Now Hear This
June 9, 2021 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Ear Trumpets work better than modern digital hearing aids. "...Ear trumpets and speaking tubes not only yielded a sound amplification of 10 to 25 decibels, they also suppressed sounds that came from other directions, further improving their workings. The speaking tube also reduced the noise between speaker and listener."
posted by storybored (49 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Cool finding!

Miniaturization is hard. A digital hearing aid the size of an ear trumpet would probably work best of all.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:18 AM on June 9 [10 favorites]

They also make you look 10-25x dorkier.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:22 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

Maybe? I don't see from the article or its 3 citations that there has been a direct comparison study of effectiveness, much less the actual preferences of the hard of hearing.

a sound amplification of 10 to 25 decibels

My understanding is that modern hearing aids achieve gains of ~60dB, with non-linear responses dependent on the frequencies that the particular user needs amplified, the loudness of the input (e.g. no need to amplify a roaring jet engine), and targeting the frequencies that are most useful (e.g. typical speech).
posted by jedicus at 11:23 AM on June 9 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I’m about to lay out a ridiculous amount of money on my first pair of hearing aids, but they apparently can be customized to amplify exactly the frequencies where I have the most hearing loss, and can distinguish between the conversation I’m trying to hear and the background noise in a crowded room. If I could do as well with an ear trumpet, though, it would save me a ton of cash. I’m willing to tweak my personal aesthetic.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:28 AM on June 9 [13 favorites]

Yeah, the latest cite is from 2013. I dunno.

If this is true, I don't know whether I should tell my dad or at all costs not tell him. He bought a pair of Earglasses, and I guess they do work, on the same principles as ear trumpets and early aircraft warning systems. He's not the only man in my family who is resisting hearing aids. I think it's in part because he enjoys selective hearing, as well as the opportunity to loudly repeat something that he knows you didn't say.

(Never going to forget being a self-conscious preteen who was achy in a crowded mall, and asked him if we could sit down, saying quietly: "My back hurts." Him: "YOUR BUTT HURTS?")
posted by Countess Elena at 11:30 AM on June 9 [14 favorites]

As someone who's been wearing various incarnations of hearing aid technology since the 70s, my take is that maybe ear trumpets are OK if you have mild-to-zero hearing loss and are really committed to a no-tech lifestyle. But if hearing loss is affecting quality of life for a loved one - and it likely is - please please please encourage them to try a hearing aid. It makes a huge difference to one's ability (and willingness) to engage with the world.
posted by thisclickableme at 11:39 AM on June 9 [13 favorites]

I didn't know ear trumpets did anything at all. They're always portrayed in movies as a comedy prop. It's great to know it's an effective low-cost option for people if so.
posted by bleep at 11:40 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Earglasses are just a rip-off of Ear-Noculars
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:52 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

The same concept was taken to extreme in WWI on beaches in England as soldiers would stand between two monstrously sized "trumpets" listening for German planes crossing the Channel.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:52 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

I can't imagine the low quality of life holding a giant ear trumpet over the length of a movie or party, much less the entire day. Would create a space for entrepreneurial shoulder architects to build slings to hold the things up.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:54 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

The mention of different types of ear trumpets in the article sent me to eBay, which has quite a variety of antique ear trumpets (and quite a few being sold as "gag gifts" - yep, hearing loss is hilarious). They aren't all the giant ones from cartoons.

My father had hearing loss from World War II and would not wear a hearing aid because he thought it would hurt him professionally if he looked disabled. I understand that more now and think he probably had a point, but it did get tiring having to shout at him all the time.
posted by FencingGal at 12:04 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

This article does not appear to offer any credible evidence for the claim in its title.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:11 PM on June 9 [10 favorites]

This reminds me of being told by a costumer that wolf-ears for an Elfquest costume amplified sounds. I can believe that it's only enough for mild hearing loss but they could be useful for that and not as cumbersome as an ear trumpet.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:28 PM on June 9 [5 favorites]

It seems like they don't even bother with non-credible evidence, for that matter...

FWIW, speech separation, beam forming (ie, focus on speech coming from a particular direction), and noise suppression are all tasks where modern machine learning is working exceptionally well. The new techniques can run on a phone, and the race is on to reduce compute further.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:28 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

This is a bunch of bunk.

