But as with all things that seem too good to be true, there’s a catch. Actually two catches. First, for hearing loops to work, users’ hearing devices have to be equipped with something called a telecoil — which is common but not universal. Second, public places have to be “looped.” In the United States, very few are.
Still, you have to start somewhere, and two national organizations — the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and the American Academy of Audiology — have started by encouraging performance venues to install temporary loops, just to let people give them a try.
Last month, I went to Baltimore to attend a special performance at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The hall was temporarily looped to coincide with an HLAA board meeting taking place in Baltimore. The performance featured the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society performing the oratorio “Voices of Light” while a giant screen projected the 1928 silent film classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Before the show, I asked half a dozen people wearing hearing aids if they had come that night just to try the hearing loop. None knew what I was talking about. When I explained that you need a telecoil in your hearing aids to use the loop, not one knew if they had one.
After the show, I spoke with the oratorio’s composer, Richard Einhorn, a relatively new member of HLAA. In 2010, Einhorn got hit with the same freaky, sudden, one-sided deafness that I have. Adding insult to injury, he lost significant hearing in his “good” ear, too. (His hearing aids have a telecoil; mine don’t, so I can’t report personal experience with loops.)
A former record producer and an expert on sound quality, Einhorn listened to his own composition at the Meyerhoff by setting his hearing aid to “T.” “It was amazing how good it sounded,” he said. The first time Einhorn used a hearing loop — at the Kennedy Center last year — he said, “I literally started to cry. I hadn’t heard live sound that good in over a year.”
I did find two other people at the performance who listened via their telecoils and were happy to have the opportunity; one was very enthusiastic about the sound quality, the other not so much.
I had a lot more questions. Here’s what I found out.
What exactly is a hearing loop?
A hearing loop is a simple wire that circles a room or part of a room — an auditorium, an information booth, a place of worship, even your den — and connects to the sound system or sound source there. If you have a telecoil — a small metal rod wrapped in wire — in your hearing aids or cochlear implants and switch to the “T” setting, you will hear as if you are connected wirelessly to the sound system. There’s no ambient noise, and the sound doesn’t have to travel all the way from the stage to your third-level seats or be blasted from your TV to your couch.