Recently, a gentleman came into the office "shopping" for hearing aids. He spent a large amount of time focused on how many channels each of the hearing aid models have and comparing multiple brands of hearing aids of comparable cost trying to determine which brand of hearing aid for "x" price offered the most channels. This is not the first time this has happened and we as an industry have been guilty of marketing hearing aids in the past solely based on the number of channels the hearing aid has and this had led people to believe that more channels is better. But is the better overall value?
Many manufacturers intermix the term channels and bands in their marketing, which can lead to confusion. If a hearing aid is marketed as having 16 channels it is important to determine that the manufacturer isn't referring to the number of bands (# of slider handles in the software), which manipulate gain.
Channels affect how a hearing aid operates. Many changes occurring in hearing aids are happening behind the scenes, which is largely controlled internally with onboard algorithms. Bands affect how a hearing aid is adjusted using software. Adjusting bands has a direct effect on the hearing aids amplification settings and bands are used to adjust these characteristics much like an equalizer on a stereo. Please note: it is important to know that research has shown that hearing aids that have more than 8 channels show minimal improvement over the actual sound quality of the instrument.
In addition to the number of channels a hearing aids has, one must factor in other features such as microphones types, compression, automatics, binaural processing, feedback algorithms, noise management, actual bandwidth of the hearing aid, etc.
So to put things into perspective if an individual were looking at two pairs of hearing aids by two manufacturers, which should he/she choose?
A 16 channel/10band hearing aid with a single band adaptive directional microphone with a bandwidth up to 7.1kHz for $1900.00
An 8 channel/8band hearing aid with a multiband adaptive directional microphone with a bandwidth up to 8 kHz for $1900.00
Which one would you choose? As a hearing impaired Audiologist who has been wearing hearing aids since age 3, I would choose #2. The number of channels takes less priority over the effectiveness of the multiband adaptive directional microphone when it comes to optimal speech discrimination in background noise. Additionally, choice #2 also has a wider bandwidth up to 8kHz, 900Hz MORE BANDWIDTH. The big determining factor for me in deciding how many channels is appropriate is by looking at the slope of the hearing loss on the audiogram. If an individual has a flat 50dBHL hearing loss more channels is less of a priority however, if an individual has a hearing loss that drops significantly from one octave to the next appearing to look like a "ski" slope on the audiogram that person may benefit from having more channels for more fine scale control and resolution of the output.
So it is important to look at the sum of all the features. For those of you out there who are shoppers, find an Audiologist with the training and background to sit down and explain these features to you so that you and your Audiologist may make informed decisions about what is the best selection that meets the needs of your hearing loss, lifestyle and budget. So do channels matter: Sure, but other things often matter more.