Maybe? I don't see from the article or its 3 citations that there has been a direct comparison study of effectiveness, much less the actual preferences of the hard of hearing.

I'm certain the paper they are talking about is this one. It's a famous paper. The author, Ruth Bentler, was my mentor! She's the person who convinced me to come to Iowa and study hearing aids.

In any case, that paper is 20 years olds now. And it did not find that ear trumpets out-perform modern hearing aids. And, as you pointed out and as was found in that study, bandwidth and gain in modern hearing aids are significantly higher than ear trumpets. There were similar benefits observed between hearing aids/ear trumpets when the SNR was very poor, which is not at all unexpected.

I mean, ear trumpets aren't terrible. They improve audibility, which is the most important thing and does indeed make a huge difference. Hell, just cupping your had behind your ear buys you 5 dB of gain. But modern hearing aids really are incredible. They allow for an immense amount of customization based on the user's hearing loss (which of course the ear trumpet does not do), as well as employ a broad range of non-linear signal processing algorithms to improve speech perception in various conditions, improve comfort, and do a bunch of other fun stuff like play music from your phone and even hook up to your smart fridge.

Look - hearing aids are my life and I love them. They are incredible and life changing. They can put out 50+ dB of gain all day long and do a bunch of other cool stuff using a tiny chip and drawing very little power. They are designed to mimic the physiological processes of the ear that have been lost due to damage and aging to try and give people with hearing loss as close to a normal sensation of hearing as possible. It's incredible. There are also serious problems with hearing aids and the ways they are marketed and priced. Lots of things some dispensers or manufacturers say the hearing aids can do is simply false. Hearing aids are insanely expensive and not usually covered by insurance, which is awful. Hearing aids don't always live up to people's expectations. All of this is true at once.

A lot of people have dedicated their lives over the past decades to trying to make aural communication as good as possible for people with hearing loss (which by the end of our lives will be most of us). This article is nonsense.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:28 PM on June 9 [107 favorites]

Looking at some other pieces, this seems to be a very...umm.. interesting website. Although I will say it seems to stay true to its low tech ethos by being almost entirely run by cranks.
posted by howfar at 12:35 PM on June 9 [15 favorites]

I have mild-to-moderate "cookie-bite" hearing loss (meaning I have the most trouble hearing the frequencies that, conveniently, are where most human speech happens.) This is, I understand, a relatively unusual form of hearing loss, so maybe they're just basically not designed for me -- but I wore hearing aids for about a year before abandoning them; the advanced high-tech electronics would *constantly* amplify the wrong sounds, or the right sounds but not nearly enough, or way too much, or I'd just get a louder version of "I still can't tell what you just said". After the third or fourth trip back to the audiologist to get them re-tuned (because heaven forbid you be allowed to adjust the EQ on your own device in your own ears!) and/or replaced, plus a final miserable lunch out where I could clearly hear the person seated in the booth behind me, instead of the person right in front of me I was trying to listen to, I tossed them back in the box for the last time and considered it a very large sunk cost.

The worst part was just their sheer unpredictability; there was no way to control or predict what the aids would choose to amplify (or not). The experience of wearing them was distracting and alienating and angry-making (this was years ago and I'm still pretty pissed off about it.) I'm sure it's an incredibly challenging technical problem that people have put a lot of effort into, but I'd still have ditched all the fancy electronics in favor of a plain old directional microphone any day, if that had been an option -- at least then I'd have had some control over what I was listening to.

All of which is to say: I'd be ready to believe this article is true, if only because if I'm holding an ear trumpet people are prolly gonna talk louder for me. And also it'd serve as a clear signal to all of just how crotchety I am, which would be useful
posted by ook at 12:55 PM on June 9 [11 favorites]

So, No Tech mag is part of a two-headed hydra, the other head being Low Tech Magazine. They're both almost exclusively written and compiled by Kris de Decker, a prolific writer.

Low Tech mag is usually pretty solid for historical energy-conservation stuff, and some stuff that is basically artwork. There's a lot of very interesting technology that has basically been lost due to higher labor costs, and a bunch that has been discarded with less good reason. He's a good historical researcher.

In this article, of course, he has apparently assumed that hearing loss is in all ranges equally, and rightfully comes off like an ass. Now I gotta go reread a bunch of articles about refrigeration.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 12:55 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

He also links to articles calling the CDC and WHO "fact-ists", so that's fun.
posted by sagc at 12:58 PM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Hey ook, I'm sorry about your bad experience. It's true that cookie-bite hearing losses are somewhat rare and can be tough to fit. Some audiologists are simply not that experienced with them.

