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Let’s Get the Hearing Loop Straight!

By Tosha R. Hodgson, BA, MClSc, Aud(C), Registered Audiologist & Hearing Instrument Practitioner

Examining the major differences between hearing loop technology and Bluetooth® hearing aid accessories.

It has been fantastic watching Vernon and surrounding areas become more hearing accessible. As an increasing number of hearing loop systems are installed, I have been fielding more questions than ever before about the technology. While answering these questions it has come to my attention that a number of people have read, or been told, inaccurate or misleading information, particularly about hearing loop technology versus Bluetooth® technology. The most common misconception seems to be that hearing aid wearers no longer need telecoils or public hearing loop systems in public places because they can use Bluetooth accessories instead.

Let me be very clear: Bluetooth hearing aid accessories cannot work in public places for multiple listeners simultaneously. A hearing loop system can.

A telecoil is a tiny spindle of wire located inside a hearing aid that picks up electromagnetic signals. Hearing loop systems transmit sound to these telecoils using a wire that is installed around the perimeter of a room, such as the seating area of a theatre or church. Because the telecoil receives this sound transmission wirelessly directly from the source—microphones, sound systems—background room noise is virtually eliminated. The hearing aid wearer receives clear sound directly into their hearing aids.

Bluetooth functions in a similar fashion in that it also wirelessly transmits sound but between a Bluetooth transmitter and a Bluetooth receiver. These two components must be “paired” with each other and then “connect” to each other to work. For example, a cell phone can connect to a wireless earpiece to allow hands-free phone calls—the cell phone is the transmitter and the earpiece is the receiver. Similarly, hearing aid wearers can obtain Bluetooth accessories for their hearing aids to receive sound signals from different Bluetooth transmitters. For example, a person can “pair” their cell phone (transmitter) to a Bluetooth streamer (receiver) that is compatible with their hearing aids, allowing for cell phone calls to be hands-free and transmitted into both hearing aids for easier listening.

The two technologies sound pretty similar, right? Both are wireless. Both can send sound directly into a person’s hearing aids. Both are reasonably easy to use. Here are the major differences:

  1. Hearing loops can transmit sound to as few as one, up to well over 1000, hearing aid wearers at the same time. There is no limit. There is no pairing required. Only telecoil enabled hearing aids are needed to receive the signal. Bluetooth currently transmits to only one hearing aid wearer at a time.
  1. Hearing loop systems are only limited by the length of cable used to loop the area. The area can be as small as a seat cushion or as large as a football stadium. As long as the listener is seated within the perimeter of the looped area, the transmitted sound can be heard. Bluetooth provides only short-range transmission, usually no more than about ten metres.
  1. Hearing loop systems do not require any preliminary setup to receive sound transmission. Simply turning on a hearing aid’s telecoils will connect to the hearing loop system. Bluetooth devices require “pairing” first before they can “connect” and only one connection can be made at a time, not multiple connections.

Currently, Bluetooth hearing aid accessories are useless and impractical for public spaces.

Think of theatres, conference rooms, classrooms, clinic or hospital waiting rooms, airport gates, and train or bus stations. Imagine the mayhem if all hearing aid wearers wanting to watch a play in a theatre, or hear their flight announcements at an airport, needed to “pair” their Bluetooth receiver to a venue’s transmitter—a transmitter that could only transmit to one or two people at a time. Venues would need numerous transmitters, which would be costly and impractical.

In very simplistic terms, and in the context of hearing aid connectivity, Bluetooth technology is great for one hearing aid wearer to watch television or connect wirelessly to their cell phone. Hearing loop systems are far more ideal for wirelessly transmitting sound to an unlimited number of people wearing telecoil-equipped devices.

Having said all this, the Bluetooth® Special Interest Group (SIG) and European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (EHIMA) comprised of the major six hearing aid manufacturers announced a memo of understanding (MOU) in 2014. The aim of the partnership is to “develop a standard for new hearing aids while improving existing features and creating new ones with Bluetooth® wireless technology.” Bluetooth 5 and “mesh” were just launched at the end of 2016, so we may see some interesting advances for hearing aid wearers in the future. Interested readers can visit Bluetooth.com for more information.

What is the bottom line?

Bluetooth currently cannot replace the capability of a hearing loop system in public places. For the time being, hearing loop systems continue to be the most universal, convenient, practical, inclusive, and reliable assistive listening system for public places that can work with old and new hearing aids, hearing loop receivers, and telecoil-equipped personal amplifiers. Any upcoming replacement system having the same capabilities as a hearing loop system will likely take years to transition into mainstream. For now, ensuring you have telecoil-equipped hearing devices to use in public places plus Bluetooth accessories to use in personal spaces is a great approach to maximize the versatility of your hearing aids.

To learn more about hearing loop systems e-mail info@rockwellaudiology.ca, call 250.545.2226, or visit these online resources:

Is Induction Loop Technology Old News?
http://www.canadianaudiologist.ca/induction-loop-technology-old-news-feature/

HearingLoop.org
http://www.hearingloop.org/

Consumer Perceptions of the Impact of Inductively Looped Venues on the Utility of Their Hearing Devices
http://www.hearingreview.com/2014/09/consumer-perceptions-impact-inductively-looped-venues-utility-hearing-devices/

Tosha R. Hodgson, BA, MClSc, Aud(C), Registered Audiologist and Hearing Instrument Practitioner, has more than 17 years of clinical experience testing hearing, prescribing and fitting hearing aids and assistive devices, and providing hearing protection. Tosha opened Rockwell Audiology in Vernon to offer patients an unbiased, manufacturer-independent, medical model of hearing health care. She is authorized to assess and treat individuals of all ages and special needs populations. Call 250-545-2226 or visit www.rockwellaudiology.ca.

*Reprint from our Winter 2017 Issue

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