Advances in Assistive Listening

Advances in Assistive Listening
(Image credit: Listen Technologies)

Disabling hearing loss impacts 466 million people around the world according to the World Health Organization. And that number is expected to rise—a study by Johns Hopkins University concluded that the number of Americans aged 20 and older who suffer from hearing loss will double over the next 43 years.

One of the biggest factors affecting hearing is age. People may naturally lose some ability to hear well as they grow older (age-related hearing loss). More often though, hearing loss is the result of years of exposure to loud noises. Just as exposure to sunlight over a long period of time has a cumulative effect on the appearance and overall health of our skin, exposure to noise at high volumes—whether acute or chronic—can impact our ability to hear and can lead to hearing loss.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Here are some quick tips to protect hearing and limit potential for long-term hearing loss.

1. Avoid loud noise whenever possible.

2. Wear ear protection in loud environments—like at a rock concert or around machinery.

3. Use headphones and personal devices at safe volumes.

4. Have hearing tested regularly.

Fortunately, advances in hearing aid and assistive listening technology mean people suffering from hearing loss have more tools than ever to help them hear sound clearly and engage more fully with others and their surroundings. Consider these four assistive listening technologies and their applicability in different environments.

Radio Frequency (RF)

Radio frequency transmits audio from a source to a receiver—this could be a person’s hearing aid or a small receiver worn around the neck—via the DECT 1.9 GHz, 72 MHz or 216 MHz FM bands. This technology works similarly to a radio station that broadcasts audio to individual receivers. RF systems are ideal for large venues such as outdoor stadiums or theaters because RF is able to travel great distances.

Infrared (IR)

IR systems use infrared light to transmit audio from a source to a receiver. Similar to RF, IR systems can deliver sound directly to a user’s hearing aid or to a receiver that he/she carries or wears around the neck. Unlike RF, infrared cannot penetrate walls or other obstructions. This limitation makes IR technology ideal for courtrooms, classrooms, conference rooms, adjacent theaters, and other venues where spillover of sound would be disruptive to others or breach confidentiality.

Induction Loop

Hearing aid wearers and those with cochlear implants often prefer induction loop systems to any other assistive listening system (ALS) because they are easy and discrete—there is no need to check out a separate receiver. Induction loop systems feature a loop of wire around a venue that creates an electromagnetic field within the parameters of the loop. Audio signal is broadcast via this electromagnetic field to users wearing cochlear implants, telecoil (t-coil) equipped hearing aids or a loop receiver (either hand-held or worn around the neck). Cochlear implant and t-coil hearing aid users experience clear sound delivered directly to their ear and uniquely calibrated to their specific hearing needs. Induction loops are ideal in classrooms, theaters, concert halls, houses of worship, public transit centers, auditoriums, and homes.


Wireless assistive listening systems (ALS) stream sound wirelessly from a source directly to an individual’s smartphone. Users can hear sound streamed to their smartphone through headphones or directly via their Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids. Wi-Fi enabled ALS are ideal for crowded environments featuring multiple audio sources (think several TV screens) such as bars, restaurants, airports, building lobbies, student centers, and office waiting rooms. Wireless ALS are also beneficial in houses of worship and classrooms. Because of the ubiquity of smartphones and personal devices, venues do not need to manage, loan, clean or store receivers.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of venue size, there’s an assistive listening system tailored to fit the needs of both the environment and the user.