What Are Bluetooth Hearing Aids and How Do They Work?
- Bluetooth technology allows devices to talk to each other wirelessly.
- Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids let you stream audio from your phone, television, or tablet.
- Some hearing aids have universal Bluetooth capability, and others require the purchase of a separate device known as a streamer.
- Having the Bluetooth feature may drive up the cost of your hearing aids and can cause hearing aid batteries to be depleted faster.
Hearing aid technology has come a long way over the past decade. Today's Bluetooth hearing aids seamlessly connect people with their favorite devices without messy wires and multiple headsets. You can take calls from your Bluetooth hearing aids without even touching your phone. And if you're working from home because of COVID-19, you can even stream virtual meetings straight to your hearing aids. According to the American Academy of Audiology, Bluetooth-enabled devices can also help you regain or maintain your independence and your connection to the world when hearing loss might otherwise get in the way.
If you're thinking about purchasing Bluetooth hearing aids, first consider how Bluetooth works, what to look for in Bluetooth hearing aids, and how to compare models. Our Health editors have compiled some of the best Bluetooth hearing aids to help you start your search and see if Bluetooth hearing aids are right for you.
What are Bluetooth hearing aids?
To understand Bluetooth hearing aids, it helps to know how Bluetooth technology works. Bluetooth is a technology that lets different devices talk to each other wirelessly. It's similar to WiFi, except that WiFi can send much larger volumes of data over longer distances. Your phone is a common device that has Bluetooth—and you can connect it to headphones, your car, or other devices that have that technology and share information immediately.
How do Bluetooth hearing aids work?
Bluetooth hearing aids have built-in technology to stream audio from devices that also have Bluetooth. You can typically choose added options for your hearing devices, like adaptive directional microphones (i.e., mics that change directions to amplify the speaker), tinnitus relief, and noise cancellation.
You will love hearing aids with Bluetooth capabilities if you tend to listen to audio on several different devices. Don't let fear of background noise be the reason you avoid Bluetooth hearing aids. The best hearing aids will only pick up the audio from the Bluetooth device and filter out any noisy background sounds.
Hearing aid manufacturers created separate audio streaming devices known as "streamers." You will need a compatible streamer to use a hearing aid's Bluetooth capabilities. Once you set up your streamer, you'll be able to connect to compatible devices like your phone, TV, tablet, or computer.
Streamers come in two basic types: the portable and non-portable type.
The portable type is typically clipped to clothing or worn like a pendant around the neck. It receives wireless signals from portable devices and sends them to your hearing aids. The non-portable type connects to your TV, computer, or home sound system using cables and streams audio signals directly to paired hearing aids.
Universal Bluetooth hearing aids
Streamers work extremely well as a workaround to connect Bluetooth hearing aids with different devices. However, they require purchasing—and in many cases wearing—a separate device. Streamers aren't cheap; you can expect to pay between $200 and $500 for a high-quality streamer.
In 2015, ReSound introduced Bluetooth hearing aids with Made-for-iPhone technology. Made-for-iPhone (MFi) hearing aids connect seamlessly to all iOS devices without the need for a streamer. MFi hearing aids have longer battery life and less latency, which gives users a superior experience streaming audio from Apple devices.
MFi technology is now available in hearing aids offered by most traditional and online hearing aid brands. Unfortunately, if you have MFi Bluetooth hearing aids, you'll likely still need a streaming accessory if you want to pair your hearing aids with an Android TV or device.
Google launched its own Bluetooth hearing aid protocol, Audio Streaming for Hearing Aids (ASHA), in 2018. ASHA-compatible hearing aids pair with Android devices without an accessory streamer. However, like MFi technology and Apple, ASHA is exclusive to Android devices. ASHA-compatible devices need a separate streamer for iPhone devices.
Only one hearing aid manufacturer, Sonova, has achieved truly universal Bluetooth hearing aid connectivity. Sonova is the largest hearing aid manufacturer in the world; it manufactures Phonak and Unitron brands as well as hearing aids sold under the Costco Kirkland Signature brand.