As you might imagine, programming a hearing aid is not quite the same as a simple EQ, but a lot of modern hearing aids do offer some user control over this these days. Any modern hearing aid can also be programmed with a simple fixed directional microphone and all of the other features disabled. I do this for patients all the time. FWIW, I think all of the issues you had are addressable to some degree. If you're ever thinking of trying hearing aids again, feel free to reach out to me on here if you have questions.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:03 PM on June 9 [14 favorites]

checks date.. no, not April 1st..
posted by elkevelvet at 1:14 PM on June 9

Yeah this article is absurd. My current hearing aids are vastly better than even my set before - at filtering appropriately in noisy situations and automatically adjusting. My aids have bluetooth and better sound quality than any earbuds or headphones I've used. Truly life-changing and practically invisible - and also rechargeable.
posted by leslies at 1:25 PM on June 9 [4 favorites]

I thought the main purpose of an ear trumpet was to insult your friends and humiliate your enemies by passive-aggressively removing it from your ear when they're talking to you? Witness Evelyn Waugh:

His ostentatious, self-dramatizing rejection of reality required, in middle life, an equally ostentatious symbol. He found it in the form of an enormous ear trumpet. He must, I suppose, have had it specially custom-built. For although in shape and general design it resembled the ear trumpets depicted in Victorian cartoons, it seemed larger than any ear trumpet anyone had ever used before. Whether he was in fact slightly deaf, or even deaf at all I never knew. If he was, he could have fitted himself out with some unobtrusive modern aid to hearing. But an instrument of that kind would not have suited his book. For the function of the ear trumpet was not simply to assist hearing. On the contrary, it was to emphasize and portray, in an unmistakable physical manner, the laborious difficulty its owner had in understanding any communication the modern world might be seeking to make to him.
posted by verstegan at 1:29 PM on June 9 [10 favorites]

Given that very few people will take the time and/or trouble to accommodate hearing loss, I could carry an ear trumpet, people would talk to my other side. Digital hearings work pretty well, much better than older ones, and I have a notch in my hearing. \
posted by theora55 at 1:29 PM on June 9

A kind offer, Lutoslawski, thank you! I've been doing reasonably well without them (working from home has the benefit of every meeting automatically including a volume control) but it may be that once I emerge back into an occasionally-leaves-the-house existence I'll find I need to give it another shot...
posted by ook at 2:07 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

In this article, of course, he has apparently assumed that hearing loss is in all ranges equally, and rightfully comes off like an ass. Now I gotta go reread a bunch of articles about refrigeration.

I guess the problem is that, having seen the complete absence of research in this piece, I really couldn't trust anything this person told me. Responsible writers simply don't have lapses as vast as writing an entire piece about something completely, obviously and checkably untrue simply because it grinds their preferred axe. It's not just frequency response the piece is wrong about: it's wrong about pure gain, too. The vast majority of AskMe answers are checked more carefully than this.

And don't get me started on the ableist bullshit involved in heading a section "Vanity" rather than considering why disabled people might choose to pass, rather than be subjected to the bigoted judgement of those who, like the author, find the use of visible aids "laughable".

Seriously fuck this guy.
posted by howfar at 2:16 PM on June 9 [12 favorites]

Would create a space for entrepreneurial shoulder architects to build slings to hold the things up.

If you're going to have something bulky on your shoulder to help you hear, you may as well just get a parrot.
posted by condour75 at 2:28 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of being told by a costumer that wolf-ears for an Elfquest costume amplified sounds

oooh what if they made them to look like elf ears? or spock ears? I could embrace my inner nerd and hear better? awesome!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:41 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

If you haven't read Elfquest, you should check it out. They were actually hybrid wolf-elf ears.

And with modern tech, it might be possible to make them mobile so that they could move to focus on sounds. Maybe even express emotions, too.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:15 PM on June 9

Somewhat vaguely related: Stroh Violin
posted by ovvl at 3:45 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

I usually read Low-Tech Magazine and No-Tech Magazine not as visions of a better future, but as warnings about how we're going to end up living if we stay on the consume-all-the-resources track we're on.
posted by clawsoon at 4:01 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

All of the problems mentioned above, but I also want to emphasize Lutoslawski's point about this (I've added bold for emphasis):

Measurements from the late twentieth century show that these devices perform better than today’s high-tech hearing aids

Those hearing aids are so different from today's hearing aids. Think about cellphones from the late 20th century vs today.

