The Ultimate Guide: Types, Features, Prices, Reviews, and More
05 July 2019
If you have trouble understanding conversations in restaurants or in other noisy settings, or if you need to turn up the TV louder than those around you, you're not alone. Around one out of every seven adults in the United States reports some difficulty hearing.
While hearing aids are not a cure for hearing loss, they do provide enough assistance to get most people back to work, and back to communicating effectively with their loved ones. In addition to helping you hear better, modern hearing aids offer everything from wireless audio streaming to fall detection and heart rate monitoring.
If you’re not sure whether hearing aids are for you, the first step is always a hearing test and discussion with a hearing healthcare professional. If you are concerned about the cost of a hearing test, please check our listings for a clinics that offer free hearing screenings.
Table of contents
What are hearing aids?
Hearing aids are small electronic devices that are worn on the ear, or in the ear, to help make sounds audible for those affected by hearing loss. While some people wear hearing aids to hear environmental sounds better, the primary goal of most hearing aid fittings is to improve communication with friends, family, and coworkers.
Modern digital hearing aids not only amplify sound, but also dampen unwanted noise. Through the magic of sound processing, they can make it easier to hear people's voices while reducing sound in noisy environments that often make it difficult to understand what others are saying.
How do hearing aids work?
Hearing aids collect sound using a microphone, amplify and process the collected sound using advanced digital signal processing technologies, and then provide amplified / processed sound to the hearing aid wearer through a tiny speaker. At the most basic level, hearing aids are made up of four primary parts:
- The microphone - The microphone picks up acoustic sounds from the environment and converts those sounds into an electronic signal. The electronic signal from the microphone is sent to the hearing aid sound processor.
- The sound processor - The sound processor takes the electronic signal from the microphone and converts it to a digital format. Digitally-represented sound is enhanced and amplified by the hearing aid processor, and converted back to an electronic signal before being sent to the speaker.
- The speaker - Sometimes referred to as the “receiver,” the speaker is the part that creates the sound waves that enter your ear and vibrate your eardrum.
- The battery - A power source of some kind is required to enable the functionality of the microphone, sound processor, and speaker.
These four parts represent the absolute bare minimum in terms of the parts needed to constitute a functional digital hearing aid. Hearing aids typically have many additional hardware features, such as telecoils, wireless radios, and manual controls. Skip ahead to our hearing aid features section to learn more.
Note: Analog hearing aids are no longer manufactured by any major manufacturer. The description above, and all information that follows specifically addresses digital hearing aids.
Hearing aid prices
One of the biggest complaints consumers have about hearing aids is the high cost. And it's true that a pair of premium hearing aids can set you back anywhere from $4,000 to 6,000. But over the past few years, more and more high-performance hearing aid models have become available at much lower price points.
A recent Hearing Tracker survey of over 2,000 consumers found that the average price of a single hearing aid is $2,372. Most of the consumers surveyed bought high-end hearing aid technology from popular brands like Phonak, Widex, Signia, Oticon, ReSound, and Starkey. To save money, some consumers shopped for hearing aids at Costco, purchased lower-end models, or turned to direct-to-consumer online channels channels.
Don’t want to sacrifice on service quality or technology level? Check our Hearing Tracker’s Local Hearing Aid Deals platform to find great deals from local hearing aid practices, many of which offer gold-standard services like Real Ear Measurements (REMs).
Hearing aid types
Modern “air-conduction” hearing aids are available to wear either behind the ear or in the ear. Behind-the-ear models are available as either traditional behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids, or as receiver-in-canal (RIC) hearing aids. In-the-ear models are available as in-the-ear (ITE), in-the-canal (ITC), completely-in-canal (CIC), and invisible-in-canal (IIC).
Behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids
In BTE hearing aids, all the electronic components—including the speaker—are contained within the body of the hearing aid, which is worn behind the ear. Sound from the speaker is sent down to the ear canal via a hollow tube, which protects the speaker from moisture and earwax within the ear canal.
Here’s an example of a BTE hearing aid with no tubing attached:
Here’s a BTE hearing aid with standard-width tubing and a custom-fitted earmold:
Most modern BTE hearing aids may be fit with either a thin or slightly larger standard tube. They may also use a custom earmold or smaller and lighter standard "dome," an earpiece that fits within the ear canal. When hearing loss is not too severe and limited to higher pitches, BTE hearing aids are typically fitted with thin tubing and a standard canal dome. This leaves the ear canal more open with free air flow, yielding greater comfort.
