buzz words, and a mind-boggling assortment of features, many of which have little or nothing to do with sound quality.

You will also see pictures of elderly folks smiling a lot and phony testimonials.  My personal experience is this is inflated and misleading hype.  I was told unofficially by a leading HA company Vice President that quality sound for music reproduction has no priority among any of the current hearing aid companies. In listening to the new crop of hearing aids, I find this to be entirely believable.

How They Were Tested

All auditions were A/B type comparing the trial HA with my reference, and the differences were readily discernable.  My reference HA is the ReSound CC4, which is programmable analog and sounds very good to excellent, lacking only the last nth degree of resolution and deep bass response.  I would play a musical passage with the trial aids and then the reference, repeating until I was satisfied that I had identified the differences. 

Some things I listen for when auditioning hearing aids include:

  • Does the composition (music) sound realistic?  What are the problems?
  • How about rhythm and pace?  And micro and macro dynamics?
  • How is the timbre of instruments?  Does the saxophone sound like a sax?  The piano sound like a piano?  The violins, etc.
  • How is the timbre of the accompanying groups/instruments?
  • How is clarity?  Is there any grain or distortion?  How about resolution?
  • Is there balance among the various groups in the orchestra?  between instruments? 
  • When the music gets complex are all groups balanced and clearly defined?
  • Does the attack and decay of transients (notes) sound natural?  Are they clearly defined?
  • Are transient spikes rendered cleanly and clearly, with air and separation?
  • Listen for separation and air between notes, instruments and groups.
  • Listen for the proper pitch of notes.
  • Listen for musical detail rendered properly for the solo or lead theme, the background or accompaniment, low-level volume passages, fortissimos, etc. 
  • Do I hear smearing and congealing of the music?  On fortissimos?
  • Is there a soundstage?  How clearly is it defined?  How believable?

Click Here to Go to Part II.

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