Plus, what do they mean by perform better? Are they just talking about gain? Gain relative to target (what the person need to in order to hear a sound)? Or are they measuring performance by speech understanding? What kind of participant was performing the task? Importantly, how was the task set up? Where was the signal and where was the device? The article Lutoslawski linked to has this information.

And to be clear, the study found the ear trumpet has "similar performance across several of the outcome measures, not better.

One important detail the study highlights that the article neglects to mention, the distance between the pickup (opening for earhorn, microphone for the hearing aid) and signal was shorter for the earhorn. Just about anytime you get the person you want to hear closer to the pickup point, you'll get a better signal, better SNR, and better understanding.

This isn't necessarily a problem, since it may be in the real world the earhorn pickup would generally be closer to the signal. But if you should also talk about the feasibility of these effects being carried over in the real world (when they'd apply, when maybe they wouldn't).

We can also get benefits of decreased distance from signal to pickup (plus more) by adding a remote microphone to modern hearing aids. And some hearing aids can use your iPhone for a similar function (with varying levels of success).

And definitely talk about costs, access to care, marketing! There's so many things that aren't great about the money side (as with many things). But make sure you are being accurate in your reporting, "similar" isn't "better."
posted by ghost phoneme at 5:57 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

Pater Aletheias, if you haven't read Lutoslawski's excellent comment yet, I'd encourage you to do so. With my first set of hearing aids, I was ready to throw them in the river and get an ear trumpet, as their extremely sleek "customization" settings didn't help me whatsoever despite a few trips to the audiologist to get general settings correct.

She and I finally decided to try a different brand, and I'm so much happier. That being said, you might want to temper your expectations. I still can't get the directionality that the app has controls for, and the self-fine tuning is somewhat hard to do in certain settings (e.g., if you're supposed to be paying attention in a meeting and you're trying to toggle between A and B to find which is better, and then the next A and B choice, etc., everyone's going to think you're just playing with your phone). They're way better than nothing, they're practically invisible, and I'm keeping hope that they keep improving the tech.
posted by queensissy at 6:00 PM on June 9

This reminds me of being told by a costumer that wolf-ears for an Elfquest costume amplified sounds

oooh what if they made them to look like elf ears? or spock ears? I could embrace my inner nerd and hear better? awesome!

Something something Ferengi something
posted by darkstar at 6:09 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Came here to say all the things other people have said better than me. My hearing aids have been life changing in ways that no ear trumpet ever could. They are so gee-whiz amazing I spent my first few weeks with them telling everyone I know that everyone should own a pair. Hands-free cell calls, always-available earbuds, remote volume control, and I can dial them way down when the kids have the tv on too loud. So now take your fancy ear trumpet and get off my lawn.
posted by simra at 7:14 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

A component of effectiveness is compliance
posted by Caxton1476 at 8:30 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

it did get tiring having to shout at him all the time

After my visit to the audiologist and subsequent discussion of hearing aid options, I said to my family “My hearing isn’t that bad. Maybe hearing aids can wait a few years.” “No!” they shouted all at once. “Get them now!” I think they’ve repeated themselves for me as often as they want to.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:40 PM on June 9 [4 favorites]

I will state that I'm wearing a 2008-model digital hearing aid (Phonak Naida V UP, tuned to peak levels) because nobody has been able to get me newer hearing aids that don't clip audio at high power. There is a downside to trusting that new tech is always better, basically. Imagine having to go through life with fancy new aids, hearing clipped audio all the fucking time, and the audiologist just looking at you sadly, saying, I'm sorry, there's nothing available on the market that works for your needs.

"Have you got any equipment that can connect to and adjust my Phonak aid from 2008? Keep it alive, like?"

"No, we don't have that equipment anymore."

There but for the grace of 2008-vintage Phonak go I. Even picked up a couple used ones from eBay (although not set to my particular needs) as worst-case scenario; I've considered putting out feelers to every audiologist within a few hundred miles out from me, looking for anyone who's willing to service the aids. Sad thing is: My case is not even that unusual. Maybe it's because my hearing loss is so severe, and I need the broad gain across nearly every frequency, but still-- whoever decided audio clipping would be acceptable and mandatory at peak gain should be forced to listen to a CD skipping, forever.

