3 Must Have Hearing Aid Features in 2019

Three Must Have Hearing Aid Features for Optimal Performance in 2019

PLUS a few more niche ones for specialist applications. As well as our predictions on what is coming in 2019

Updated: 22/5/19

Modern hearing aids have many built-in features. 

The biggest question is which is the best hearing aid for you?

It is hard for the layman to know which features actually make a real difference. There is a lot of marketing out there promoting various features and benefits, which just confusing matters more. Typically more expensive hearing aids have more features, but ironically not all of them matter much. 

This is extremely confusing, but let me help clear that up.

How are you supposed to know which hearing aid features really matter?

Some features, such as multiple channels, are easy to implement and look impressive on paper, but in reality don’t make much of a difference in the hearing aid’s actual performance for the average hearing aid user. Interestingly, some smaller manufacturers push these “paperweight” features as they tend to lack in the technically difficult features that really matter most to user benefit. You 

Confused about hearing aid features - Value Hearing clears that up

often see multiple channels (32, 64 or even 196) advertised as one of the key features in “cheaper” online hearing aids. These aids are often advertised as premium technology at low prices. In reality, 6 – 8 channels are all you really need for an optimally performing hearing aid.

This article will reveal which features you should consider having in your next hearing aid to achieve the best possible benefit available today. We have filtered out all the fluff, as well as the features such as effective feedback management, open fitting, Impulse Noise management, Noise reduction, Telecoil, electronic wind noise reduction etc., which are already well established.

We have selected three universally applicable features that can really make a difference to a hearing aid user’s experience. 

They are however, strictly the opinion of the author, who has over 19 years’ experience in hearing aid fitting and technology and who has seen the progress of digital hearing aids since their inception.

Note: Your best hearing aid should be chosen, not in isolation, but with the guidance of a good audiologist. Without this guidance you could end up with a hearing aid that just does not work well.

The very best hearing aids should have these three features:

Automatic Directional microphones – For better speech understanding in noise

Hearing aids have been able to effectively improve hearing in quiet situations pretty much since their inception. Over the last decade there really hasn’t been much difference between different hearing aid models’ performance in quiet situations. There are some factors which affect an individual person’s ability to hear well with hearing aids, but overall, most proper hearing aids do a great job of optimising hearing in quiet if fit professionally. 

Hearing aid partsA much bigger challenge is improving hearing in noise. In this respect, hearing aids have gradually become more effective in separating the speech you want to hear from the speech you don’t. Each person’s ability to hear in noise is different, so your needs regarding which technology is right for you can only be determined using comprehensive speech in noise testing

The only proven way to achieve this is through the use of directional microphones. A modern directional microphone system consists of two microphones on each hearing aid. When the directional microphone system is activated, the hearing aid focuses the direction of sound pick-up forward. This means you hear loudest from the direction you are looking at, while sounds next to and behind you are suppressed.

Directional microphones are most effective when they automatically switch when interfering background noise, often other speech, is detected. Manual systems only get it right when the user remembers to push the button to switch modes, which unfortunately does not happen consistently. Automatic systems get it right 90%+ of the time as they are analysing the sound hundreds of times a second.

There are several levels of directionality, listed below in order of complexity, from least to most complex.

Fixed Directionality – Does Not alter to follow the sound around you. Instead, it picks up the best in front and worst right next to you. Has been available for decades. If you move your head the noise level changes based on the fixed pattern. This is normally available in the lowest levels of hearing aid technology and most often require manual switching. 

Adaptive Directionality – A little smarter in that it follows the one loudest noise behind you as it moves, notching it out. (Many lower-end hearing aids have at least this level of directionality). This first became available around 20 years ago. This technology is often found in automatically switching hearing aids. 

Multi-Band Directionality – Follows multiple sound sources behind you, suppressing them even if they move or you move your head. The number of bands range from around 4 up to 48 in some more advanced models. This requires more processing has been available for the last decade or so.

