Better Hearing With PSA?
Ludwik Kowalski, Ph.D.
Montclair State University, NJ USA (see Wikipedia)
Hearing deficits are common, but many low income people cannot afford hearing aids costing several thousand dollars. Such people are perfect candidates for PSAs (Personal Sound Amplifiers), described for example, at:
As an 83-year old retired teacher, I would like to share what I have recently learned about these effective and inexpensive devices. Will this diary-like essay, written mostly for myself, be also read by other people? I hope so.
I have been using a pair of traditional hearing aids satisfactorily for about ten years. Each aid consists of three tiny electrical components: a microphone, an amplifier and a speaker. The microphone turns sonic vibrations into an electric signal, the signal is magnified in the amplifier and the speaker produces sonic vibrations (sound) that my ears hear. Some vibrations are magnified more than others according to my needs, as set up by the audiologist.
These old hearing aids are still working fine. Why should I replace them with very expensive modern digital hearing aids? Why should I not try using a PSA? Such devices have the same components as each of my old hearing aids, except the components are not miniature. The link below leads to a model of PSA that attracted my attention.
They write: “SuperEar personal sound amplifier from Sonic Technology Products has been the leading personal sound amplifier on the market over 30 years and is the industry leader in assisted listening device. ... What binoculars do to improve your vision, the SuperEar does to improve your ability to hear the sounds around you; outdoors, indoors, and virtually anywhere.
The SuperEar Personal Sound Amplifier boosts hearing with a powerful 50 decibels of sound gain, enabling you to hear what you've been missing. This versatile hand-held amplifier is compact enough to fit in the smallest pocket, yet comes with accessories to attach the Super Ear to binoculars, belt, hat or other gear. The multi-element microphone is mounted in a 180 degree swiveling sound boom that is covered in a protective foam windscreen. Premium stereo headphones fit comfortably to deliver clear, crisp sound. ... if you have any problems with our SuperEar please contact customer support. 3 Year warranty!”
After reading this advertisement I contacted Sonic Technology (1-800-247-5548) and asked if the Super Ear has a dial to control not only the output sound loudness but the pitch of that sound as well. The answer was negative, as far as presently-sold models are concerned. But a new model, if the government approves it, will be available in November 2015. That model will be equipped with a pitch-control potentiometer. I hope other improvements will be made as well.
Instead of waiting till November I ordered the existing model immediately (via Amazon). It arrived one week later and I started experimenting immediately.
While waiting for the delivery I continued browsing the Internet, to learn more about PSAs. According to Consumer Reports, at:
“...these over-the-counter products generally have fewer features and less functionality than hearing aids, although some of the technology may be similar. They're sold online and at some mass retailers, and can be a lower-cost solution for people with mild hearing loss who aren't ready to spring for a prescription hearing aid, according to Barbara E. Weinstein, Ph.D., professor of audiology at the City University of New York. The Food and Drug Administration cautions that PSAPs aren't designed for people with hearing loss, but rather for people who want to amplify certain sounds--and they aren't subject to the same safety and effectiveness standards that hearing aids are. So consult an audiologist first ... “
The three audiologists I consulted were definitely against the PSAs. My question “Would you adjust a personal amplifier to my needs, if I buy it?” was answered with a categorical “no.” Was this based on familiarity with the PSA technology or was it based on financial considerations?
One frequently hears that people should replace hearing aids every six to eight years, due to changes in hearing, and to technological improvements. Widespread use of devices similar to SuperEar, to delay switching to a second pairs of hearing aids (as I hope to be able to do), would certainly have significant financial consequences.
And here is a link to comments posted by those who bought and used Super Ear:
An interesting January 2015 article, about PSAs, was found at:
“For several years now, audiologists and hearing care specialists have expressed concern over unregulated personal sound amplifiers (PSAs) being marketed as a viable solution for those with hearing loss. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a personal sound amplifier is a nonprogrammable device that can be worn like a hearing aid (depending on the style) and increases the volume of your surroundings. They are not, however, programmed for an individual’s specific hearing loss, and they may do more harm than good if used as a hearing aid. ...”