The Sonova universal "Made for All" Bluetooth chip connects both iOS and Android devices to paired hearing aids without a streaming accessory. The chip is currently available only in Phonak Marvel hearing aids, but it's likely other brands will offer their own version in the future.
Advantages of Bluetooth hearing aids
Effortless audio streaming is the first thing most people think about when they look at Bluetooth hearing aids. Being able to stream your favorite music and TV shows without removing your hearing aids is a huge advantage of Bluetooth hearing aids. But there are many other reasons to consider them.
- Hands-free phone calls—Bluetooth hearing aids act as a fully functioning phone headset. This means you can make calls without removing your hearing aids or pushing the phone up against them. An added bonus? You’ll still be able to hear what’s going on around you when you’re talking on the phone with Bluetooth hearing aids.
- Higher sound quality—Unlike WiFi, Bluetooth signals are very stable, which means your audio won’t cut in and out when you’re streaming. Streaming directly to your earpiece also cuts down on noisy feedback.
- Natural hearing experience—Bluetooth hearing aids are binaural, which means the hearing aids communicate with each other. You’ll hear phone conversations in both ears instead of just one, for example. Binaural technology also helps you localize the source of speech resulting in a more natural hearing experience.
- App-driven adjustments—Your smartphone acts as a remote control to adjust your hearing aids. You can switch between audio profiles, raise or lower hearing aid volume, and customize your settings right from the app. You won’t need to call attention to your hearing aid adjustments because you can manage them discreetly from your phone. If you have dexterity issues, you won’t need to fiddle with tiny buttons on your hearing aids to change your settings.
- Remote service—Many hearing aid manufacturers offer remote service on Bluetooth hearing aids. Most adjustments and updates can be accomplished from the comfort of your home. If you’re trying to avoid crowded stores and hearing centers to minimize your risk of COVID-19, this is a huge bonus.
Disadvantages of Bluetooth hearing aids
- Battery power—You can lose battery power in your hearing aids faster when Bluetooth is enabled. However, you can address this problem with the right device, like a high-quality rechargeable hearing aid.
- Higher costs—Bluetooth hearing aids are more expensive than other types of hearing aids. However, because they range in quality and different high-tech options, prices vary.
- Additional gear—If you’re someone who hates having to spend more on extra equipment, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids might not be right for you. You can’t just connect with all of your devices; you will need a streamer and a transmitter.
- Pairing time—This is a pretty minor disadvantage since Bluetooth technology only requires a one-time setup with each new device, but you do have to “pair” your devices, meaning you will have to set them up initially so they can communicate with each other. However, you only need to set them up on the first use, and generally, you can connect to devices without a great deal of effort on your part.
Are Bluetooth hearing aids worth the cost?
You will pay more for a pair of hearing aids with Bluetooth than non-Bluetooth models. However, the technology is fast becoming mainstream in the hearing aid industry, so prices will fall as competition increases.
For most people, however, Bluetooth hearing aids are worth the extra cost. People are more dependent on their devices than ever before. Bluetooth hearing aids help people who are hard of hearing get the same benefit from their devices as those with more typical functioning hearing.
Beyond that, Bluetooth hearing aids let you enjoy activities like listening to music or watching TV with family and friends. Instead of struggling to find a volume that works for everyone, you can stream the audio right to your hearing aids. You get the volume you need without affecting the experience for others.
Finally, Bluetooth hearing aids make it easier to multitask. You can pair multiple devices with your hearing aids, allowing you to switch effortlessly between phone calls, video call chats, and your favorite music. You'll still be able to hear what's going on around you while doing so.
How to choose the best Bluetooth hearing aids
Most hearing aid manufacturers offer Bluetooth-enabled models, so choosing the right ones comes down to selecting the features that matter to you.
Your first decision is whether or not you want to wear a streamer. If you use Apple devices, you have lots of options for MFi hearing aids. There are fewer Made-for-Android options, but they are available. Only the Phonak Marvel currently offers Made-for-All Bluetooth technology.
Other features you'll want to consider:
- Rechargeable versus disposable batteries—Rechargeable hearing aids are gaining popularity with on-the-go adults, and they are a natural fit for wireless Bluetooth technology. Look for models with a quick-charge feature since streaming can quickly run down your batteries.
