Open-fit hearing aids are a kind of BTE (behind the ear) wearable hearing aid with a small speaker component inside the ear, which many people have found to be subtle, effective, and issue-free. Depending on the specific profile and nature of your hearing loss, they can provide a solution to a number of common hearing aid-related problems and be an ideal fit for your needs. For others, however, they can come with a few disadvantages.
How Does an Open-Fit Hearing Aid Work?
Open-fit hearing aids operate along the same fundamental principles as most other aids, consisting of a receiver (or microphone), amplifier, and speaker. Sound is picked up and transmitted through the amplifier as tiny electrical signals, which are amplified and finally converted back into sound close to the ear.
The specific difference that sets open-fit hearing aids apart is their relatively petite bud-like speaker component, which takes up only a small cross-section of the ear canal — hence 'open-fit'. This usually helps to prevent something called the 'occlusion effect' (more on this later) and, for those with comparatively better hearing, can allow a blend of natural and aid-assister hearing for louder sounds.
Otherwise, as set out above, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill hearing aids.
Open-fit hearing aids are usually very discreet (follow the link for some examples), especially more modern models. They’re battery-powered, but generally, the aid’s power pack and microphone are quite small and can be tucked discreetly behind the back of the ear itself, with only a thin, clear tube or wire looping down into the auditory meatus (your ear canal).
How to Care for an Open-Fit Hearing Aid
Most users will use their open-fit hearing aids almost every day. For almost every other piece of technology we use on a daily basis – whether that’s a car, a bicycle, or a computer – we have to check on them regularly to keep them in good working order. Despite their small size and ergonomic design, hearing aids are no exception.
One of the most common issues for hearing aid users is clogging — where earwax, cosmetics, or moisture get into the aid’s insides, blocking sounds or interfering with its circuitry. Each week, you should try to clear out your aid’s tubes by gently removing them following your device’s maintenance instructions, and cleaning them using the proper tool (this should be provided at the point of purchase).
The tip (or bud) which sits inside your ear should be replaced if it becomes bent out of shape, too loose, or clogged up with material. Even if this doesn’t appear to be the case, you might notice an improvement in your hearing if you swap in a new tip after forgetting to replace it for a while.
Hearing aid batteries, while long-lived, are still sometimes prone to faults and a decrease in their power output over time. This can cause a drop off in sound quality and volume. Follow your device’s instructions for battery replacement.
Hearing aids often require occasional adjustment and professional check-ups as a matter of course, but commonly experiencing ear infections or pain is a sure-fire sign something isn’t quite right.
More serious problems may still arise, some of which should be referred to your audiologist. An internal fault with the hearing aid or a bend/split in your device’s tubing can cause deterioration in sound quality and volume but is fairly easily fixable, while experiencing feedback usually requires a visit to the repair clinic.
The UK’s Nottingham University has a helpful set of videos for open-fit hearing aid users, available online here.
What is an Open-Fit Hearing Aid Good For?
As mentioned above, open-fit hearing aids offer a variety of advantages for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. Attractive to many is their subtlety — aside from very small in-ear hearing aids, they’re probably the most discreet aids on the market. Wearers of older-model larger aids who feel conscious of their size and visibility might want to take a look.
Open-fit hearing aids are also widely regarded as a comfortable option. This is because their soft plastic or foam bud sits only a short way into the ear canal, and doesn’t completely block it in the process — contrast this with hearing aids with a molded earpiece (or 'earmold' ), which can often make the wearer feel plugged-up or cause discomfort over a long period of use. The effect of an open-fit aid’s bud is a little like wearing earphones rather than earplugs.
Another plus for open-fit hearing aids is the speed with which they can be fitted. Because the aid does not usually need to be precision-molded to the ear, it’s not unusual to leave an audiologist after only a short appointment with a new pair of open-fit aids to try. Again, contrast this with mold-fitted aids, which usually take a fitting and a subsequent wait afterward for your molds to arrive.
The final selling point of open-fit hearing aids is the uniquely natural sound they can deliver for wearers. As a result of the in-ear components’ slim and non-occluding profile, sound is free to enter the ear canal naturally. This means wearers with only mild to moderate hearing loss can still hear many sounds both part-with and part-without assistive amplification, giving a very natural auditory experience.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for some hearing aid-users, open-fit hearing aids prevent the occlusion effect, which is often experienced when a hearing aid completely blocks the ear canal. When sound can’t escape out of a blocked ear canal, it reverberates around our ears instead, making breathing, chewing, speaking, and even taking footsteps sound hollow, loud, and quite unpleasant.
However, because an open-fit bud is very unlikely to block your auditory meatus, most wearers will seldom encounter this issue.
What Is an Open-Fit Hearing Aid Bad For?
Open-fit hearing aids are generally regarded as having few downsides on the whole. For some, they won’t be subtle enough, and these people may wish to explore CIC (completely-in-canal) aids or speak to their audiologist.
Those with extremely severe hearing loss may find other, more powerful aids to their advantage, while some people might just prefer different aids, period. For some, the cost may be an issue, but this depends on your level of coverage and open-fit hearing aids are available at a variety of price points. Children and the elderly may find fitting the aids properly each day to be fiddly.
Are Open-Fit Hearing Aids Popular?
Open-fit hearing aids’ efficacy, ease-of-use, and discreet appearance is becoming more and more widely known, and as occlusion is unfortunately endemic among many hearing aid-users, the simple fix offered by open-fit aids makes them an attractive bet for many.
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The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: