Question: Hearing aids don’t work well for me, particularly in noisy places such as while driving in the car or talking in noisy restaurants. Being unable to communicate freely, especially on long car trips, really spoils our vacations and times together. What can I do in order to hear my wife under such conditions?—F. A.
Answer: I know exactly what you mean. I totally sympathize with you since in the past I too have struggled to hear under exactly these conditions.
The good news is that you don’t have to struggle any longer. There are a number of solutions to these and other difficult listening situations. You just have to find the solution that works best for you. Let me share how almost all the time I effortlessly hear my wife under these same conditions. I think my solution will work great for you too!
Why Hearing Aids Are Not Enough
Too often, people think that getting and wearing hearing aids is the solution to all their communications problems. It is a decided shock to them to find out that this is just not so, as you have discovered.
Hearing aids work best in quiet places when the person you are talking to is just 3 to 6 feet from you. This is the ideal situation. However, much of our communication takes place under far less than ideal conditions. The environment is often noisy and people talk to us from greater than the optimal 6 feet or less.
When you are talking to your wife in the car or in a restaurant, distance isn’t really the major problem, although it certainly plays a part. The real culprit is the background noise.
This is because when we lose some of our hearing, we also lose, to a large extent, our ability to pick out the voice we want to hear from the background noise around us, unless the voice we want to hear is substantially louder than the noise. Wearing hearing aids generally doesn’t help us in these situations because hearing aids amplify the background noise along with the voice we want to hear.
What we really need is to make the voice louder and, at the same time, make the background noise softer, so the voice we want to hear stands out from the noise. The fancy term for this is increasing the signal (speech)-to-noise ratio.
In order to increase the signal-to-noise ratio when the background noise goes up, we somehow have to drastically reduce the distance between the speaker’s lips and our ears. We can’t easily do this with hearing aids alone. This is where Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) come in.
ALDs Are the Answer
The ideal solution would be to have your wife speak directly into both of your ears at the same time (which, of course, is impossible). This would make her voice seem ever so much louder than the background sounds and thus would give you an excellent signal to noise ratio.
This is exactly what a properly-used ALD will do for you. You will hear as though your wife were speaking directly into both your ears at the same time—loud, clear and with little distracting background noise.
The reason ALDs are so effective is because, unlike hearing aids, you position the ALD microphone close to the speaker’s mouth. This makes the person’s voice much louder than the background racket. In contrast, with hearing aids, the microphones are perched on your ears, not near the speaker’s mouth. As a result, they pick up all the background noise along with the voice you want to hear and you are no better off than you were before.
ALDs have another wonderful benefit. Because the microphone is so close to the speaker, ALDs greatly reduce the distortion in speech you experience while listening to someone from any significant distance. With ALDs, the speech is so clear you’d swear the person is speaking directly into your ears.
There are many possible solutions to the two situations you mentioned. For example, you could get yourself fancy hearing aids with noise canceling microphones. You might wear hearing aids with directional microphones. You could even use hearing aids that have Direct Audio Input (DAI) boots so you could just pin a lapel microphone on your wife and plug it directly into your aids.
The problem with these solutions is that they tend to be very expensive and don’t necessarily work in all noisy situations. For example, if you had directional microphones on your hearing aids and your wife is riding with you in the car, your directional microphones would be picking up car/road noise from straight in front of you, not your wife’s voice since she is sitting beside you. However, in a noisy restaurant, if she were sitting across the table from you, the directional microphones could be just the ticket!
The solution that I personally love is using a small amplifier with a microphone and earphones. The device I use is the PockeTalker. Not only does it give excellent results, it costs just a small fraction of what fancy hearing aids cost, yet works great for me.
When my wife and I go out driving, I would normally have to take my eyes off the road and look at her in order to speechread/understand her. Not a great idea when I am the driver, especially in heavy traffic!
With the PockeTalker, this is no longer a problem. Here’s what I do. Before we start, I clip my lapel microphone to the chest strap of my wife’s seatbelt, placing it as close to her mouth as possible. (I could just as easily clip it to her sweater or blouse, but the seat belt is more convenient in our car because of the kind of seat belts we have.)
I plug the microphone into the microphone jack on the top of the PocketTalker. I also plug in my binaural earphones (earbuds actually) and adjust the volume for comfort. That is all there is to it! Now I can freely converse with my wife without any trouble.
