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Australia Hears... And So Do I

Not too long ago we heard of an Australian company offering high performance digital hearing aids, based on new technology developed in Australia, at a fraction of the cost of other aids. I was intrigued - it's been a subject close to my heart ears for decades! Were they any good? Were they value for money? Did they work? And what is this latest technology in hearing aids, anyway? SILICON CHIP likes to look at electronics that are slightly out of the ordinary!

By Ross Tester

Regular readers will be aware of the series of hearing loop projects which we published during the latter part of last year and early this year to help the hearing impaired.

That prompted several requests for a build-it-yourself hearing aid. But as you would realise, miniaturisation of this magnitude is way beyond the skill level of most people!

Just to prove the point, we obtained a “dead” hearing aid, broke it open and photographed its innards. Apart from the near-impossibility of anyone constructing the ultra-miniature PCB, where are you going to get the appropriately-shaped “case”, the tiny speaker, the ear tube? You get the point, I’m sure.

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We broke open a modern hearing aid to show what’s inside it. The "works" is on that tiny PCB (centre) while in this model, the miniature in-ear speaker is at the top of the picture.

So no, this is not a build-it-yourself hearing aid. However, it is a “do-it-yourself” hearing aid – an apparent contradiction which we’ll get to shortly.

But first, let’s background this story a little. It’s a sad, personal tale so keep the tissues handy.

For nearly four decades (since January 1973 in fact – I can still remember the day) I have had significant hearing loss in one ear.

It all started with a very loud – and painful – audio tone from a two-way radio earpiece in the laboratory at Electronics Australia. For a couple of months I heard nothing but ringing in my right ear. When that subsided and my hearing eventually “returned” in that ear I was very aware that my high-frequency hearing was virtually non-existent.

At my age then (early twenties) I should have been able to hear to at least 15-16kHz. I was flat out hearing 2kHz. Over the ensuing months, some higher frequencies were restored but it was virtually a brick wall at 4kHz – where it has largely remained to this day.

It’s been something I (and, regrettably, everyone around me) have put up with ever since. And as I have aged, my “good” ear has also started to deteriorate, to the point where an audiologist described my hearing (especially in the right ear) as bordering on clinical deafness.

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Where's the hearing aid? If you look closely, real closely at the photo at left, you can just see the tiny tube entering Sarah's ear.
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It’s a bit clearer in the shot above, because her hair has been pulled out of the way so you can see it!

If you have never suffered from high frequency hearing loss, you could never understand just how difficult it is to decipher speech, in particular, with such a loss. Radio and TV programs particularly are terribly muffled (and turned up much too loud, according to everyone else!). Trying to understand conversations, particularly in a crowd or noisy environment, is almost impossible at times.

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Above is the hearing aid body behind the ear, again with Sarah’s hair pulled out of the way. It would normally cover the aid completely.

The closest thing I can think of to describe the problem is either an off-frequency AM radio station, without the sibilance or perhaps someone mumbling while speaking softly,

But apart from a couple of audiology tests done over the years (the most recent just on two years ago) I’ve done nothing about it. Why?

In the first of the hearing loop articles referred to above (October 2010), we said “But there are many people in the community who have hearing loss and, for various reasons (cost, denial and vanity are the main ones!) don’t own or want a hearing aid.”

I guess I fitted into the first and last categories. I certainly didn’t deny I had a hearing problem but equally I didn’t want a hearing aid – “they’re only for old people . . .” etc etc. (Someone reminded me the other day that if I wasn’t there already, I was rapidly approaching being a member of that august group!). But chief amongst my objections was that of cost.

At the time of the last audiology test, the specialist told me that I needed at least one, and preferably two, hearing aids – and then proceeded to show me models ranging from around $2,000 – “but you wouldn’t want one of them, they’re not real good” – right up to the latest and greatest wholly-in-ear models for only $12,000. Each!

I figured (alas incorrectly so far) that one day I would win Lotto, or perhaps stub my toe on a giant gold nugget while bushwalking and then I would buy myself some decent hearing aids. Or I would wait until I retired and get the pensioner’s specials!

In the meantime, I’d persevere (or everyone else would!) with what was an annoyance but something I could live with, albeit often with difficulty.

Then it all changed

Late last April, several TV news programs carried a story on an Australian company who were introducing quality hearing aids at a fraction of the price of existing models. They were based on new technology called ADRO which, as far as I could understand from the news reports, was developed in conjunction with the people responsible for the cochlear ear transplant program.

Unfortunately we missed the press launch but I saw the story on TV, with some interest. And so did the Editor of this esteemed publication – and next day he asked me to investigate further to see if there was the makings of a feature article for SILICON CHIP readers.

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The computer-plotted audiology tests shows quite significant hearing loss below 2kHz in my right ear (red plot), the result of a very loud tone in that ear, in the Electronics Australia laboratory nearly 40 years ago.

Now we’re not saying we think all SILICON CHIP readers are in the “need a hearing aid” category. But of course many are, or are heading that way (or know people who are).

Just as important, though, are the younger readers who might have parents who would benefit.

And let’s not forget that a huge proportion of younger readers in particular are almost certain to have significant hearing loss from (a) live music [why do bands have to play their music so damned loud?] and (b) excessive volume levels from the ear buds associated with their iPods/MP3 players/CD players etc [why do they have to play music so damned loud!] .

One recent report said that at least 21% of people between 48 and 59 showed serious hearing loss. The researchers measured hearing loss as the ability to hear certain tones, and also as the ability to recognise words at different sound levels and words spoken by male and female voices.

They found that 14.1% of the 3,285 study participants of all ages had some level of hearing loss.

Another study surveyed a sample of children aged 12 to 19 in 2005 and 2006 and found that 19.5% had some hearing loss. One expert said that listening to loud sounds through earbuds – the tiny electronic speakers that fit into ears, for use with personal music players – is probably the main reason that more adolescents are losing some of their hearing

Incidentally, if you even think you might have a hearing problem, there are any number of web sites where you can do a free rudimentary hearing check. It won’t replace the audiologist test , but it could give you the impetus to go and have that fair-dinkum test if it tells you that something is not quite right. Just Google free hearing test or somesuch words.

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