For more severe hearing losses, or when the lower pitches are affected, a custom earmold is typically used. Custom molds help to seal the ear canal to prevent feedback. Sealing the ear canal enables the hearing aid to deliver louder sound but unfortunately leads to reduced comfort.
If your hearing loss is changing rapidly, a BTE hearing aid is a good option, as you can be fit with a thin tube and canal dome today. You can always update to a custom mold later if necessary, without needing to purchase a new device.
Advantages of BTE hearing aids:
- Less susceptible to damage from moisture and earwax
- Can fit mild-to-profound hearing losses
- Can be fit with non-custom domes or custom earmolds
- Flexibility for worsening hearing loss
Disadvantages of BTE hearing aids:
- Larger models may cause discomfort behind the ear, and may be difficult for those who wear glasses.
- Custom earmolds that seal the ear canal may make the ear feel more plugged-up.
- For people worried about stigma associated with hearing aids, larger models—especially when worn with custom ear molds—are easily visible.
RIC hearing aids are very similar to BTE hearing aids. In both cases, the hearing aid is worn on the ear, and in both cases most of the electronic components are in the body of the hearing aid. The major difference is that, in RIC hearing aids, the speaker rests in the ear canal, rather than being contained within the body of the hearing aid. The speaker, or "receiver," is connected to the body by a thin wire.
Here’s an example of a popular RIC hearing aid:
Advantages of RIC hearing aids
- Smaller and less noticeable than BTE hearing aids
- Less feedback with less "occlusion" (blockage of the ear)
- More open airflow is more comfortable, delivering a more natural sound
Disadvantages of RIC hearing aids
- Less effective for moderate-to-severe hearing loss
- Sometimes more expensive
- Moisture in the ear canal can damage the receiver and necessitate repairs
In-the-ear (ITE) hearing aids
ITE hearing aids are custom hearing aids that fit completely inside your outer ear. They have a hard plastic case that holds the electronics. They are versatile with a broad range from mild to severe hearing loss, but they can be more conspicuous and bulky than smaller models.
In the canal (ITC) hearing aids
An ITC hearing aid fits into the ear canal opening. It is barely noticeable while providing enough power for many forms of moderate-to-severe hearing loss. But because of its small size, feedback can be a problem.
Completely in the canal (CIC) hearing aids
CIC hearing aids sit more deeply in the ear canal and are almost invisible. They are best for mild-to-moderate hearing loss and are popular with consumers concerned about appearance and stigma. Because of their small size they often lack features in larger models, such as directional microphones and wireless streaming, and some consumers find it difficult to change their small batteries.
Invisible in the canal (IIC) hearing aids
IIC's are virtually invisible, sitting close to the ear drum. A thin plastic filament extends from the body of the hearing aid to retrieve it from the ear canal. Most often prescribed for mild-to-moderate hearing loss, their appeal is mainly cosmetic.
Hearing aid features
Modern hearing aids are marvels of technological miniaturization and sound processing power. Advances in sound processing and directional microphones have made it far easier for hearing-aid users to understand speech in noisy environments such as restaurants. And ongoing miniaturization has ushered in a new era of invisible hearing aids for the many consumers who still worry about stigma associated with using hearing assistance.
In the past several years, manufacturers have also integrated connectivity features that make hearing aids as functional as the wildly popular high-fi earbuds and headsets used for music streaming and phone calls. You can even think of "Made-for-iPhone" and "Made-for-Android" hearing aids as wireless smartphone accessories first, and hearing aids second. And new apps enabling you to use your smartphone to control the volume program choices and other settings also make it easier than ever to use your hearing aids successfully.
Rechargeable batteries are also delivering next-generation value and utility to hearing-aid wearers. First introduced in 2016, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that deliver a full day of use on a single overnight charge—even when using power-hungry audio streaming applications—are now available from most manufacturers.
Manufacturers are also offering optional tinnitus relief features. Automatic generation of soothing sounds relieves the annoyance and prevalence of ringing, humming, buzzing and other unwanted noises in the head from tinnitus.
Finally, the major hearing aid companies are also busy developing sensor technologies that will pick up health data from the linings of the ear canal to provide accurate health and fitness information. In fact, market researchers are predicting that sales of "hearables" and hearing aids with integrated sensors will overtake unit sales of smart watches within two or three years.
