Poor speech clarity on phone calls is often a problem for people with hearing loss. But new technology could change that, including higher definition voice, the option to tailor calls to match one’s hearing profile, and adjustments to the phone itself. Kevin Taylor, from our Technology team, looks at the options, including how to get clearer calls through hearing aids.
When you think about all the clever things that smartphones can do, it’s perhaps surprising that speech clarity on phone calls is the one thing that seems stuck in the last century. This has long been a bugbear, particularly for anyone with hearing loss – and it can be a frustration for both participants in the call. The good news is there are ways to improve call quality that may help.
Before we delve in and explore the options, it’s worth remembering that different makes and models of phone vary in performance and the range of adjustments that can be made.
Buying a new phone
If you’re planning to buy a new phone or want to check out the accessibility features of your existing phone, try the GARI database. GARI (Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative) is a useful online resource where you can search and compare smartphones for hearing enhancement features, hearing aid compatibility and high definition (HD) voice, as well as accessibility features for vision, dexterity and cognition.
Ways to improve call quality on smartphones
One way to improve call quality is to use an app that makes voice calls over a data connection such as Wi-Fi or mobile networks (even down to 3G). For free calls, and for the best speech quality, the person you are calling or receiving the call from will need to use the same app as you. Speech quality can vary depending on the quality of the connection at both ends of the call, and you’ll need to watch your data allowance if the call is over a mobile network. Popular voice call apps are WhatsApp and Skype, which offer options for text messaging and video calls too.
Earphones or headphones whether corded (plugged in to the phone) or via Bluetooth can help improve speech quality on calls. Even relatively inexpensive earphones and headphones can make a difference. Another benefit is their ability to reduce background noise, which can help you hear phone conversations more easily if you are somewhere noisy. Noise isolating earphones and noise cancelling headphones are even better at reducing unwanted background noise during calls.
Most mobile operators now offer high definition voice (HD Voice) on 4G and 5G networks, which can improve call quality significantly. For it to work both phones in the call have to be HD Voice compatible. EE went a step further and was the first network to introduce enhanced HD Voice, which is a step up from HD Voice (although not all handsets are compatible).
Some smartphones have adjustments for clearer calls, but it depends on the make and model of phone. It is worth checking out the phone’s accessibility and/or sound settings to see what options are available. Increasing higher pitched frequencies can help enhance ‘S’, ‘F’ and ‘T’ speech sounds that tend to get muffled on phone calls.
If your hearing loss is moderate to severe then an ordinary smartphone might not be suitable. An amplified smartphone could be a solution. These are louder than normal phones with the ability to adjust the sound to enhance the higher speech tones. This may help to make calls clearer. These phones also have a louder ringer and are easier to use. Manufacturers of amplified phones are Geemarc and Doro and are available from online retailers such as Amazon and Connevans.
Hearing safety: You should use an amplified phone with care as they produce high sound levels through the earpiece. You might want to seek advice from an audiologist before you use one.
Ways to improve call quality on mobile phones
Mobiles are the predecessor to modern day smartphones, and are still popular with older adults that prefer an easier to use phone with basic features. However, some low cost mobiles provide low speech quality, but as with smartphones, there are ‘louder’ amplified models and most of these have settings to boost the higher speech tones to help improve speech clarity. Some also work well with hearing aids on the hearing loop (T) setting (see hearing aid compatible phones below).
How to get clearer calls through your hearing aid or cochlear implant
It’s possible to hear calls through a hearing aid or cochlear implant by linking them to a mobile or smartphone. There are various ways to do this.
Hearing aid compatible phones
Many hearing aids have a hearing loop setting (also known as the T setting). On this setting, it’s possible to hear a phone call more clearly though the hearing aid. With some smartphones, it is necessary to ‘switch on’ the hearing aid compatibility mode, which is usually an option in the phone’s hearing enhancement accessibility settings. You should position the smartphone as close as possible to the hearing aid (just as you would normally by bringing the phone up to the ear).
Some phone manufacturers rate their phones for best performance with hearing aids (based on a US standard). A phone with a T3 or T4 rating means the phone should work well with most hearing aids on the hearing loop setting. It’s possible to search the GARI database for phones that are hearing aid compatible.
Devices that link smartphones to hearing aids
A variety of devices are available that allow you to hear calls through your hearing aid. The hearing aid will need to be on the hearing loop setting to pick up the signal from these devices.
There are two options available: neckloops and ear hooks.
Neckloops plug into the phones headphone jack and are worn ‘necklace’ fashion, while ear hooks hook over the ear next to the hearing aid. Although worn differently, they work in a similar way by sending a signal directly to the hearing aid.
Some hearing aids can also connect with smartphones via a streamer, an intermediary wireless device that connects the smartphone to the hearing aid. Each hearing aid manufacturer has their own range of streamers and there are quite a few hearing aids, including some on the NHS, that are compatible. Hearing aid manufacturers such as Oticon and Phonak provide more information on their respective websites.
Made for iPhone hearing aids
Hearing aids that connect seamlessly with smartphones without the need for any kind of intermediary device or streamer will likely gain momentum over the coming years with hearing instruments that connect directly to Android and iOS devices.
For more information, download our factsheet ‘Understanding wireless technology for hearing aids’.