Wear hearing aids? Here's why you may want a remote microphone
RM systems can be a 'godsend' for hearing aid wearers, experts note
When you have hearing loss, it can sometimes feel like attending a party underwater: You can see everyone—and facial reactions can be a tipoff that someone told a ribald joke or shared something sad, important, or meaningful—but you can’t always quite hear punchlines, directions, or other communications.
Of course, hearing aids are a powerful tool to combat this, and improve your ability to hear. But as you may have experienced, these devices don’t restore hearing completely, and you may still struggle to hear people who are speaking.
That’s where remote microphones can help—the person speaking wears a small microphone, and their speech is transmitted via Bluetooth directly into your hearing aid. Using them can make a significant difference.
'Godsend' and a 'miracle'
Remote mics paired with hearing aids were a “godsend” and “miracle” for audiologist Rachel Raphael's 92-year-old father, who was very deaf despite wearing premium hearing aids (as you’d expect with a hearing expert’s parent).
“In his later years, he relied on my mother wearing a microphone throughout the day in their apartment,” recalls Raphael, with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. And, at family gatherings, family members would pass the mic around.
Here’s what you need to know about remote mics, which are also known as RM systems:
How remote microphones work
Simply put, “a remote mic is a separate device that is used to bring the [sound] signal from an outside source directly to the hearing aid user,” explains audiologist Michelle Matyko, co-owner of Roosevelt Field Hearing Corporation in Garden City, New York.
This mic is small—it can clip to the speaker's lapel—and pairs wirelessly via Bluetooth to your hearing aids, Raphael says. That way, you can hear what’s being said by the person wearing the microphone “clearly and directly,” she says.
“This helps cut through noise and distance to stream voices right to a hearing impaired person’s aided ears,” Raphael says.
Dramatically reduces background noise
Using a remote mic helps improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) according to one small study involving adults and children with bilateral hearing loss. That’s important: The signal is what you want to hear (it’s the person talking to you at the restaurant table) and the noise (the background sounds of other tables’ conversations and clinking silverware) is what can get in the way of you hearing.
The problem gets worse when people are further away. (Distance, along with background noise, are factors that make hearing more challenging.)
Remote mics accentuate the signal, but not the noise. “The signal you want to hear, like the person talking, either holds the remote mic, or clips it to them when speaking, so that the sound goes directly into the hearing aid user's hearing aids with less outside interference,” Matyko says. That is, they cut down on background sounds and boost the person you want to hear, she says.
Cost of remote mics
Remote mics usually cost in the neighborhood of $250 to $350, Raphael says. Microphones are where the sound comes in; then you’ll either receive the signal directly in your hearing aid or via a device that connects to it. Remote mics are more sophisticated than ever, and the sounds are usually sent via Bluetooth.
Remote microphone brands
Many of the major hearing aid manufacturers conveniently sell remote microphones that pair well with their products. Some of the common remote mics include:
Depending on the product you buy, your remote mic may do more than just serve as a microphone for your hearing aids, but also connect to digital sources of sound.
For example, ConnectClip lets you make hands-free phone calls, stream music from your phone, make video calls, and adjust your hearing aid setting using a remote control function.
When to use a remote mic
“They are particularly useful in a restaurant or group settings,” Matyko says—think, anywhere there’s a lot of background noise. You can give the mic to someone speaking at a restaurant or in a conference room—or even your yoga teacher or another instructor-type setting.
“If a person has difficulty hearing a signal clearly, like the speaker in a group or at a restaurant, the speaker can utilize a remote mic close to them so that the hearing aid user can hear more directly and clearly,” Matyko says.
If you have a child with hearing loss, RM systems used at school and at home are incredibly helpful, notes the nonprofit organization Hearing First. Remote microphones boost your child's ability to hear more words, and they also improve things like attention, confidence and independence, according to Hearing First.
Drawbacks to note
As Raphael noted, you may need to visit your audiologist to properly pair hearing aids with a remote mic. And, while their sticker price is quite low compared to hearing aids, they do still cost a few hundred dollars.
And all that wireless streaming cuts down on battery life, Raphael points out. “This is less of an issue with rechargeable hearing aids than with the ones that take disposable batteries,” she says. Say you have lithium ion rechargeable hearing aids: those would usually hold a 30-hour charge, but with wireless streaming, it drops to 24 hours, Raphael says.
If you use disposable batteries, you’ll likely need to replace them more frequently if you’re using a remote mic.
Plus, remote mics are yet another thing to carry around. “You have to have a separate device to take with you places to get the benefit,” Matyko says.
If you are trying to listen to more than one speaker, the remote mic will needed to passed to whomever is speaking.
Finally, using remote mics requires you to assert yourself by asking people to use the mic. That may be easy to do with family members, but harder to do with a new friend at a restaurant or during a high-level meeting in a conference room.
Benefits far outweigh the drawbacks
While yes, there are some inconveniences to remote mics, including reduced hearing aid battery life and the need to put another item in your purse or pocket, these devices have a lot to offer. “...the positives far outweigh the negative. In situations where clarity and understanding are an issue, remote mics are a blessing!” Matyko says.
For Raphael’s father, remote mics served as a game changer. “Without it, he was lost and removed from the conversation,” she says. But with the remote mic in place, “he was very much engaged and part of the fun, including when my daughter and son-in-law announced her pregnancy to the family at our Thanksgiving dinner!”