The concept of “noise-canceling” has been around for nearly 100 years. In its simplest form, a noise-canceling device seeks to determine low-frequency background noise (think airplane noise) and emit a signal that is exactly 180 degrees out of phase. In this article, we will talk about what noise canceling is, how it works, options available to improve noise cancelation in noisy environments, and some of the best noise canceling hearing aids you can purchase today!

What Does Noise-canceling Mean?

The image below helps to illustrate what a sound wave looks like and how a competing wave can “cancel” it out. As you might guess, this technology works quite well when the noise you are trying to eliminate is consistent in both frequency (pitch) and intensity (loudness), which both dictate the shape of the wave and thus the shape of the inverse wave. Attempting to cancel much more complex sounds, such as speech, is considerably more difficult. 

How Do Hearing Aids Filter Out Background Noise?

This is a common complaint for hearing aid users everywhere: if I could just filter out the background noise, I would hear just fine! The trouble is, often, “background noise” is other people talking. As mentioned above, this is a complex acoustic signal and, therefore, much more difficult to predict and cancel with an inverse wave. Hearing aids often do have some noise canceling capabilities that help to filter out low-level ambient noise, such as vacuum cleaners or air conditioners.

Still, most users are much more concerned with the noise that is present in difficult listening situations such as restaurants or social events. Consider, too, that noise-canceling headphones worn on an airplane have the added benefit of fitting all the way around your ear quite snugly, whereas hearing aids are meant to be much more discrete and also leave the ear relatively open for comfort and keep sound quality as natural as possible.

noise canceling hearing aids

There are two types of noise cancellation commonly used in hearing aids: Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and Digital Signal Processing (DSP). ANC is the type of noise cancellation described above, where an inverse sine wave is used to cancel out the incoming noise signal. As mentioned, this is ideal for predictable, low-level ambient noise but much trickier for speech. The microphones on the hearing aids pick up the surrounding sound and analyze it constantly, and then attempt to emit back a competing signal. This all needs to happen in real time in order for it to feel very effective for the user, and, again, if the signal is constantly changing, it is harder for the hearing aids to keep up.

The second type of noise cancellation, DSP, does not involve the production of an extra sound by the hearing aids. Still, rather the hearing aids attempt to reduce all incoming sounds of a specific incoming frequency. This is also something integrated into all hearing aids in some form or another and is sometimes referred to as “compression.” If there is a loud impact sound, such as a door slamming or a heavy object falling, the hearing aid user certainly does not want it to be further amplified. The hearing aids will compress these loud incoming sounds to make them more tolerable and remove some of that “cringe” factor.

Image Credit: Research Gate

The other component of DSP in modern hearing aids is the use of directional microphones, which is perhaps the most effective way for hearing aid users to manage interference from background noise. Hearing aids typically have at least two microphones on them that capture incoming signals, and they are able to look at the difference in signals picked up by each of these microphones and selectively filter the signals.

In the example of a noisy restaurant, the front microphone is likely picking up on your dinner companion speaking in front of you and potentially some kitchen noise or a boisterous group sitting behind you from the rear microphone. The signal to the front microphone would be given priority, while the hearing aids would be trying to actively suppress the signal from the rear microphone.

How Do I Adjust My Hearing Aids For Background Noise?

The good news is, hearing aids today are quite sophisticated and will do much of the work for you. Hearing aids are constantly assessing the environment and determining whether to implement noise cancellation and, if so, how much and which microphones to focus on. The assumption with hearing aids is that you are trying to hear speech, so that is typically what the microphones are seeking out.

That said, there are other programs in hearing aids that can be customized for other situations (i.e., music, bird watching, sitting in quiet) where you might want the signal to be truer to the environment. Those fancy features can be switched off. Most prescription hearing aids come at a few different technology tiers with escalating price points, and the automaticity of this switching between environments is one of the features that improve at higher tiers.

Image Credit: Eargo

For example, the entry-level device might have five different “scenes” that it is deciding between, while the highest end has 10 or 12. All hearing aids have the option to add additional manual programs that you could customize with your audiologist and switch into using an onboard button, remote control, or app if needed.

One common mistake many hearing aid users make is to position themselves in a corner or against the wall in a noisy situation. Now that you know how the technology works make sure that you position yourself with the noise behind you and the target speaker in front of you, and let the hearing aids do their job! If you sit against the wall, everything is coming to the front microphone, and it is harder to distinguish speech from noise. If you continue to have difficulty, you may consider an assistive listening device such as a remote microphone to further improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) in particularly noisy environments or over distance.

