Over-ear headphones, a versatile option when you want to wear headphones with hearing aids.

Dennis Williams is a huge music fan, but he’s also hard of hearing. One of the side effects of his hearing loss is tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. “Trying to hear over that is a royal pain,” Williams says.

The 64-year-old Ohio resident uses a pair of hearing aids given to him by Veterans Affairs. Williams says he would love to find a pair of headphones that he could wear with them to enjoy his favorite tunes. “That would be a dream,” Williams says. But so far, he hasn’t been able to.

For some hearing aid users, finding compatible headphones can be difficult. The most obvious problem is the extra gear standing in the way of a good fit. Depending on which hearing aids they wear, people may find some headphones uncomfortable or even impossible to wear. And if the headphones don’t sit properly around the hearing aids’ microphone, the mics may not pick up the sound at all. Worse, if the headphones’ speakers sit too close to the microphone, you’re likely to have problems with audio feedback.


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More on Headphones and Hearing Aids

But audiologists say that with a little experimentation, many people can find headphones that work great with their hearing aids.

“People should be getting a whole lot of good benefit out of their hearing aids,” says Brian Fligor, Ph.D., an audiologist and founder and president of Boston Audiology Consultants in Mansfield, Mass. Fligor says finding a useful pair of headphones is one of the ways to get that benefit.

Listening to headphones too loudly or for too long can damage your hearing. But the audiologists we spoke to said that, in general, using headphones with your hearing aids doesn’t pose any risk as long as you follow some fairly straightforward advice that applies to all headphone users. Still, they say, it’s smart to consult with an audiologist before you experiment.

Some Hearing Aids Restrict Your Headphone Options

When you’re looking for headphones to use with hearing aids, the most important factor is what kind of hearing aids you have. Hearing aids can be separated into a few key types, and they don’t work equally well with all headphones.

The most common types are behind-the-ear (BTE) and receiver-in-the-canal (RIC) hearing aids. Both house some or all of their main components in a compartment that sits behind the ear, which makes them a bit more difficult to pair with headphones than smaller devices because the extra bulk gets in the way of a good fit.

Fligor says BTEs are especially finicky because the microphone, which picks up outside sounds that are then processed by the hearing aid, is outside the ear canal. “If you have a headphone that doesn’t sit up and over that, then you’re not going to pick up any sound through the hearing aid itself,” he says.

That doesn’t mean BTE and RIC users can’t wear headphones, though. Headphones that fit in or on top of the ear are unlikely to work, but over-the-ear style headphones may be an option. (CR’s buying guide has pictures and descriptions of different types of headphones.) The key is to find a pair that’s comfortable and holds the headphone speakers a reasonable distance from the hearing aid microphone in order to avoid feedback. Fligor says a distance of 1 centimeter, if not a little more, is usually a safe bet.

One pair that gets especially high marks in CR’s testing is the HiFiMan HE-400i, $250, which delivers superb audio and is particularly roomy.


Check CR's guide to hearing aids, which includes ratings of hearing aid retailers and brands.
 

If you have a harder time hearing in environments with lots of ambient sound, a noise-canceling model may have some extra benefit. Keep in mind that some noise-canceling headphones produce a faint hiss that some hearing aids may pick up on.

The over-ear Bose QuietComfort 35 is one of the top scoring noise-canceling headphones in our tests. It functions wirelessly using Bluetooth or through an audio cable included with your purchase, and it can be used with the noise-canceling feature turned on or off. The QuietComfort 35 retails for $330.

For something a little cheaper, check out the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, which delivers great sound for $150. And if you’re really looking for a bargain, consider the Monoprice HiFi DJ-Style Pro. The sound quality is decent though not superb, but for $15 it punches well above its weight.

The advice is the same if you have in-the-ear (ITE) hearing aids, which are custom-fit devices that fill up the inner ear bowl. Over-ear headphones are probably still the only option because the microphone sits close to the surface of the ear.

These Hearing Aids Make It Easier

Many people who wear in-the-canal (ITC) hearing aids can use on-ear headphones in addition to over-the-ear models. That’s good news if you’re looking for a headphones you can take on the go. On-ear headphones are typically lighter, and as the name suggests, they fit on the ears instead of the sides of your head. Many users find them more comfortable, though on the downside they tend to let in more ambient sound.

For on-ear headphones, our testers recommend the wireless Plantronics BackBeat Sense, which you can usually find for less than $70, and the Skullcandy Grind, which you can pick up for $50. Neither is too bulky, and they both earn high marks for audio quality. And if you’re looking for exceptional sound, the $100 Grado SR80e is a consistent high performer in our testing.