Super Directionality (Beam Forming)– This is the most complex level of Directionality and can offer the best hearing in noise in certain situations like at cocktail parties. Here a hearing aid on one ear wirelessly combines its two microphones with the two on the other ear to form a four-microphone array. This is the latest innovation and has been available in limited brands, first released publicly around 7 years ago. 

This provides maximum pickup in a narrow beam in front of the hearing aid user while offering maximum suppression behind the hearing aid user. More modern versions of this can automatically trigger and follow the loud noises behind you. Hearing Aid Directional Microphones

Super Directionality is only available in limited brands, most notably Phonak (Marvel) has 3rd Generation Super Directionality) and Signia (Primax and Nx has 1st Generation Super Directionality). Not all models within the brand has this premium feature.

Oticon has released a new take on directionality, using its new Open Sound Philosophy. This is only available currently in Oticon Opn hearing aids. They claim that directionality as we know it is dead. They do seem to be onto something, but there appears to be some clients who do well with Super Directionality and not Oticon’s Open Sound strategy, while others have the reverse experience. We recommend choosing a clinic where both are available.

Note: Directionality requires hearing aid microphones to be spaced about 9 mm apart to be effective. For this reason, it tends to be available only in hearing aids with sufficient space to house the microphones. So as a rule, they are not available in Completely-in-the-canal or Invisible in the canal hearing aids. These small hearing aids tend compromise functionality for size. The exception is Signia 5NX and 7Nx Silk and CIC, which wirelessly connects the two single microphones in each hearing aid (Left and right) to form a directional microphone with two microphones. The directionality is not as good as with two microphones but is better than nothing. I would say it gets close to the performance of a Fixed Directional microphone. 

NOTE: The better a hearing aid’s directionality, the more expensive it tends to be. Not everyone requires the most expensive hearing aid with top end directionality to do well however. The only way to know is to undergo a speech in noise test and have your score matched to a hearing aid’s performance in noise. You can read more here about improving your hearing in noise

It is also critical you work with the hearing aid to get the most out of its directional microphones. Basically, keep noise to your back and the person you are listening to, to your front. We have an article detailing tips and tricks to get the most out of your hearing aids here.

Multi-Base Automatic Switching – for best automatic performance and less need for manual program changes

This one is likely to cause a bit of controversy as most manufacturers DON’T offer this feature. The reason for this goes back to the early days of digital hearing aids when it was technically very difficult to create a multi-base automatic hearing aid without some serious performance issues. Most manufacturers chose single base automaticity as the foundation of their digital strategy. A brave few chose the more complex multi-base automatic system as their foundation.

 

Automatic Hearing Aid are a bit like automatic gearboxes

To understand Multi-Base Automaticity, you first need to understand its counterpart, Single-Base Automaticity. Single-Base Automaticity means that the hearing aid, which is essentially a computer dealing with sound, has a single set of features active for its automatic program based on a few core settings like compression (how it deals with different levels of sound) and frequency response (how it corrects for your hearing at the different pitches).

When an environment is encountered requiring an automatic change, those underlying strategies stay the same, but adaptive features like noise reduction or directionality are increased or decreased.

A big advantage with this approach was that it was relatively easy to do without causing any noticeable switching effects to the end user. The big disadvantage is that if a setting required any underlying changes to the core processing, such as those required for music, then a manual program would need to be used for optimal performance.

Another limitation to the clinician would be that if a client has issues in one situation that is automatically adapted for e.g. background noise, they were left with one of two choices.

They could either change the noise settings and hope that all the other situations will remain acceptable, or they would have to create a manual program to address that single situation. This essentially means that the hearing aid is semi-automatic. More manual programs often means more confusion as the user has to figure out which setting is best for any given situation, which distracts from the conversation you are trying to have at the same time. 

Multi-Base Automaticity essentially switches the hearing aid automatically from one set of core features to another (Automatic program switching). So not only can the adaptive features change, but the frequency response and core compression characteristics can change automatically. This approach is much more automatic than single-base systems.

