By Michal Luntz, M.D., on December 8th, 2023
Question: “How well can a hearing aid handle live (loudspeaker) music? The issues are frequency response and handling of dynamics.“
I appreciate your question, as it reflects a concern shared by many hearing aid users. Addressing this issue is indeed challenging, as ensuring that music is heard 'as it should be' through a hearing aid can be quite difficult. This is particularly true for musicians or individuals with similar needs. It's crucial to set realistic expectations and to determine what constitutes 'good enough' on a personal level. With these considerations in mind, I'll do my best to answer your question.
In this blog
Strategies for listening to live music when using hearing aids
First, the hearing aids should be properly personalized for music; I’ll explain more about this in the next section. Additionally, some venues may have the option to use a personal assistive listening device directly connected to the venue's audio system. If it is not an option, one should try to select the 'ideal spot' in the venue to maximize the sound experience. However, this approach has its limitations, as it can be difficult to judge the quality of a spot before the music starts. Another strategy is to adjust the directionality of the hearing aids’ microphones to focus on the music source. Furthermore, individuals with mild hearing loss who use hearing aids might benefit from experimenting with removing their devices during live performances, as this could potentially offer a better listening experience. In situations where the music is especially loud, a simple yet effective technique is to place 3-4 pieces of adhesive tape (such as Scotch tape) over the hearing aid microphones. This can reduce distortion by lowering the maximum intensity peaks of music by about 10 dB, thereby enhancing the overall sound quality. Make sure to discuss this option with your audiologist before taking any action.
Understanding music perception with hearing aids and hearing loss
Now, let’s return to your original question - “How well can a hearing aid handle live (loudspeaker) music? The issues are frequency response and handling of dynamics.”
Hearing loss usually damages different frequencies in different ways. It may also cause some sounds, but not all, to be perceived as much louder than they are. Additionally, there can be a rapid and disproportionate increase in perceived loudness as volume is raised. These characteristics of hearing loss make hearing aid fitting challenging and require patience and experimentation when trying to enjoy music. In the following sections, I’ll attempt to share some insights on why hearing aid technologies designed to enhance speech understanding might adversely affect music listening, and what a hearing aid user can do to improve their music listening experience.
Hearing aid technologies that aim at enhancing speech understanding, might adversely affect music listening. Let's explore how:
Feedback cancellation algorithms may eliminate music-related frequencies, mistakenly interpreting them as feedback.
The compression algorithm may perceive music-related loud sounds as uncomfortable, and smooth them out, thereby reducing the expressiveness of the music.
Frequency lowering, designed to smartly aid in sensing high-frequency information when damaged, alters the harmonic content of a music piece.
Noise reduction algorithms might unintentionally eliminate music-related subtle nuances and background sounds leading to a less enjoyable experience.
Directional microphone systems, designed primarily to enhance speech understanding by focusing on sound from a specific direction and reducing background noise, may not offer the user the complete spatial arrangement and nuanced soundscapes of music as intended by composers.
Adaptive signal processing may misinterpret music frequencies and dynamics as unwanted noise, suppressing them and altering the musical experience.
Frequent adaptive changes, imperceptible during speech perception, can be disturbing for music listening.
Music-enhancing programs developed by hearing aid manufacturers aim to address these issues.
How can hearing aid users enhance their music listening experience?
1. Personalizing hearing aids for music
To make hearing aids work better for music, they should be adjusted by turning off or modifying the feedback cancellation, compression, or frequency lowering (transposition), as well as refining the noise cancellation functions. When adjusting to Maximum Power Output (MPO), the audiologist should ensure the comfort of loudness. In some cases, a decrease in MPO might be necessary to enhance music clarity. Therefore, a separate volume controller should be available for each of the two hearing aids. In certain situations, it becomes necessary to extend the frequency amplification, reaching up to 8kHz or even beyond to be able to capture the broader frequency range. Customizing microphone directionality might be necessary for specific situations. For instance, using a fixed direction for live music to focus on the music source or disabling directionality in other cases.
2. Other tips and tricks for listening to music when having hearing aids
Use a personal assistive listening device that is directly connected to the audio system of a musical venue or to the music production equipment. It usually offers a superior music listening experience.
When personal accessibility systems are available at a venue, the venue personnel can advise individuals with hearing loss on specific locations where they should sit to connect (wired or wireless) to the system.
When not using a personal assistive listening device, select the “ideal spot” in a venue to maximize sound experience. This advice is particularly valuable for regular attendees who are familiar with the venue's optimal seating positions. In most halls, a prime spot is likely to be in the middle of the first 4-5 rows.
Adjust the volume controller until the sound is pleasant. It may be necessary to adjust each hearing aid separately.
For individuals with mild hearing loss who use hearing aids, it can be beneficial to explore removing their hearing aids. The music listening experience is sometimes better this way. These individuals can also use high-quality headphones directly connected via Bluetooth or similar technologies to the audio system of a concert venue or music production equipment.
If the music is especially loud, placing 3-4 pieces of adhesive tape, such as Scotch tape (and not sticky tapes), over the hearing aid microphones may be helpful. This can reduce distortion by lowering the maximum intensity peaks of music by about 10 dB, thereby enhancing sound quality. You will need to know the location of the microphone on your hearing aids and, most importantly, discuss this option with your audiologist before taking any action