The 2009 article, written by Dr. Mark Ross, and entitled “Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs) Versus Hearing Aids,”
is also worth reading. Referring to available models of such devices, the author wrote: “All of them tended to provide too much amplification (gain) in the lower frequencies and too little gain above about 1000-2000 Hz (the more important frequencies for understanding speech). Listening to such a system could give users an illusion of hearing better, while in actual fact their comprehension of speech would still be rather limited (though perhaps superior to nothing at all).” That is surprising; selectively boosting amplification at 1000-2000 Hz frequencies is not very difficult, as far as I know.
The SuperEAR (model SE-4000) arrived as promised. I had no difficulties unpacking it, inserting the battery and turning the device on and off, following their short “Instruction for Use.“ Before reading this instruction I believed that any new 1.5 V AAA battery would deliver 30 hours of operation. But this seems to be wrong; they write that “Alkaline batteries will deliver 2-3 times the operational life of lesser batteries.”
According to an advertisement sheet, also found in the box, “SuperEar is the preferred solution to help patients hear! ... It was designed, engineered and tested in the USA. Over half a million SuperEars [have already been] sold.”
My goal is to start using SuperEar over my old hearing aids, in order to prolong their usefulness. Does the quality of sound deteriorate when two devices are used at the same time? The answer to this question turned out to be negative, as demonstrated by the following preliminary experiment:
a) Together with my wife I was listening to a TV program. As usual, I was wearing my hearing aids. To hear better I raised the volume, using the TV’s remote. But the sound was too loud for my wife. To accommodate her I lowered the volume with the remote, turned the SuperEars on, placed its headphones over my head and set the PSA’s volume to about 50%. Then we continued listening. This time she was comfortable but I was not, because of background noise, mostly due to the air conditioner operating in the same room. This noise did not end completely when the AC was turned off. Then I discovered that my handling of the PSA also introduced annoying bursts of noise.
That is a serious limitation. Would it be eliminated if my hearing aids were digital rather than analog? Probably yes; modern hearing aids are said to be tiny computers programed to eliminate noise. Can PSAs also be programmed to eliminate background noise?
b) Fortunately, listening to the TV in a room without an air conditioner turned out to be acceptable. But is it better than listening through my old hearing aids only? That is far from obvious. I tend to agree with Ross (see point 9 above) that making sound louder does not always make it more comprehensible. What is needed is a potentiometer for controlling the pitch of sound, in addition to the potentiometer controlling the loudness (see Section 4 above).
c) But SuperEar is primarily designed for people with normal hearing. Here is a situation in which such people can benefit from using it. A wife wants to sleep without hearing the TV talk to which her husband is listening.To make this possible she lowers the volume on the TV’s remote while he increases the volume on his PSA.
d) One can also listen to sounds from adjacent rooms, for example, when the goal is to monitor a child or a sick person. I verified this by hearing what my wife was saying when she continued talking after leaving the room. I understood her, despite being separated by two open doors and two walls.
e) We verified that the sensitivity of the microphone does not depend on how it is oriented, with respect to the source of the sound. In other words, it will be sensitive to sound coming from all directions. A mono-directional microphone would be more desirable, in situations I have in mind.
What else can one imagine in thinking about making electronically processed sound more understandable? The first idea that came to my mind was turning fast speech into slow speach, for example, after speech is digitized. I am certainly not the first one to think that this should be possible. Below are two related Internet references.
The overall conclusion is simple; the present model of SuperEar will not help me to prolong the usefulness of my old nondigital hearing aids. But this PSA is likely to be very useful to those whose hearing is nearly normal and who wish to postpone buying their first hearing aids.
Will the next model of SuperEar be suitable for those who want to use it over the nondigital hearing aids? This remains to be seen. The most desirable improvements, for people like me, would be the pitch control potentiometer, an additional mono directional microphone, and a noise control program.
Motivation for this Essay
Writing about what I do and think is a pleasant and useful activity; I have been doing this since I was a student, at Warsaw Polytechnic Institute, first in diaries, on which my online book was based:
then in over one hundred scientific and pedagogical publications. Writing is a conversation with oneself, and with potential partners in learning, such as students and colleagues. It helps to think critically about what one is doing, to make good decisions, and, as in the case of PSAs, to share knowledge which may be useful to others. I am dedicating this short essay to professor Ignacy. Malecki, my Warsaw Polytechnic teacher of electro acoustics.