In the past, the biggest disadvantage was that hearing aid users could hear the hearing aid switch from one program to another, which was quite unsettling. With each generation, hearing aids become ever faster and now new strategies, like the blending of programs, gradually got rid of the side effects altogether. Today you can experience smooth transitions with optimal automatic functioning without compromise. 

The biggest advantages of modern Multi-Base Automatic hearing aids are that each automatic program can be changed independently of any other. This means, if you have difficulties hearing in noise, the clinician can confidently change only that program without any concern of changes to programs that are working well. The clinician also has very little need to add manual programs, which in turn means less manual fiddling from you, the user.

Availability of Multi-Base Automaticity:

Phonak (Sonova) 

Unitron (Sonova)

Hansaton (Post Sonova Acquisition models)

Why don’t other manufacturers just switch to Multi-Base Automaticity?

Most manufacturers tend to build on features from their previous generation hearing aids. This means that the next generation has all the features of the previous one PLUS MORE. To change to a completely new core digital strategy would mean that much of what was done previously would have to be discarded, and they would likely have to start everything  from scratch. They basically have too much to lose as they have to learn or licence what they don’t know about making Multi-Base Automaticity work effectively. They also run the risk of alienating the clinicians who are used to the way things have always been done in the past.

Some manufacturers like Siemens (now Signia) have tweaked their Single-Base Automatic system to allow a change to the frequency response and a few other criteria in its automatic settings, which is an improvement on other Single-Base Automatic systems. They do not however allow the full flexibility of a true Multi-Base automatic system and manual programs are still required at times.

Exceptional Sound Quality – Improved speech clarity, better music enjoyment and less distortion in loud environments

Digital Hearing aids have always had pretty good sound quality, but over the last 24 months we have seen some impressive advancements in how sound is captured and processed in these miniature computers.

In the past, limitations in size, power usage and processing ability, limited the range of sound input that could be processed in a hearing aid. The limited resources available then were focused on speech audibility at the cost of sound quality.Hearing aid sound quality

This is all starting to change, however. Big manufacturers have gradually been updating their hearing aid ranges with much more powerful processing, allowing them to deal with a wider range of incoming sound. This greatly improves their sound quality, especially for music. It also means less distortion in very loud environments.

The top rated manufacturers regarding sound quality are:

  1. Widex (Unique, Belong, Evoke)
  2. Starkey (, Livio, Synergy, IQ)
  3. Phonak (Belong, Marvel)
  4. Unitron (North, Tempus)
  5. Hansaton (Post Sonova Acquisition models)
  6. Oticon (Opn & OPN S hearing aids)
  7. Signia with their new Nx range
  8. GN Resound Quattro
  9. Bernafon Zerena & Viron
  10. Sonic Innovations Enchant & Captivate

That covers the top three features I believe one should consider as must haves in your next hearing aid. A combination of the features is better than any single one on its own through. Saying that, most modern hearing aids are far removed from their older siblings in terms of performance and quality.  Beware, there are still plenty of hearing aids using old chips delivering sub-optimal sound quality. That is also why you should never purchase an older model offered at a lower price. This practice is rife in the industry and is used by large chains such as Costco and SpecSavers to keep their prices low. You also need to understand that not everything out there that is advertised as hearing aids are actually hearing aids. 

That’s not all folks…..

