Hearing Aid: Analog vs Digital

As with everything else electronic, the technology of hearing aids continues to improve and change. Although some people still use analog hearing aids, most users today choose to purchase digital ones; both types have both critics and fans.

Analog hearing aids have been around a long time. They work very much the same way an old stereo system worked. The microphone picks up sound and converts it to electrical signals, the amplifier makes it louder and sends it to the receiver, and the receiver puts it into the user’s ear. And that, as they say, is the end of the story.

One of the big benefits of an analog hearing aid is that it’s inexpensive compared to digital ones. When cost is important, an analog hearing aid may be the best choice.

Analog systems do have some drawbacks, however. One is that they amplify all sounds equally. If you’re using an analog hearing aid to listen to a conversation and someone turns on a vacuum cleaner, that noise is going to drown out everything else.

One step toward solving that problem came when manufacturers began putting potentiometers into hearing aids to help “equalize” different levels of sound. That provided some control over background noise by letting users enhance or reduce certain kinds of noise.

Things got a lot better for analog hearing aid users when someone came up with the idea of making them programmable. They still were built on potentiometer technology, but now the potentiometers were built into the hearing aids and could be “tuned” with a computer. This allows them to be adjusted for different noise environments and changing levels of hearing loss. With some types, users are able to switch from one “channel” to another, to “fit” each situation.

However, analog systems ultimately are less sensitive then digital ones, and simply don’t provide as good an outcome for the user. Over time fewer and fewer of them have become available.

When digital hearing aids became available a whole new world opened up for people who had lost their hearing. Digital hearing aids are able to process sound in much more complex ways than analog hearing aids, which means much better output into the user’s ear.

The basic parts of a digital hearing aid still are the same as those in an analog one. The sound comes into a microphone, is processed and amplified, and is “piped” into the user’s ear. But today’s amplifiers use miniaturized computer circuitry to manipulate sound, which means they can fine-tune adjustments to the sound environment and the user’s needs. They are able to compensate for changing noise levels, different types of sound, and changes in someone’s hearing level much more effectively than any analog hearing aid possibly can.

Amazingly, a digital hearing aid also can be programmed to tell the difference between speech and just “background” noise. Then it can suppress background noise so the user can understand speech much more clearly.

This doesn’t mean everything is rosy for digital hearing aid users. They’re much more expensive than analog hearing aids, and repair is more expensive as well.

As technology changes, however, digital hearing aids are changing with it, and some now interface with cell phones, Bluetooth, and other technologies. Although nothing can restore normal hearing, digital hearing aids of some sort appear to be the best choice for most patients.