I had to decide whether to get a big-screen HDTV or hearing aids. The TV would be cheaper, but I went with the hearing aids. The good news is that they are not as bad as I expected.
If your hearing is fine, you can skip the rest of this posting because I am going into detail that would only interest a potential user.
My hearing loss is typical of the aging process, a gradual loss in the high frequencies that are critical for understanding speech, such as between “da” and “ta.” My symptoms were typical: I instinctively glanced at my wife for a translation of indistinct speech. I used headphones when watching TV, not to make it louder, but to preserve those high tones. In fact, turning up the volume no longer helped because the louder midrange drowned out the highs. I had special trouble understanding children who typically speak quietly, but I also had trouble understanding some men’s voices that were certainly loud enough.
My hearing aids are the Kirkland brand from Costco, and, like most sold now, fit behind the ear with a thin tube sticking into the ear canal. They cost $2,000 a pair, and, for hearing aids, that’s cheap. Of course they are over-priced—they are only audio amplifiers—but most others cost more than twice as much. Like all hearing aids now, mine are digital and are fine-tuned for individual preferences by a standard computer fitted with an adapter and software.
The tube-in-the-ear method allows normal hearing to pick up the low tones and just supplements the missing high tones. It avoids the thumbs-in-your-ear feeling of the molded types and is much more natural. At first, things sounded tinny, but I quickly adjusted to that as normal, and now I easily forget I am wearing them. I often am not even aware I am hearing better, but other people notice. So far, I only wear them outside of the house, but I expect that will change as I get more dependent on them. The batteries cost about 35 cents each, but last several days of full-time wear. The aids have a tiny wheel to adjust the volume, which I have not changed, and a switch to select only the microphone pointing forward to help in a crowded room, which does not seem to make much difference. At night and any time I am not wearing them, I turn them off by opening the battery door.
My decision came down to Costco’s or an online source, America Hears, who offered a similar product at the same price. For America Hears, you need to get your hearing tested and send them your prescription. They send back the hearing aids with an adapter that plugs into your computer, allowing them to make adjustments online. Costco’s adjusts theirs the same way offline in their store. Both allow a full return during a 60-day trial period.
What really got me looking seriously was an article in the Wall Street Journal (1/29/08) describing a reporter’s experience with a $6,400 pair like the one I finally got (and which convinced me I was getting a bargain at $2,000). The article was accompanied with a reader’s discussion section on their web site. The overwhelming reader responses were happiest with the Costco and America Hears brands.
The mom-and-pop hearing centers in almost every strip mall typically recommend only the familiar molded types that look like a squashed wad of chewing gum, at all the same price—$5,000 for a pair wherever I went. I was amazed how easily they quoted this price, all exactly the same, with no choice or supporting technical data. Obviously, they know what each is charging and no one is backing down. They each assemble and sell their own brand, but the electronics could only come from a few suppliers. For $5,000, I should know who and why. Miracle Ear, a franchise in our Sears store, had advertised a hearing aid at $700, but when I asked about it after the free hearing test, they quickly said it would not help me, only the $5,000 pair would. Surprise, surprise. I almost laughed at them for such a blatant bait-and-switch.
I had talked to at least a dozen long time wearers beforehand for advice. Like picking a family doctor, most were happy with their supplier, but on further questioning, their satisfaction was solely based on a good bedside personality, apparently a critical skill for anyone in the business. If I wanted a friend, I would buy a dog. But to be fair, the high price of hearing aids is partially from the tedium of listening to seniors’ long stories and often endless complaints.
No one was enthusiastic about their hearing aids themselves. They grudgingly said it helped, but it took a lot of getting used to and was nothing like real hearing. However, they were all wearers of the old molded type.
My experience with the new ones is more positive, and I am at least mildly enthusiastic. As a bonus, I find strangers are noticeably more friendly when I am wearing them. I think it adds to my cute little old man persona.