The three features above are certainly key features that can make or break a hearing aid in today’s competitive market. They are universally beneficial and would apply to any hearing aid user. There are however a range of features which, are very helpful, but apply to only a certain hearing aid users. These are listed below:

Features to reduce tinnitus:

Widex, Siemens, Oticon, Phonak, Starkey, Unitron – You can read about how hearing aids help with tinnitus here

Powerful Features to dramatically improve hearing in Wind noise:

Phonak, Widex, Starkey, Siemens, Oticon (Opn), Unitron

Features to address severe or greater hearing loss in the high frequencies

Phonak, Unitron, Widex, Bernafon, Siemens, Starkey, Oticon (Opn)

Features to improve landline Phone use: (Allows you to hear landline calls in both ears)

Phonak, Unitron, Starkey

Features to greatly assist with single Sided Deafness (Wireless CROS)

Phonak, Widex, Starkey, Signia

The Ability to upgrade to a higher level of hearing aid later on by upgrading the hearing aid software

Unitron

Wireless connectivity for hands-free mobile phone use, access to remote microphones and better television enjoyment.

Phonak, Unitron, Hansaton, Siemens, Oticon, Bernafon, Sonic, Widex, Starkey

Direct Connectivity to mobile phones:

iPhone only: Oticon OPN, Widex Evoke, Starkey Halo, Resound Linx, Signia BT and Nx, Captivate, Viron

iPhone and Android: Phonak Direct, Phonak Marvel 

What is likely coming later in 2019:

  • Direct to Android and iPhone streaming will become more prevalent
  • Full featured remote assistance – where your clinician can access your hearing aids and adjust them via your smart phone. This means fewer clinical visits and the possibility of adjustments in the situations you are having trouble in. Phonak , Resound, Oticon and Signia appear to be first in line to release this functionality
  • More rechargeable hearing aid options from various brands
  • Artificial intelligence applications in hearing aid phone apps will become more prevalent
  • Hearing aids with sensors, like step counters and fall sensors will become available.
  • Remote microphone technology to assist hearing over distance and in background noise will become more main stream
  • The quality of direct audio streaming to TVs, Phones, Computers and other Bluetooth audio sources will become more important and allow the hearing aid to replace headphones for many users.

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30 Comments to “ 3 Must Have Hearing Aid Features in 2019”

  1. sylvia says :Reply

    This is one of the Best, easiest ! most comprehensive article I have read on ear aids !
    For anyone that does not need to have the government assistance , I would say Value hearing are the best people to deal with .

    They give fantastic service, and they are with out a doubt price wise…. Best !

    My son told me a few years ago that he had a client that said to him how very good with price and service they are .

    1. christo says :Reply

      Thank you Sylvia!

  2. Brett says :Reply

    Best article I have read. Thank you. Value hearing first, daylight second. You won’t be disappointed.

    1. christo says :Reply

      Ah, thanks Brett 🙂

  3. Subramanian says :Reply

    Great article . But costs are exorbitant with advanced features. Would be helpful if you can publish an article to trade off between cost n features. And how to keep costs low

    1. christo says :Reply

      Thank you very much for the comment. I am happy to comply with such an article. Our whole philosophy is to not go straight to the top, but to help you find the one that provides the best value (performance for your loss/Price).

      We have some information on that here: https://valuehearing.com.au/how-hearing-aids-are-selected-ethically/
      and here https://valuehearing.com.au/innovative-testing-leading-to-the-discovery-of-your-ideal-hearing-solution/
      as well as here: https://valuehearing.com.au/expect-hearing-test/

      I do however see the perspective you are asking about might do well in its own article.

  4. joe says :Reply

    Very interested in the “top 3 features” article. Am about to acquire a new set of aids and want to ensure that they are fully featured so that they remain reasonably “state of art” over a few years into the future. Have you guys published a comparison table, e.g. brand by feature matrix tick list, that shows what brand/model does what. Even better, a rating on how well the feature actually performs by brand vs the marketing claims. 🙂

    Thanks, great article

    1. christo says :Reply

      Hi Joe,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am glad you like the article. The best way to ensure that they aids stay state of the art is to make sure they work for you in noise. We have an article on this subject here

      I like your idea of the rating system and I’ll look if this is a viable project for us. In the end it comes down to a couple of features that truly make a difference. Many other features are simply marketing fluff.

  5. Allan says :Reply

    I am thinking “how does Christo know if claimed features work” (as claimed). Unless you wear aids you rely on what wearers say, but what wearer trys all available features?

