Review of hearing loop systems

Also known as induction loop systems

hearing loop symbol

Symbol displayed in a room or building showing that it has a hearing loop system. Variations may include the letter T because hearing aids need the T setting.

Would you believe it! For all the years that I have had hearing aids and for all the places that display the symbol for having a hearing aid loop system, I have only visited two which worked effectively! This is such a pity because almost all hearing aid users can benefit from the loop facility. Just a simple flick of a switch turns on what is known as the T-setting.

So what has gone wrong? And does it matter anyway? Do loop systems really help significantly? And what can be done to improve matters? This review tries to answer these questions and more. It is based on my own experience.

The technical bit -
What is a loop system and how does it work?

A loop system is a direct connection between a speaker's microphone and people's hearing aids. The signal from the speaker's microphone is sent to a loop of wire round the room, and this induces a signal carrying the voice of the speaker directly to all hearing aids in the room. Room acoustics and background noise etc play no part. So, the speaker seems right there beside those with their hearing aids on the T setting.

When can a loop system help with hearing loss?

Can loop systems help people with hearing aids to hear better? Absolutely yes! The noise and clatter of people and the room acoustics are eliminated - provided of course that the system is set up properly and the speakers are using it correctly, but more on this shortly.

A loop system really comes into its own when the person concerned is sufficiently far way away from a speaker that they would not be able to hear clearly with their hearing aids set for normal use - like in a group or lecture situation. A properly working loop system makes the speech sound as if the speaker is sitting right next to them.

When can't a loop system be expected to be of much help?

The hearing loop ear symbol can generally be seen at checkouts in large stores. Even if it is working properly, though, the hearing aid wearer is normally so close to the speaker that the standard setting on the hearing aid sounds little different from the loop setting.

Common reasons why loop systems don't help people with hearing aids

  • The most common reason why loop systems do not work is that they are not turned on - even though the ear symbol is prominently displayed. Some time ago, on a group visit, I made a point of asking if there was a loop system and was met with some surprise at the question. The reply was "Yes, we have one. Would you like it turned on?". Of course I said that I would, but more importantly I learnt a lot from that remark. I had assumed that loop systems, where they existed, were always turned on - but no. Deafness is invisible and it is not generally appreciated how widespread it is.
  • The next most common reason seems to be that speakers or administrators are not trained in how to use loop systems. Quite apart from turning the system on, a loop system requires a microphone fairly close to the person speaking. This can be hand held, hung round the neck or fixed in front of the speaker. One of the two places where I experienced a good working loop system had the microphone unobtrusively placed on the speaker's desk. I would have thought that this would have been the least helpful positioning, but it worked perfectly. It was in a museum which was empty at the time, and the staff member was happy to help me to experiment. I asked him to speak normally as if to a visitor standing at the desk while I went to the end of the hall. Standing that far away, I could still hear him perfectly.
  • The worst loop system that I have experienced was a council one. Presumably the council had been cutting costs. The loop system was tied into a badly distorting loud speaker system and could not operated independently. So when the loop system was turned on, the majority of the audience complained that speech was too loud and distorted. Actually the system was so bad that the loop system distorted too. Nevertheless, in spite of this major failure, the council could gain its brownie points by proudly stating that the room had a loop system and by accordingly displaying the ear symbol.

The second place where I experienced an excellent working loop system was in a lecture theatre. When I spoke to the speaker afterwards and expressed pleasure at the crystal clarity of the loop system, he showed surprise. He said that he didn't even know that he was using a microphone or that any sound system had been turned on. The microphone was attached to the lectern and the loop system was thankfully independent of the loud-speaker system which was not turned on. This independence of the loop system from the loudspeakers is vitally important.

So what can be done to improve matters?

• There is something simple and immediate that we can all do to improve matters wherever we see the ear symbol or feel there ought to be one. It is to ask whether the loop is turned on, and to check whether this includes a microphone for the speaker also being turned on. Turning on simply doesn't occur to most hearing people; they need to be specifically asked.

• In the medium term something that we can do to improve matters is to keep suggesting to those in charge of events that they indicate on their publicity that a working loop system will be available. This may make them realise if it isn't and do something about it.

• My last suggestion is worth doing but is unlikely to meet with success in the short or medium term and without extensive lobbying. It is to get owners of public rooms to invest in a loop system that does not distort and, very importantly, is independent of any loud-speaker system.

Hearing loops in the home

So far on this page I have written from personal experience, so I must admit that I don't have a hearing loop in my home for listening to television, radio or electronic music. My reasons are that I don't like to keep my hearing aids in for extended periods and I am happy with subtitles.

However, I do know people who do have loop systems in their homes. One woman told me about a time when she and her husband, who both have hearing loss, were using their loop system to watch a film on television. The room of course was completely quiet because the normal television speaker was turned off. Someone walked into the room and said, "What are you both doing watching television with no sound!"

Portable hearing loop systems

A home loop system - indeed any loop system - can be portable. This means that the wire that is the loop has to be draped round where people are going to be, rather than being secured around the edge of the room. So, useful as portable loop systems are, the loose wire loop can all too easily be tripped over.

The working range of hearing loop systems

Cheap loop systems can distort sound, but there is another issue with hearing loops. It is the range over which the system can operate. A system for the home obviously does not need to reach as far as one for a public place. The range of a loop system affects its price. Sales outlets normally specify both and should be able to advise. Information is also available on the internet.

10 coping strategies for the deaf

Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.