As part of the Four-Step Process that we conduct with our patients at their initial consultation, we ask our patients to tell us where they most want help hearing. One of the most common situations mentioned is church, specifically when it comes to hearing a pastor’s sermon. While hearing aids can make improvements in this situation, patients should still have realistic expectations of the capabilities of their technology in these types of settings.
Notoriously Poor Acoustics
One reason why church auditoriums and sanctuaries can cause problems with hearing aids is that the acoustics in these rooms tend to be extremely poor. These environments typically have high, peaked ceilings, a large volume of space, and highly reflective surfaces and walls. The result is a prolonged reverberation time that “smears” speech by eliminating the stops and gaps that allow recognition of the end and beginning of individual words. Additionally, any vaults or peaks in the ceiling can cause dead spots or hot spots in the room, depending on the geometry of the space. To complicate matters, ambient noises like a cough or rustling paper reverberate through these rooms as well, making it even harder to distinguish speech sounds.
In these kinds of environments, a person’s hearing loss is compounded by the poor acoustics. Even people with normal hearing are likely to struggle to some degree in such a situation, though their auditory processing systems are better at interpreting the sounds they hear than someone with hearing loss. A pair of hearing aids, even those that are appropriately fit to a patient, might not be enough to help because the quality of the sound they receive is poor due to the physics of the environment.
What Can Help?
The most effective method of improving sound quality in one of these kinds of rooms is the use of an induction loop system, also called a hearing loop. The hearing loop encircles the congregation’s seating area with a magnetic field. In order to make use of this field, a hearing aid must be equipped with a telecoil enabled for use with a separate program from the hearing aid’s every day settings. This method allows the audio signal of the pastor’s voice to be sent directly to the hearing aid, effectively bypassing any reverberation in the auditorium. Many churches that use a hearing loop system also have small box-shaped receivers that allow the system to be used by congregants who either don’t have hearing aids or who don’t have telecoils in their hearing technology.
Another method of managing sound in large auditoriums for a person wearing hearing aids is to use directional microphones. Any digital hearing aid that has directional microphones can programmed to use those microphones to focus solely in front of the hearing aid wearer. The end result is that ambient noise is greatly reduced and reverberation may be reduced slightly. The effectiveness of this method can be increased if hearing aid wearers position themselves directly in front of the loud speakers to receive the sound before the reverberations occur. This is not nearly as effective as a hearing loop system, but can increase the benefit of hearing aids in this situation, especially when the hearing aid does not have a telecoil.
Even with the most sophisticated technology, relying on hearing aids alone might not be enough in a church auditorium or sanctuary. As discussed above, it is the physics of the room that is the primary source the difficulty rather than the hearing impairment itself. In such cases, it is very important to have realistic expectations of what a hearing system and hearing technology can do and what it cannot do. It is also very important to inform your hearing care professional of the difficulties you encounter in these situations so that they can work with you and your technology to effectively adjust and program your technology to better meet your needs.