Bluetooth hearing aids and wireless connectivity
In the near future, a hearing aid most likely won’t be considered a true full-function hearing aid if it fails to connect easily and seamlessly with the outside world through a variety of wireless options. Most manufacturers offer “Made-for-iPhone” hearing aids that enable wireless streaming of audio and phone calls from the iPhone. And others are starting to offer “Made-for-Android” hearing aids that provide the same capabilities with Android phones, which account for more than 80 percent of smartphones sold worldwide.
Phonak, the largest hearing aid manufacturer, has introduced universal Bluetooth compatibility with new hearing aids that allow you to make and receive wireless calls with any Bluetooth-enabled phone. They also pair with the millions of other Bluetooth-enabled electronic devices available today.
At the same time, makers of premium hearing aids have also long offered proprietary wireless accessories, including devices that stream audio from the TV and from MP3 players, and clip-on or table-top microphones that provide transmission of clear audio to hearing aids. These propriety solutions utilize 2.4 GHz transmission technologies and often require an intermediary streamer to transmit audio signals to the hearing aids. But they also provide high-quality sound, which can be a big help to people with severe hearing loss.
Comparing hearing aids
Hearing Tracker has the world’s most comprehensive independent database of hearing-aid products. Which means we also offer the world’s best hearing aid comparison tool. Our tool allows you to compare the hardware features, software features, and accessories between hundreds of modern hearing aid models.
Dr. Cliff, AuD discusses some of the most important factors to consider when comparing hearing aid models. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions by clicking on the three small dots.
Need help understanding the options?
Hearing Tracker’s Help Me Choose tool helps to match you with hearing aids that are likely to help by taking into consideration your hearing loss, listening needs, and accessory preferences. Our tool attempts to find the best possible match across hundreds of matching parameters.
Remember, the hearing aid comparisons and product recommendations provided by Hearing Tracker are just a starting point. To understand whether you are truly a good candidate for any hearing aid model, please consult with a local hearing care professional. There is nothing better than a product recommendation from an expert.
Over the last year, we’ve heard from over 10,000 hearing aid consumers through our “Help Me Choose” tool. In order to provide custom-tailored hearing aid suggestions, we ask each person who uses the tool to answer a few questions about their hearing aid preferences. Unsurprisingly, most people who use tool express a strong preference for better hearing (in noise and in quiet), device reliability, and physical comfort.
Top consumer preferences:
- Better hearing in noise
- Device reliability
- Better hearing in quiet
- Physical comfort of the device
Least important preferences:
- Smartwatch control
- Landline audio streaming
- Remote microphone availability
- Hearing loop access
Note: Remote microphones and hearing loops are incredibly powerful technologies that can make a huge difference for those who struggle to hearing in background noise (remote microphones) or in large auditoriums (hearing loops).
Here are the full results of our hearing aid preferences survey, as of July 2019. Click on the chart for a larger image:
Hearing aid reviews
Not long ago, it was nearly impossible to find comprehensive, independent reviews of hearing aids. Now, a quick Google search will offer dozens of reviews. But it's still important to find a trusted source. It's also important to know what questions to ask, and what features and performance to look for given your unique hearing-loss profile.
Unlike reviews for most other consumer electronic products, individual factors such as degree of hearing loss and the individual's speech-recognition ability can have a profound effect on one's success and overall satisfaction with hearing aids. Given the often-extreme differences between individuals' hearing-loss profiles, reviewers’ satisfaction often varies for the same exact hearing aids. So it's important to find out as much as you can about the hearing-loss levels of consumers who write hearing-aid reviews.
At the same time, hearing aids are manufactured with varying levels of quality; some hearing aids are extremely durable, while others suffer frequent breakage. Battery life also varies between models, and manufacturer predictions of battery life are often optimistic. So when reading through hearing aid reviews and looking at product ratings, it's worth focusing on several product factors, including:
- Manufacturing quality, durability, and water resistance
- Battery life and battery size
- Wireless connectivity options and consistency of connections
- Accessory availability and manual controls
Need more help? Check out our guide to the world’s best hearing aid brands.
Popular Hearing Aids
Check out this list of popular hearing aids. Most of our website visitors are interested in one or more of the product families below! For a full list of models, check out our complete hearing aid directory.
Hearing aids near me
Finding a great hearing aid provider doesn’t have to be difficult. Check out our interactive hearing aid clinic map and use the brand and service filters to find exactly what you’re looking for. Or, navigate our traditional directory using the city, state, and country links below. Please let us know if we can help you find something!