    1. christo says :Reply

      Thank you for your comment Allan.

      I would argue that years of study, close monitoring of research on hearing aid technology and 17 years of experience fitting 1000’s of hearing aids on many 1000’s of clients gives me an inkling of what might work and what does not. Add to that use of objective measurement techniques such as real ear verification, a deep understanding of technology and hearing and you’ll find that very little is left to the imagination.

  6. ken says :Reply

    very impressed with your comprehensive coverage of models and 3 features. are the other features standard in all new aids? features such as effective feedback management, open fitting, Impulse Noise management, Noise reduction, Telecoil, electronic wind noise reduction etc., which are already well established

    1. christo says :Reply

      There are a few aids that combine all these features. Effective feedback management seems to be more pervasive through all levels, which is an important contributor to open fittings. Hearing aids designed for milder losses often forgo telecoil as it adds bulk to the aid. Impulse Noise reduction and electronic windnoise management seems to be technology level dependent.

  7. Stephen says :Reply

    To everyone out there considering hearing aids, this is the company.
    I am very happy with the HA I now have (and better still my wife is happy).
    Their pricing is the lowest (unless you buy overseas) and the service is brilliant.
    I could not believe Christo replied to 4 emails I sent during one weekend regarding initial questions I had about which HA might be appropriate for me.

    1. christo says :Reply

      Thank you for choosing us to help guide you to better hearing. I truly appreciate the trust you’ve placed in me and my staff.

  8. Arthur says :Reply

    Great article, thank you for the nice explanations! What about Resound? My Linx hearing aids have superb sound quality… It wasn’t cheap but well worth the investment 🙂

    1. christo says :Reply

      Thank you for your comment. Resound is not a brand I support due to a variety of reasons. It still uses a 16 bit A2D, so even though the sound quality might be decent it does not come close to the 18 bit versions available elsewhere. Resound also historically had issues with low frequency gain causing distortion. Resound is built on a single-base automatic platform, and does not have super directionality available. The article is by no means intended to suggest other hearing aids are terrible. It was simply created to help you discover where the best capabilities that actually make a big difference in real life use are to be found.

      In the end, the main thing is that your hearing solution delivers to you a long term improvement in your quality of life.

  9. Rob says :Reply

    I have been using the Oticon Opn now for about 8 months. Compared to my previous hearing aids I would say the improvement in noisy situations, restaurants and the like is only marginal. I have a special setting for noisy places programmed in to the aids too.
    The main problem is with a group of say 6 or more people. Because they are in close proximity and tend to talk together sometimes I find the surrounding conversation mixes with the person I am conversing with and renders it incomprehensible to the stage where I can’t piece enough of the words together to “guess” what they are talking about. Its every hearing impaired persons dilemma.
    In my opinion hearing aids have a very long way to go to be anywhere near providing acceptable sound in noisy group situations.

    1. christo says :Reply

      Hi Rob,

      Thank you for your comment. As explained in the article, the best hearing in noise comes from Super Directionality. Oticon has decided not to go down this route and instead used their own new strategy, which in my experience does not work as well in lots of background noise. As such Oticon OPN is not indicated for people requiring a lot of assistance in background noise. Phonak’s B90 does MUCH better in these environments.

      There are however some losses that just cannot be helped with conventional hearing technology. Only speech in noise testing can truly determine this. In these cases FM systems may be the only way to achieve functional hearing.

      You may want to read this article as well to better understand why you can’t always hear in noise with hearing aids. Click here to read it.

  10. Peter says :Reply

    Interesting article. I notice in your sound quality rating list that the Siemens (Signia) Primax hearing aids don’t even rate on the list. What is it about them that makes them so inferior in this respect? Is your rating based on some proven comparison or just your opinion? I have had Siemens hearing aids from Australian Hearing for years but I no longer qualify for the government funding as I am older than 26 so I am looking around at options for my next set and it’s all very confusing.

