(Last updated Oct 7, 2019)

Echo And Hearing Aids: Why They’re Not Good Friends

If you’ve worn hearing aids for a while, you might have noticed that when you are in an echo-y room, it’s much harder to understand the conversation. Hearing aids tend to amplify echo, so if you’re not aware of what’s happening or how to reduce the echo in the room, it might be frustrating.

Even people with perfect hearing don’t enjoy talking in a echo-y room. It’s distracting and a struggle to hear. So you can understand why hearing-aid wearers don’t handle echo well.

As a hearing aid wearer myself, I have been in situations where I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. The rest of the group did complain about the echo in the room, but they could communicate just fine.

So what’s really going on? What really is echo?

Of course, sound travels through air. So when you’re outdoors, there’s plenty of space for the sound to travel away from its source. But in a room, the sound bounces off hard, flat surfaces such as tables and walls until if finds a surface that can absorbe it. Absorbers are soft, like curtains, a cushy couch, or a rug.

Now you know that when you walk into a bare room with tiled walls and high ceilings, all these hard surfaces make a perfect habitat for echo. You can expect high levels of echo and you realize that your hearing aids will not perform as well, especially during a group conversation.

Why hearing aids don’t handle echo well
The thing is: modern hearing aids are sophisticated devices, but they still can’t perform as well as the human brain + healthy hearing.

Our brains and ears have evolved over millions of years and have learned to overcome echo as a challenge. They work together to understand where the sound is coming from and somehow manage to “ignore” echo and focus on the sound you want to hear.

But hearing aids can’t talk directly with your brain, so they are at a disadvantage. Microphones pick up every sound, and then it’s up to sophisticated algorithms to “ignore” what you don’t need to hear, but this sophisticated technology isn’t as smart as the brain.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of hearing aids. I wear them every day and couldn’t live without them. But I think it’s good to be aware of their limitations, to be informed how they work and what not to expect from them.

Some tips
The next time you’re in a room and notice a lot of echo, have a look around: what are the hard surfaces that make the sound bounce back and forth? Are the ceilings high? If this is a room in your house that you can easily change, try inserting soft surfaces. Even closing the drapes or hanging a coat on the coat hanger can make a difference.

If you’re with a group, you may not always be able to make changes in a room, but at least you’re aware that your speech understanding will be reduced. You are walking into the room with the right expectations. And that’s a very powerful thing.

PS: If you’d like to see a demo of three simple tricks to reduce echo in a room you can check out my video here.

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