You have even more choices if you use completely-in-the-canal (CIC) hearing aids, which were made famous by Bill Clinton, who adopted them in 1997, during his second term as president. If you wear a CIC, on-ear and over-ear headphones are still the safest bet, but those hearing aids fit deeply enough that you may also be able to wear some earphones, which fit inside the ear.

CIC users may want to try the Bose SoundTrue Ultra, which seal the ear canal without fitting deeply inside it. The SoundTrue Ultra, $80, isn’t noise-canceling like many of the company’s better-known models, but it is wireless, and our testers praised it for both sound and comfort.

Finally, you’ll have the most choices if you wear invisible-in-the-canal (IIC) hearing aids. IIC devices fit so deeply in the ear that they can be used with almost any headphones, even earbuds. Your main concern will be narrowing down your options, and deciding whether you’re more interested in getting a great deal or just going for the best of the best. You may even want to try out true wireless earphones, which don’t even have a cord connecting the left and right earbuds.

Regardless of which type of hearing aid you use, you may also want to consider bone conduction headphones. Hearing aids won’t condition or amplify the audio coming from bone conduction headphones because they bypass the middle ear and translate the sound via vibrations through your skull. On the flip side, most don’t fit on the ears themselves, so fit and feedback may be a nonissue.

Some people who are hard of hearing swear by them, but the bone conduction headphones Consumer Reports has tested over the years all get low scores for sound, and we’ve yet to recommend a single pair. There are other caveats to keep in mind as well. They don’t work with every type of hearing loss, and unlike isolating over- or in-ear headphones, they won’t block ambient sound.

Try Before You Buy

When it comes to audio, everyone has different preferences. It’s always best to comparison shop and try headphones before you buy them. But the idiosyncrasies of hearing aids and hearing loss make that an even more important step.

It’s a good idea to find a store that has multiple models you can try, or you could buy a few pairs from an online retailer with a good return policy.

People who are hard of hearing may find the tonal qualities of some headphones more appropriate than others. For example, headphones with pronounced bass might be perfect for someone with hearing loss in the low frequencies, while headphones with a lack of clarity in the midrange frequencies, where voices typically fall, could be a bigger issue if you have hearing loss across a broad range of frequencies.

If you’re a Consumer Reports member, you can check our ratings to see detailed descriptions of the audio performance of headphones in our tests.

And according to Alicia Spoor, Au.D., president of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, some people with hearing loss may not get the full benefit of expensive, top-rated headphones.

“Make sure that you’re not buying headphones that are ‘high fidelity’ if you have hearing loss that’s not going to let you benefit from those higher-fidelity devices,” Spoor says.

For example, even with hearing aids some people will be unable to pick up the subtleties in high-frequency sounds, where the best headphones do some of their most impressive work. However, she says, don’t take that advice as an established rule: Dedicated audiophiles might still be able to appreciate the nuance that high-performance headphones provide.


Consider the Alternatives

Not every hearing aid user needs to find compatible headphones just to listen to music, however.

One route that many people opt for is just taking their hearing aids out, putting on their headphones, and pumping up the volume.

The experts we spoke to say this is safe as long as you follow some simple guidelines and consult with your audiologist first.

Fligor says you can avoid noise-induced hearing loss from headphones using the 80-90 rule: Limit your headphone listening by setting your device at no more than 80 percent of its maximum volume for up to 90 minutes a day. The same applies whether or not you’re using headphones with hearing aids—and whether or not you’re not hard of hearing.

Many modern hearing aids also come equipped with Bluetooth technology.

“There’s a lot of benefit to that,” Fligor says.

Some audiophiles disparage Bluetooth because the technology carries an inherit dip in sound quality. But according to Fligor, for some people the best audio signal may come from Bluetooth “because the hearing aids themselves are providing some compensation for what the person doesn’t hear and give the boost in the right ranges according to their prescription.” Your hearing aids will be processing the audio anyway, so streaming directly to the device may result in better sound.

There are Bluetooth-compatible models for most types of hearing aids. The feature can increase the size of the hearing aid, though, especially if it’s an in-ear or in-canal device. That means some users might not be able to wear them. Some hearing aids come standard with Bluetooth. When it’s optional, Spoor says the difference in price is typically $50 or less.

For now, Bluetooth is less common on custom-fitted devices—essentially, anything other than BTEs and RICs—but that may change as technology improves.

There are other drawbacks, as well. “Bluetooth is a greedy system,” Fligor says. Streaming to your hearing aids will cut their battery life. And Fligor says that while hearing aid Bluetooth technology has improved, the performance is often spotty on models more than about 3 years old.

For many hearing aid users, a good pair of headphones is still the best option.