    1. Hi Peter,

      You are quite right. The journey can be confusing. Hearing aids aren’t truly designed as consumer goods. They are tools to be used in the clinical rehabilitation process so you need to work with the clinician to find your ideal solution.

      The reason you ended up with Siemens with Australian Hearing is that AH has a contract with Siemens as its main supplier, so the choice is limited.

      The Primax was not rated for sound quality, not because it is bad. It is just based on an iteration of the older Binax chip, which is still based on and older 16bit A2D giving it inferior sound quality to those aids based on newer 18Bit A2D converters.

      We are currently offering our Hearing Aid Assessment at no charged to self funded clients. You can read about it here and see if our guidance may be of some assistance to you.

  11. Ian & Anke Lindner says :Reply

    Which of the Pensioner hearing aids do you recommend.
    We cannot afford the costs of buying Hearing aids.

    1. There are a few brands to look at with pension hearing aids and some to avoid. The ones to look at include Unitron, Widex and Resound.

  12. Julian Robinson says :Reply

    Thanks for the useful article. What I hoped to find though, and the single improvement I believe will be most dramatic, is a hearing aid that restores/allows localization. I believe that might involve a high frequency response, in-ear device with very low delay.

    It seems likely that this would also at least partially fix the confusion of sounds better than directional microphones, by providing the “all round” experience together with correct localization of each sound.

    My particular need is to be able to determine the direction (azimuth and vertical) of bird calls. My current aids drive me crazy – either off, in which I just can’t hear them at all, or on, when I can hear birds everywhere but have not a single clue whether they are above, in front, behind or out to one side. Complete confusion which is probably worse than not hearing them at all.

    Any news on this front?

    1. Hi Julian,

      Oticon’s OPN1 & 2 has a a lot of features to reduce the localisation confusion caused by hearing aid compression and may be worthwhile considering for this application.

  13. J Helm says :Reply

    I have always understood Bernafon and Widex to be the best regarded HAs for music reproduction – both for ‘live’ listening and for playing (e.g guitar).
    I see Bernafon don’t get a mention, is there a reason for that?
    Great article, by the way.

    1. Thank you Jeffrey,

      In the days of reduced sound quality for all manufacturers, Bernafon’s ChannelFree processing did help reduce artefacts, which made it sound better for music at that time. The latest studies rate Phonak and Widex the best for music. The article is not solely focused on Music though. Sound quality in this context refers to clarity of speech and range of sounds being processed. Bernafon’s Zerena rage does have a chip with higher input range now. So It should be listed based on that fact. I have updated the post to reflect this now.

      Thank you for pointing out this omission.

  14. Busymind says :Reply

    what do you think of the newer resound lynx quattro? Does it compare with say the signia styletto connect? Given that it seems previously resound have not been your favourite brand. Thankyou

    1. From my experience, the Quattro is a very different device compared to the the Styletto. Resound has an edge when it comes to battery life and sound quality. Styletto might have the edge when it comes to design.
      I certainly don’t dislike Resound, but neither these brands are really leading they way like Oticon and Phonak when it comes to technology.

  15. Ashrfan says :Reply

    Hello, is there any further details or reviews for the Bernafon Viron! Am currently in trial period with OPN which is really life changer but my audiologists suggests to also try the Viron which (as he said) is almost same as OPN S !

    1. Hi Ashfran,

      They all use the same chip and similar software. So in very basic terms the Oticon OPN S = Benrafon Viron 9 = Sonic Captive 100.
      Oticon is the Only aid with Open sound navigator, for all around awareness. The Viron and Captivate are more similar with more traditional directionality. OPN S 1 has 64 channels, while Viron and Captivate are channel free. So they will be the same to a point, but there might be differences in performance in background noise. Prices between these could differ by thousands, though, so I would recommend you try the OPN S1 and the also the Viron or Captivate (which seem to be much more similar) for comparison.

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