Try before you buy: Boots hearing aids

At least one high street supplier is set up to let customers try out hearing aids before buying them. A friend wanted to use the service and, because I was interested, I asked to accompany him. This was to our local Boots high street store. I was impressed and I set out my reasons below along with a description of what happened.

The appointment

The appointment was booked by phone and was for about a week in the future. It was for about an hour.

The hearing tests and their special features

The appointment took most or all of the hour and consisted of a wide range of hearing tests. Most were similar to what I was used to from my own appointments elsewhere, but there was one that was new to me. It was intended to test discrimination, i.e how easily a person can distinguish one voice from another, and it consisted of a recording of someone speaking across background noise of chatter which continuously got louder. As this test was not through headphones, I too could hear it, albeit only as a bystander not fitted out to give feedback. I found it almost impossible to do, even with my own hearing aids, largely because all the voices had such strong American accents - but I have severe hearing problems anyway, so my experience would not be typical. My friend who was, after all, the person being tested, managed better than I did. Hopefully British accent software may be in use by the time that you read this.

Another difference between these tests and those from my own experience was that the the volume was not increased to measure the points of discomfort at various pitches. I asked why this was and the audiologist said that it seemed to increase tinnitus. From my own experience, I think that it is probably true that the test could damage hearing. I firmly believe that my hearing significantly deteriorated some years ago when my husband insisted that I had a number of hearing tests with different hearing aid suppliers who all took their tests up to the point of pain and discomfort. However, this was only my subjective opinion. and I have problem hearing anyway. So maybe the test is fine for most people.

There is certainly one benefit in measuring discomfort thresholds because hearing aids can be programmed to cut out when sounds exceed it. This is something that my NHS aids do which has made a great deal of positive difference for me because I am so sensitive to loud sound.

If increasing volume to the point of pain does cause tinnitus, for me it has always been so short-lived that I never made the connection.

I asked afterwards what the position was regarding cutting out sound that is painfully loud. The response was that the hearing aids do cut out sound at a level which seems to suit most people, but that if users feel that they need the cut-out levels adjusted, it can be done when they come back. My friend was not told this at the time, but - fair enough - he isn't particularly troubled by loud noise, so he didn't mention it either.

The trial hearing aids

Once the tests were complete, the audiologist programmed a trial of hearing aids that would be suitable for my friend. He did this then and there. It, too, involved something that was new to me. There were no ear moulds. The earpieces were tiny and just lay in the ears. They were connected via tubes in the usual way to the body of the aids which went behind the ears. This arrangement of free space round the earpieces, the audiologist pointed out when I asked, meant that the hearing aids would not cause one's own voice to echo inside one's head - see my page on echoing inside head.

My friend was very pleased with how well he was able to hear with the trial aids. He did feel that they were rather too loud, but that is quite normal because new wearers of hearing aids have, over the years, become used to sounds being quiet. The audiologist tweaked the volume and my friend was then happy with how the hearing aids were functioning.

As the trial aids were connected to the programming equipment, it was not possible to buy them and take them out of the shop then and there. One's own personalised aids would, though, be available quite quickly, and follow-up appointments could be arranged after that for tweaking the the levels if necessary.

The range and appearance of the aids

The most visually attractive hearing aids come from the so-called 'hidden' in-the-ear range but I was impressed that the audiologist did not offer them, even though versions were there on his shelf. I asked why, although I already knew what I expected to be answer. He replied, as I hoped, that it was because of the problem of one's own voice echoing inside one's head - a problem I know only too well!

behind the ear hearing aid  narrow connecting tube for behind-the-ear-hearing aid

Behind the ear hearing aids. Left: The wide connecting tube prevents the aid from fitting snugly making it visible unless it is covered with hair. Right: This untouched photograph which I took myself shows how a narrow connecting tube is almost invisible and can be confused with a stray hair. Being so narrow, the aid fits more snugly and is only visible from behind.

The hearing aids that the audiologist used for the trial were the standard behind the ear ones. They were slightly smaller than the standard NHS ones but not significantly so. They were also dark grey whereas the standard NHS ones are silver which hair tends to hide for older grey-haired people. I suspect that the Boots ones would have been available in other colours but I didn't ask. A point very much in their favour as far as appearance is concerned is the narrowness of the connecting tube. It is virtually invisible to see without close inspection: in good light it tends to look like a stray grey hair. My NHS tubes are thicker although some NHS ones are narrow. I suspect that the reason for the difference concerns the type of hearing modification needed - and I need a lot! - but I will investigate further.

Costs

Finally there came the matter of costs. Apparently the Boots hearing aids could come with a range of what were called channels. The greater the number of channels, the more expensive the aid. Unsurprisingly the trial aids that my friend had experienced had had a relatively large number of channels.

The audiologist showed us a card with the prices for aids with different numbers of channels, with of course some inevitable discounts. For my friend, a pair of aids at that time would cost just over £4000, and there would be the ongoing expense of batteries. There was, though, no pressure to buy. We were free to go away and think about it.

The overall experience

The overall experience was very positive. Having been through so many audiology appointments myself, I was able to question and comment fairly meaningfully and I was impressed by the audiologist's obvious knowledge and professionalism, not in any way usual in my experience apart from inside the NHS. Also he gave the time necessary to answer my questions and never seemed to imply that they were wasting his time.

Another positive point was that the aid that the audiologist suggested was not the one with most channels and hence not the most expensive. He said that fewer channels would be adequate for my friend's hearing loss.

Conclusions and recommendations

In conclusion, I would say that the experience was extremely positive. Whereas I would always recommend NHS for anyone with serious hearing problems like myself, if your deafness is ordinary age-related, you care about appearance, want your aids quickly and have the money to spare, you would, I believe, be happy with Boots hearing aids.

I would though, make a couple of suggestions. One is to take someone along to the consultation with you to ask questions, etc that you will probably be too involved to think about at the time. The other suggestion is because a trial of hearing aids in a quiet consulting room is not a valid test of experience somewhere noisy. So I would suggest that you take along some means of playing background noise, music or chatter while trialling the aids. Something small like a smart phone or iPad would serve, as would a small portable radio. Then ask your companion and the audiologist to talk at the same time as playing the background noise. With hearing aids properly balanced between the two ears, you should find it much easier to discriminate between the sounds.

Finally a word of caution: A positive experience depends on the professionalism and attitude of the audiologist. Although what I saw when accompanying my friend was totally positive, no two people are the same and you may not be as lucky.



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.