The Eargo app shown in the screenshots above works only with Eargo brands such as the Eargo 7:

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02/18/2024 08:40 pm GMT

What are some benefits of improving speech understanding in background noise?

Most patients who come in seeking hearing aids are having difficulty in noisy situations, not in quiet. They will come in saying that they do quite well at home if they are in a one-on-one conversation or if they can see the person with whom they are speaking. Unfortunately, the real world presents us with many listening situations which do not meet any of these criteria. Hearing aid users who find improved listening in background noise report significantly higher satisfaction with their hearing aids and are more likely to use them consistently.

There is substantial research supporting the use of hearing aids in encouraging social and emotional engagement, which is great for both mental and physical health, and can prevent early cognitive decline. Hearing aids are never going to be perfect, and there will always be challenging listening environments but remember that even people with normal hearing struggle with noise! It is important to advocate for yourself and your hearing needs with your communication partners, employers, and coworkers, and with the public.

Here are some phrases you might use:

“I really want to make sure I’m able to engage with you on this topic. Would it be okay to turn the TV off while we talk?”

“Hi! I’m hearing impaired. Would you mind if we book a conference room for this meeting?”

“I use hearing aids; would it be possible for me to sit in this spot at the table so I can hear everyone as well as possible?”

“I didn’t catch that- these hearing aids are helping, but it’s still loud in here!”

What Are Some Of The Best Hearing Aids To Eliminate Background Noise?

All prescription hearing aids have different types of noise-canceling and directional microphone technology to maximize your ability to hear better in background noise. Here are a few devices on the market which are great options if this is a particular priority for your hearing aid needs.

Phonak Audeo Lumity

Phonak’s AutoSense OS technology has been building for several generations of devices and refers to the hearing aids’ ability to seamlessly transition between different “scenes.” The Lumity platform also introduces SpeechSensor, which is an improved ability to pick up speech regardless of the direction it is coming from. The Phonak devices have very sophisticated directional microphone technology because of the ability of the right and left hearing aids to communicate with one another. Phonak also makes several top-notch assistive listening devices that could be easily paired with hearing aids for more difficult listening environments. 

Oticon Real

The Oticon devices are on the Polaris platform, which offers extra attention to reducing wind noise and distracting handling noise (such as adjusting your hair or glasses). Their trademarked BrainHearing technology is built on the philosophy that the brain needs access to all sound in order to restore functional hearing and emphasizes the importance of getting back into social situations to preserve cognition, memory, and mental health. 

ReSound Omnia

The newest device from ReSound offers noise cancellation and directional microphone technology, and they have a great video on their website to demonstrate how this works in noise. The ReSound devices also have an emphasis on preserving the natural sound quality of your own voice, regardless of the listening environment.

These three prescription devices are going to vary in price point by both technology level and provider but are likely in the range of $2,500-$6,500 for a set. It should be noted that a binaural hearing aid fitting is particularly important for improved listening in background noise, as much of the technology works by using the devices as a pair.

Here are two over-the-counter options:

Jabra Enhance Plus ($799)

These are in-the-ear, earbud-style hearing aids that are controlled through an app on your smartphone where you are able to stream music and media but also change the preferred listening settings between “Adaptive”, “Focus”, and “Surround Listen” modes. Think of these as similar to the “scenes” that might be included on prescription hearing aids, but without the automaticity and additional options (three compared to 12+, at the higher levels). At this price point, though, it may be worth a try!

Lexie B2 by Bose ($949)

Built by the well-known manufacturer of headphones and other electronics, these hearing aids offer manual controls for volume, treble and bass, and microphone directionality via their proprietary app. If you get the settings to a good place in a particular environment, you are also able to save those settings for future use. Again, more manual control than automaticity in the OTC hearing aids than prescription, but at a pretty affordable price point if you have mild-moderate hearing loss and are looking to try something.

Noise Canceling Hearing Aids Takeaway

We live in an increasingly noisy world where communication is power. Hearing aids can offer significant benefits in all situations, particularly listening to background noise. No technology is ever going to be perfect. Still, the combination of noise-canceling and directional microphone technologies may afford those using hearing aids even better abilities to hear noise than people with normal hearing. 

erin edwards aud
Clinical Audiologist at Towson University | + posts

Erin Edwards received her Doctor of Audiology degree from Towson University in 2015 and her Ph.D. in Education and Leadership from Pacific University in 2022. She has worked with patients of all ages in a variety of settings and has a specific interest in cochlear implants, the relationship of hearing loss and dementia, and interdisciplinary healthcare.

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