Oh, are people talking about ear trumpets here? Maybe I should pick up a used WW2 one, the size of a house, and cart that around.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 10:07 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

ctrl+f japanese war tuba

This is my disappointed face.
posted by acb at 1:38 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

Ook, I am unreasonably excited to stumble across a fellow sufferer of cookie-bite hearing loss! We need some sort of secret handsign. Maybe a variation on the Hawaiian shaka, to emulate our audiograms?

Anyway, It stinks that your experience with hearing aids was so lousy. You have my complete sympathy.

That said, just to add in one bit of anecdata, my hearing aids have made a huge positive impact on my life. I still remember the first concert I went to after I got them. I was blown away. I used to love Bach when I was a teenager, but I had drifted away from his music as the years had gone on. I thought it was because my tastes had changed. Actually being able to hear the full range of music for the first time in decades, I realized that only my hearing had changed. It felt like a huge gift to have Bach back.

I mean, obviously, on a day-to-day basis, being able to hear people in conversation is the most useful benefit. But getting music back has had a genuine emotional impact.
I've been doing reasonably well without them (working from home has the benefit of every meeting automatically including a volume control) but it may be that once I emerge back into an occasionally-leaves-the-house existence I'll find I need to give it another shot...
That makes a lot of sense. In the meantime, if you have a Mac, you might try Soundsource, which lets you apply an equalizer to all sounds coming from your computer. (I'm sure there's a similar thing for PC.) I've used it to boost my missing middle ranges, and it makes speech clearer and music much more alive.
posted by yankeefog at 1:39 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Yankeefog the secret sign is anyone with a thesaurus’s worth of variations on “can you repeat that”
posted by ook at 7:37 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Coincidentally, I just finished under-sung surrealist painter and author Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet.

In this avant guard feminist novel from the 70s, a nonagenarian hero's life is changed when she is gifted an ear trumpet by a friend, and is suddenly able to understand what her family (and others) are saying about her. This sends her down a path of weird adventure ending in a witchy parade through a post apocalyptic wonderland.
posted by latkes at 8:03 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

I do not doubt that electronic hearing aids are superior audiologically. However, my mother with dementia in the nursing home loses hers regularly precisely because they are so small. We've replaced them a dozen times already. I might just get her a trumpet, so at least it won't get lost.
posted by hypnogogue at 9:44 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

Kris is clearly outside his wheelhouse of historical research, energy efficiency, lifecycle analysis, and has goofed on this article.

Having emailed with him several times over more than a decade, I would bet he is open to a corrective (with citations) and would go post an addendum to this article if someone with expertise reached out.
posted by head full of air at 12:00 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

You should send him a link to this thread, and maybe get him to stop linking to the New Atlantis.
posted by sagc at 12:02 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

Don't laugh until you try. When my Grandmother was almost completely deaf, using cupped hands or a large cardboard tube allowed her to understand every word I said even at the age of 102.
posted by Beholder at 10:06 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I tried hearing aids for the first time a few months ago. Actually, it was a aid. While both ears are pretty much the same in terms of loss, my insurance company would only pay for one. I figured I would try them and if I liked them I would buy the second one.

One day I am having a Duo call with my gf. She is wearing those electric toothbrush things in her ears she calls airpods. They were picking up every noise. Paper crinkling, everything. I realized that truly wireless ear buds are merging with hearing aids. So I ask my audiologist why the aids are so expensive or why, say, Bose has not gotten into the hearing aid business as there seem to be some great margins.

She was clueless. I did a lot of research on my own. There is an entire category of what are essentially over the counter hearing aids. They are not allowed to be called hearing aids bc they are not approved by the FCC or whomever regulates them.

They are called "Hearables". They are ear buds that amplify sounds. Much less expensive, but still not cheap. The ones I am about to try are from Nuheara They are not almost invisible, but they hide in plain sight as regular truly wireless headphones.
posted by AugustWest at 11:26 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

why, say, Bose has not gotten into the hearing aid business

Actually they have. Only available in a few states so far (due to being "official" hearing aids and thus regulated).
posted by thefoxgod at 2:44 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]

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