- Hearing aid style—Bluetooth hearing aids are available in most styles including in-the-canal, behind-the-ear, and in-the-ear hearing aids. You can choose the style that works best for your lifestyle and hearing issues.
- Accessories—Even if you choose an MFi or Made-for-Android hearing aid, you may still want a TV streamer, smart mic, or other accessories to enable streaming to your hearing aids.
- Bluetooth LE Audio—Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) is the latest advance in Bluetooth technology. Hearing aids with Bluetooth LE will have better battery life and improved audio quality over previous generations. They’ll also be able to connect to multiple sources simultaneously. ReSound and Oticon currently offer hearing aids with Bluetooth LE, but others will likely follow. Industry experts say Bluetooth LE will be a game-changer for hearing aid wearers.
Bluetooth hearing aids to consider
The following Bluetooth hearing aids are our editors' top-rated picks:
Lively offers rechargeable and battery-powered Bluetooth options and is our Editor's Choice for best hearing aids due to its combination of convenience, affordability, quality, and service. Lively hearing aids, made by ReSound, are MFi and come with available streaming accessories for other Bluetooth devices. Customers rave about the personalized buying experience and Lively Bundle, which includes unlimited, on-demand audiologist care in your home via the app. Prices start at $1,850 a pair.
The ReSound One, our pick for best rechargeable hearing aid, comes in both rechargeable and disposable battery styles and with MFi or MFA technology. It's the only device with both a microphone and receiver in the canal, a revolutionary development in hearing aid technology. Customers love the advanced connectivity and accessory options as well as the skin- and hair-matching color options. The ReSound One is available through an audiologist or hearing center where prices vary, or you can purchase through a discount network starting at $3,198 per pair.
Eargo Neo HiFi
Eargo is an award-winning, direct-to-consumer hearing aid manufacturer. Health editors chose its top-of-the-line rechargeable Bluetooth hearing aid, the Neo HiFi, as one of the best hearing aids you can buy online for its nearly invisible fit. If you're an outdoor enthusiast, we think you'll enjoy the Neo HiFi because it's water-resistant with advanced wind reduction technology. Customers love the in-the-canal design, high-tech features, and low cost ($2,950 a pair).
Costco Kirkland Signature 9.0
Kirkland Signature hearing aids are similar to the Phonak Marvel but at a fraction of the price (prices start at $1,499 a pair). The Kirkland Signature hearing aids use disposable batteries and come with a wide array of available streaming accessories. Customers appreciate the six-month free trial period and three-year no-deductible warranty.
Starkey, our choice for a hearing aid with the best features, was one of the first to offer MFi Bluetooth hearing aids. The Livio comes in three models, including a rechargeable one with up to 24 hours of continuous use. You can add Android streaming support with Starkey's optional accessories. Customers love the Starkey app, which includes senior-friendly features, such as a fall detector, medication reminder, and hearing aid locator in case you misplace your devices. The Livio is available through an audiologist or hearing center where prices vary, or you can purchase through a discount network starting at $3,098 per pair.
Oticon is a Danish company and one of the few to offer Bluetooth LE. The More is MFi but supports Android devices with streamers. Oticon offers a broad range of Bluetooth accessories including a highly rated TV adaptor. Customers love the adaptor's extended range (up to 45 feet) and Oticon's advanced speech processing capability. Oticon hearing aids are sold at partner hearing centers; prices vary.
The bottom line
When choosing a hearing aid, you'll have to decide which features are most important to you and are most likely to improve your hearing and your life. Bluetooth hearing aids provide an easy, seamless connection to your devices—whether you're talking on the phone, streaming music, or watching a movie—and allow you to adjust your hearing aids remotely. You may find that many Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids also provide better sound quality and a more natural hearing experience than other options, but they may be more expensive.
Sheila Olson has over two decades of experience writing about Medicare, health, and personal finance. Her work has been featured on sites such as Investopedia, The Motley Fool, and Boomer Benefits. Sheila holds a MPH (Master of Public Health) from Northern Arizona University.