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Driving and Listening When You're Hard of Hearing

Tips for the best ways to enjoy music and books in your car

Hearing Blog: Driving and Listening

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Entertainment options for drivers with hearing loss include audio books, bluetooth devices and more.

En español | The average American driver drives 13,746 miles a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. What is the safest activity to fill those hours? Listening. Listening to recorded books, music, the radio – they all help while away the hours behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, for many people with hearing loss, that is not an easy accomplishment.

Here are some tips:

  • Use Bluetooth. If you have mild to moderate hearing loss, you may have trouble hearing through earbuds or your smartphone over the noise of the car. Most new cars come with Bluetooth. A simple solution is to link your device to the car's sound system. You can listen to music or books through the sound system, and get and send phone calls.

  • Try a Bluetooth streamer. If your hearing loss is more serious, you may need to stream books, music or phone calls on these devices through a Bluetooth streamer connected wirelessly to your hearing aid or implant. All major hearing aid manufacturers make Bluetooth streamers. The one I use is a ComPilot, which streams to my Phonak hearing aid and my Advanced Bionics cochlear implant (both are made by the same company, Sonova). The Oticon Streamer Pro is also a popular brand. Made for iPhone hearing aids (including those made by ReSound and Starkey), it connects to an iPhone without the need for the intermediary streamer. Ask your audiologist for information about Bluetooth streamers for your brand of hearing aid.

  • Choose music or books wisely. It can make a big difference in comprehensibility and enjoyment. Recorded books can be borrowed from your library or by subscribing to a service like Recorded Books and played on your car's CD player. If you can't hear clearly enough through the car's sound system, however, you'll have to switch to a service like Audible, which downloads books to your smartphone or iPod, which you can then access through a Bluetooth streamer. These are subscription services, with new credits for books available monthly.

  • Listen to a free audio sample first. We all have our favorite literary genres, but genres that are good for reading are not always good for listening, especially with hearing loss. Listen to the free audio sample of a recorded book before you order, to see if you can hear and understand the reader's voice. If you find a reader whose voice you particularly like, you can search for other books featuring the same reader.

  • A professional reader is preferable. I have found that a plot-driven novel, with a single professional reader, not too many place names or proper names, and no background music or sound effects is easiest to understand. Sorry, authors, but a professional reader is often more understandable than the writer reading his or her own work.

  • Multiple readers can be confusing. I try to avoid books read by more than one reader (an increasing trend) because I get lost trying to understand who is who. Paula Hawkins' best-selling The Girl on the Train, for instance, had me completely lost because each of the three female characters was read by a different reader, and I couldn't hear well enough to know which character was speaking.

  • Need a really long story? The first recorded book I ever listened to was Moby-Dick, read by Frank Muller, which had me enthralled for almost all 21 hours and 20 minutes. Anna Karenina, read by either Davina Porter or David Horovitch, is also a spellbinder at 38 hours and 5 minutes (Horovitch) or 36 hours and 8 minutes (Porter). Is the difference in time because Porter reads faster? That might make Horovitch better for the hard of hearing. You can also slow down the recording, but that sometimes distorts the sound.

  • For nonfiction fans, how-to and advice books, self-help, history and biography are all popular car listening material. If you Google "best recorded books," you'll find a variety of lists, but always listen before you buy. Otherwise you may find you can't understand a word.
  • Music is also according to personal taste, but I find that complicated orchestral music is almost impossible to listen to via streamer. I also love opera, but for listening in the car, I go for music with a strong beat or a strong solo voice, like rock or blues songs that don't obscure my hearing with too much background music.

  • For podcasts, you want a professionally recorded, clear-spoken narrator. Once you get two or three guys joking around, or environmental sounds in the background, or laughter interrupting the spoken words, you — or I, anyway — are going to be lost.

  • Avoid using a hands-free phone. Talking on a hands-free phone is legal in most states, but I don't recommend it for people with hearing loss. The concentration required to follow a phone conversation may distract you from the road. Also, unless you have a very good voice recognition system, you may have to futz around looking for the phone number — even if it's on speed dial. Don't do it. It's amazing how few milliseconds it takes for a car to swerve when you take your eyes off the road.

  • What about the good old-fashioned radio? All of the above advice applies: a clear professional speaker, no background sound effects or music, no multiple speakers joking around and interrupting each other. Unfortunately for me, that limits my listening to traffic and the occasional baseball game.

(Video) There's Something I Want You To Hear: A chat over the phone. Answers to questions. An important conversation. These are things that should never be missed. Up to 40 percent of people age 50-plus have some hearing loss — and much of the time it is left untreated.

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