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Analog vs. Digital Hearing Aids

One of the weirdest retro technology comebacks happening today is the return of vinyl records, or LPs as we used to call them. Today it’s considered a sign of commercial success when an artist releases new work in vinyl in addition to CDs, and people are willing to pay much more for those records.


A tossed turntable in New York's West Village.


Now I hear that this sound is superior to what you get from CDs.  The explanation goes something like this: digital sound is “sampled” sound, merely an incomplete extract that by definition does not contain all the sound that’s in the vinyl.

Before I burst this bubble of nonsense, let’s deal with the same issue when it comes to hearing aid technology, because we still see web sites hawking cheap analog hearing aids. These are a throwback to the past, when they were the standard. Analog hearing aids take the sound signal from the microphone and convert it to an electrical signal that is then amplified by the hearing aid and sent to the ear. The result is a louder sound. In fact analog hearing aids were mostly about raising the volume—a reasonable objective for people with hearing difficulties.

But analog sound processing has its limitations: you can make sound louder (amplify); you can also focus on the quieter sounds and make them louder (compression); and you can even exclude certain sounds (filtering). These very useful tools were used extensively before the advent of digital technologies.

Digital hearing aids go to work after the sound from the microphone is encoded digitally. At that point, a program designed to work with your audiogram (hearing prescription) determines which sounds must be amplified, often leaving the rest of the sound stream alone. Thus a digital hearing aid is “programmed” to turn up the volume on the specific areas we are having difficulty with—usually the higher frequency range in which human conversations take place. This approach strikes a more natural balance, to make up for age-related hearing loss.

It is true that for people who are very, very close to being totally deaf, it may be better to stay on analog devices, because often their loss covers the whole hearing spectrum. But for most people, and especially for those just starting to need hearing aids, the maxim to follow is to avoid analog hearing devices. Yes, they are often cheaper, but mostly this old tech can’t match today’s hearing aid technology.


A typical '60s sound expander.

Oh and what about the LPs vs. CDs? I recall the first time I heard the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album on a CD—it was a revelation—there was so much that we hadn’t heard before. How could that be? After all, this is “sampled,” “incomplete” sound. What about those signals left out? The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind. In LPs, the loud passages had to be compressed to keep the needle in the groove—the mechanical system could not handle large dynamic ranges (changes in volume). As a result the loud and the quiet sounds were smashed together (compressed), often hiding sounds that would have been heard easily if they were allowed to keep their dynamic range. In fact audiophiles back then bought all sorts of gear in an effort to restore the dynamic range. That too was a guessing game and of course artificial. So in fact you do not hear more music in vinyl; you are hearing less, for the most part, and the sound certainly isn’t truer. What you do hear is the power of marketing, so be alert and be on the lookout. Analog is cheaper, but digital is much likelier to deliver more useful sound to your ears.