Advanced hearing aids make it harder to enjoy music

Modern hearing aids allow wearers to understand speech easily, but the devices also make it harder for them to enjoy music, a new study has found.

Washington: Modern hearing aids allow wearers to understand speech easily, but the devices also make it harder for them to enjoy music, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder found that the type of sound processing that modern hearing aids provide to make speech more understandable for wearers may also make music enjoyment more difficult.

The findings suggest that less sophisticated hearing aids might actually be more compatible with listening to music, especially recorded music that has itself been processed to change the way it sounds.

"Hearing aids have gotten very advanced at processing sounds to make speech more understandable," said Naomi Croghan, who led the study as a doctoral student at CU-Boulder and who now works at Cochlear Americas in Centennial, Colorado.

"But music is a different animal and hasn't always been part of the hearing aid design process," Croghan said.

A frequent complaint among people who use hearing aids is that music can sound distorted, said Croghan, and it's common for people to remove their hearing aids to listen to music.

Modern hearing aids use processing called "wide dynamic range compression," which leaves loud sounds untouched but amplifies softer sounds.

This kind of processing is useful for helping people with hearing loss follow a conversation, but it can distort music, which often covers a wider range of volumes than speech.

Adding to the distortion is the fact that recorded music commonly undergoes its own processing, known as "compression limiting," which squeezes louder and softer sounds together into a narrower range, increasing the perceived volume.

Too much compression limiting can affect the quality of music even for people with normal hearing, Croghan said, but it compounds the problem for hearing aid users.

"The recorded music is processed through multiple layers by the time the person with hearing loss actually hears it," Croghan said.

The research team asked 18 experienced hearing aid users to listen to classical and rock music samples that ranged from being unprocessed to highly processed.

The participants also used simulated hearing aids set at a variety of processing levels.

Regardless of which music sample the participants listened to, they generally preferred using the hearing aids with the simplest additional processing - essentially devices that just boost the volume.

The participants also tended to prefer less processed music to more processed music. However, the level of processing of the music itself wasn't as important as the type of hearing aid used for listener enjoyment.

The study is published in the journal Ear and Hearing.

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