This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in July 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.
When we set out to test hearing aids, we encountered the same challenges that hearing-aid shoppers face every day: a fragmented and confusing marketplace and difficulty sorting out good hearing-aid providers from less-capable ones.
We followed a dozen actual patients for six months as they shopped for and used hearing aids, conducted a national survey of 1,100 people who had bought a hearing aid in the past three years, and lab-tested the features of 44 hearing aids. Here's what we found:
Our shoppers purchased two pairs of hearing aids each, or 48 aids in all, ranging from $1,800 to $6,800 per pair, including professional fitting and follow-up services, in the New York City metropolitan area.
We had audiologists check how well providers fit our shoppers' hearing aids to their individual hearing loss. Two-thirds of the 48 aids they bought were misfit: They amplified too little or too much.
Most of the providers our shoppers visited discussed style and features, but a significant minority didn't. One-fourth of respondents to our survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, didn't know whether their aids had feedback suppression, and a third didn't know whether they had directional microphones. Both features can be critical to performance.
So why bother with hearing aids? Medical evidence shows that they can improve your quality of life and relationships with friends and family, so it's worth persevering until you get aids that are properly selected and fitted. Of our survey respondents, 73 percent pronounced themselves highly satisfied with their aids. As one of our shoppers noted, "I'm hearing music sounds I haven't heard for over 20 years."
Moreover, hearing-aid technology has made major strides in recent years, most notably with the development of very small open-fit digital hearing aids. In loud social settings, the most challenging environment for hearing-aid users, survey participants reported more improvement with those aids, which don't plug up the ear canal, over other styles that use earmolds, custom-shaped inserts that fit tightly in the ear canal.
If you're avoiding noisy places or having trouble in conversation or understanding TV, it might be time for a hearing aid. In our survey 67 percent of first-time aid users sought aids because they got tired of asking others to repeat themselves.
Once you've accepted your hearing loss and are considering getting hearing aids, your most consequential decision is finding the proper professional from whom to buy them because it's likely to be a long-term relationship. This is not a project for the faint-hearted because the industry is anything but standardized. Our shoppers encountered a variety of providers, including hospital-based clinics and strip-mall storefronts, all legally able to fit a hearing aid, but with varied resources and expertise. In this report, we'll help sort things out step by step.