BBC News

Digital hearing aids 'distort recorded music'

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDigital hearing aids use sound compression to isolate speech but this can distort music.

Wearers of digital hearing aids struggle to listen to recorded music because of the way the devices process sound, research from the US suggests.

The researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder found that the more sophisticated hearing aids boost softer sounds to aid speech recognition.

This process is called wide dynamic range compression.

However, it distorts recorded music, which tends to be compressed already during production.

The effect of both the recording compression and further compression by the hearing aid causes distortion.

Additionally, music - both recorded and live - is made up of many sounds at different volumes and changing these volumes changes the way the music sounds.

"What's interesting about this is that more is not necessarily better," said Dr Kathryn Arehart who was part of the research team.

"If I am in a noisy restaurant and I want to hear the people at my table, then more processing may be better in order to suppress the background noise. But when listening to music, more processing may actually do more harm than good."

'Useless for music'

"I know several people who have said that modern hearing aids are pretty much useless for music," Dr Paul Whittaker, a musician with hearing loss, told the BBC.

Dr Whittaker, who is an organist and pianist, suffered hearing loss at the age of eight and later founded the charity Music and the Deaf.

He said older analogue hearing aids were less problematic because they were more basic.

"The issue is greater for those who may have had some musical experience prior to developing a hearing loss.

"However, when my lovely old analogue aids died a few years ago I had a really hard job finding replacement aids that would satisfy my musical requirements."

'Noise torture'

Writer and actor Sophie Woolley had a cochlear implant activated last year. She began losing her hearing at 18 and was using digital hearing aids by the age of 31.

"If I went to a party, I turned my hearing aids off to dance, otherwise it was like noise torture," she said.

"I copied other people's dance moves and tried to follow the vibrations of the bass.

"What my brain invented was much better than the pulsating foghorn and white noise battering my eardrum."

Ms Woolley said she was pleased with the implant although classical music orchestral pieces and outdoor stadium concerts could still be a struggle.

"Music sounds amazing," she told the BBC.

"I know not all CI (cochlear implant) users are happy with the way music sounds. But I've been lucky with how well my CI has worked for me."

Ms Woolley added that she uses a hearing device called a ComPilot which communicates with her implant via bluetooth.

"This device allows me to bluetooth music direct to my brain in secret.

"My hearing friends are jealous of my ability to do this.

"So I've gone from having natural hearing to avoiding music at all costs to feeling like I can hear music in a superior way to hearing people."

Related Topics

  • Deafness and hearing-impairment
  • Music

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