Hearing Loops Make It Easier to Hear With Hearing Aids

Recently, friends from the New York City, Boston and neighboring areas – all members the Hearing Loss Association of America – saw a first run performance of the-award winning show “Hamilton” in New York. Sitting in a special section of the theater with hearing aids and cochlear implants, they heard every word of dialogue clearly.

In June of this year, I performed with Canadian colleague, Gael Hannan, in her one woman show “Life with a Cranky Cochlear” at the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) national convention in Salt Lake City. Gael and I both have significant hearing losses. While she spoke, I was at the piano ready to hit my cues to accompany her monologue. In order to do that we needed to hear each other perfectly. We did. And the performance in a huge ballroom with more than 500 guests went off without a hitch.

What happened in both cases was the miracle of the hearing loop (or “audio induction loop”) – an assistive listening service (ALS) technology widely used in Europe and increasingly here in the US.

How Hearing Loops Work

The induction “loop” starts with an audio source (a microphone or audio signal from a public-address system), a special loop amplifier, and the loop wire that is typically installed around the perimeter of a targeted seating area.

The audio signals from microphones or the public-address system are amplified and sent through the loop wire, resulting in an electromagnetic field that mirrors the frequency and intensity characteristics of the original signal input.

How Hearing Loops Work

Image courtesy Otojoy

Next, hearing aid and cochlear implant wearers switch their devices to “T” (for Telecoil or T-Coil, also telephone) that is found in many but not all individual listening devices. What happens is the T-Coil disconnects the device’s microphone and in its place, connects a small coil of wire to the input of the hearing aid amplifier.

The Telecoil is sensitive to nearby electromagnetic fields so the electromagnetic field generated from a telephone or induction loop system creates a corresponding signal in the telecoil, which is then amplified and delivered to the listener. This process of inducing an electrical current in a circuit as a result of a nearby electrical current flow is called induction, hence the term induction loop system.

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In both cases, my friends attending “Hamilton” and Gael Hannan and I on stage were sitting or standing in the sweet spot of a hearing loop with T-Coils in our hearing devices closing the connection.

Where to Experience a Hearing Loop

Hearing Loops are usually encountered in larger venues as a fixed installation. This provides the greatest benefit to the largest number of users wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants with “telecoils.” But hearing loops can also be installed in any size room or area in homes, meeting rooms, theatres, vehicles, boats, schools, houses of worship, and other public facilities. In fact, any space with an adequate sound system and connectivity options will do as long as it is free from interference.

Loops can also be worn in a personal neckloop or behind-the-ear adapter. Low-voltage models are used in passenger vehicles and special systems have been used in commercial vehicles. Some loops can be used on countertops, and can be plugged into any sound source that a hearing person might plug headphones into.

Cutting edge technology has created the short-range, self-contained induction loop ALS with an effective range of 3 to 5 feet and intended for use by one or two listeners at a time. You may find them at information counters, work areas, reception areas, meetings, for TV viewing, and they have proven useful in hearing aid clinics, banks, stores, hotels, hearing aid quality control departments, rehabilitation centers, government and state agencies, and for a variety of personal uses. Check out LoopFinder and Loop Locator to find nearby hearing loops.

Don’t currently wear hearing aids? consider visiting your local hearing aid practice to try the technology. A local provider with an on-site hearing loop can show you how hearing aids and hearing loops work together to improve your hearing. To find a local provider with an on-site hearing loop, please visit Hearing Tracker’s city pages, like this page showing hearing aid providers in New York City, and filter the providers by the service “Hearing Loop Demos.”

History of the Hearing Loop

The first patented magnetic induction loop communication system was invented by Joseph Poliakoff of Great Britain in 1937 with the first wearable hearing aid to incorporate a telecoil coming along in 1938.

Used for years in Europe, induction loop ALS technologies debuted in America shortly after World War II. Popular in American educational settings for over two decades, interest in the technology peaked in the late 1960s. Up until the 1970s, practically all telephones were compatible with hearing aid telecoils but later telephone technologies introduced smaller and more efficient components that resulted in less leakage but sacrificing telecoil compatibility. Eventually, activists pushed for and won the requirement for all telephones to be hearing aid compatible.

For decades, there has been steady use of hearing loops in the United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries and the telecoil is required standard equipment in most dispensed hearing aids. As a result, practically all public facilities there are equipped with induction loop ALS.

In America, “smaller and newer is better” began to take hold in the hearing aid industry of the 1980s. As hearing aids shrank in size, features began to disappear, and the telecoil was one of the first to go. The popularity of induction loop ALS followed suit. The telecoil was gone but not forgotten. Fueled by the Telephone Compatibility Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-394) and activist organizations such as Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, Inc. – now the Hearing Loss Association of America – high-quality telecoils and supporting technical standards began to emerge in the early 1990s. A new and improved generation of induction loop ALS standards and technologies accompanied these telecoil advancements.

Hearing Loop Quality

While hearing loops are excellent for speech they may be less so for music, and overall sound quality can vary widely depending on several factors: where you sit in a looped area; the lack of uniformity of telecoils inside various hearing devices; interference from nearby electromagnetic fields generated by other electronic devices like copying machines, projectors, HVAC units or proximity to electrical conduits inside a structure; spillover of the signal into adjacent rooms and different looping techniques. Costs are also affected by how labor intensive the installation might be.

Hearing Loop Cost

Depending on the size and construction of the room or space being “looped,” systems can be installed for the price of hearing aid or two – from $2500-$4500. For larger venues such as auditoriums, senior centers, churches, typical installation costs run $5000-$35,000. A large performing art center may cost $100,000 –$150,000.

The Future of Hearing Loops

The experts suggest the following advances in hearing loop systems technology may appear sooner than later:

  • Higher fidelity telecoils that increase the numbers of hearing aid users seeking more from dispensers and manufacturers
  • Telecoils more readily available in all types of hearing aids
  • Automatic telecoils that are triggered by induction loop ALS as well as telephones
  • New standards governing the installation and performance of induction loop ALS in the United States
  • Better means for measuring and verifying the installation and performance criteria
  • Low-cost measurement equipment and concise guidelines
  • Greater integration of microprocessor electronics and digital signal processing becoming more commonplace.
  • New ambient electromagnetic interference cancellation technologies
  • Use of induction loop ALS and hearing aid compatible telephones in environments with high electrical noise.

Do you know of a church, a school, a venue in your community that could benefit from hearing loop system? Speak up and contact your local hearing loss support group for a referral.