This system is so sensitive that I only need the volume set on 1 (out of 5). This means I have more than enough reserve power if I should ever need it or if my hearing should get worse. (For the record, I have a severe hearing loss. This gives you a good idea of how powerful and sensitive this system really is.)
We do much the same thing in restaurants. My wife clips the microphone to her sweater a bit to one side so the microphone cord doesn’t hang down into her dinner. The microphone cord is 6 feet long so I can easily lay it to one side of the table-well out of the way. (Actually, it is long enough to string under the table if I choose to do that instead.) I put the earbuds into my ears and hear very well. Just like in the car, background noise becomes almost non-existent so I do not have to crank up the volume much.
Not only does the PockeTalker work great in noisy restaurants, it also works great for intimate dinners where you don’t want to be overheard. With the PockeTalker I can hear my wife without her having to shout “sweet nothings” at me (and to half the restaurant as well!)
There are two secrets to using ALDs effectively. One is to use dual earphones-one in each ear. This makes a tremendous difference since we have less than perfect discrimination. With two earphones, our understanding goes way up as compared to listening with just one.
An added bonus is that the earphones also cut out some of the car/road/wind noise, but still allow me to hear some environmental sounds.
I like to wear unobtrusive earbuds rather than wear headphones. This is my choice. I find them much more comfortable.
The other secret to effective ALD use is to place the microphone as close as you can to the lips of the person you want to hear. This allows you to keep the volume down so the microphone won’t pick up the more distant background noise.
The PockeTalker is a flexible system. For example, if I wanted to, I could wear my hearing aids, switch them to their telecoils and plug my neckloop into the PockeTalker instead of using the earbuds and hear just as well.
Unfortunately, in my experience, I find that a lot of places where I want to use my telecoils also have a lot of electrical (technically magnetic) interference. This interference can range from slightly annoying to being so loud as to drown out the speaker! The good news is that interference does not bother the PockeTalker at all. As a result, I can use it with confidence anywhere.
Another neat feature of the PockeTalker is that because it is a “hard-wired” system, no one can listen in on your conversations like they could if you were using an FM or loop system.
Yet another neat feature of the PockeTalker is that you can plug in more than one microphone at a time. Plug in a “Y’ adapter (RadioShack #274-310, $3.99) and you can have two microphones live at once. Plug another “Y” adapter into the “Y” adapter and you can have 3 mics on at once. This is useful if you are driving a car and want to hear not only the person in the passenger seat, but also the people in the back seat. This would also work in a noisy restaurant when trying to hear 2 or 3 dinner companions.
You could use the same “Y” adapter in the earphone jack so two people could listen to one PockeTalker at the same time. However, both people would have to have the same degree of hearing loss for this to be practical, or it would be too loud for one person and too soft for the other.
You can use the PockeTalker as a phone amplifier too. In order to do this you need the Mini Recorder Control from Radio Shack (Part No. 43-1237; $15.49). To use it, just unplug the phone handset from the phone base, plug the above gizmo into the phone base and plug the handset into it. The cord with the 3.5 mm jack plugs into the microphone jack on the PockeTalker. Plug your earphones into the earphone jack on the PockeTalker. Now turn up the volume until you hear clear, comfortable speech. You still have to hold the handset to talk into the mouthpiece, but you hear from the PockeTalker’s ear buds, not the phone handset. Note: this gizmo only works on phones that have the dial pad in the base. If your phone has the dial pad in the handset, you’re out of luck.
Cost and Availability
What does a system like this cost? The good news is that the whole system I use costs only a miniscule 4-7% of the $3,000.00 to $5,000.00 a pair of fancy hearing aids would cost me—and it works a whole lot better in the situations I’ve described above.
The system I use includes the PockeTalker ($129.50), and dual mono ear buds ($15.50). To this I add a Lapel microphone ($71.00). If you already have stereo ear buds/earphones that you want to use, you can do so. You just need to get an in-line stereo to mono converter (Radio Shack part no. 274-882/$3.99, or 274-368/$2.99). (I use this adapter with my favorite stereo earbuds.)
Click here to learn more about the many features of the PockeTalker, or to order one for yourself and begin communicating with ease. You do not have to put up with not hearing when the noise builds up. With the right technology, you too, like me, can hear better!