Digital hearing aids, which have captured more than 90 percent of the market, come in five major types (see "Which Type Is Best for You?"). In those aids, sound goes in the microphone and is digitally processed by a chip, amplified, and delivered into the ear. Those aids also have features to modify that sound, making it more lifelike and correcting for other problems.
Because individuals' sound perception is, well, so individual, a hearing aid that thrills one person might seem just so-so to another with almost identical hearing-test results. Even within brands, there might be several versions of a model. That kind of variation makes judging hearing-aid models and brands almost impossible. "There are differences between brands, but they're not significant enough that you can say what are the best brands," says Todd Ricketts, Ph.D., associate professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University.
Our laboratory tests didn't compare brands, but we did evaluate features. Among the most useful were the telecoil and directional microphone. Don't pay for unnecessary features, as some of our shoppers were pressured to do. The more features you buy, the more you'll probably pay, but you might not need every one.
Even with features appropriate for you, you might need to temper your expectations. In crowds, for instance, your digital hearing aids will never completely eliminate jarring background noise. "It's going to bring people back to hearing, but because of the way we process sound, it's not going to bring them back to normal hearing," says audiologist Patricia Chute, dean of the School of Health and Natural Sciences at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
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