The government estimates that 48 million Americans live with hearing loss in at least one ear — including about a third of those ages 65 to 74 and nearly half of those older than 75. So you can bet many older adults struggle to hear the television clearly.
Whether you’re the person with hearing loss or the person sitting next to a loved one while watching TV, you know that turning up the volume isn’t always the best solution. In fact, doing so not only can disturb others but can actually make the audio more garbled, especially if the sound is not well mixed among dialog, music and sound effects.
The good news is that solutions are available. Which one you should choose depends on factors such as the severity of hearing loss and what’s most comfortable for you.
Soundbars add depth, not just volume
Soundbars are horizontal speakers that sit just above or below the television. They are a popular option to amplify audio. After all, televisions are getting so thin these days, how good can you expect pancake-shaped speakers to sound?
The separate device houses multiple speakers, and some models even simulate a surround-sound-like movie theater experience. On the whole, their sound is similar to what you would get if you combined an audio-video receiver with multiple speakers throughout a room — but for less money, less space and with less technical know-how required.
What’s more, many soundbars come with a wireless subwoofer to place elsewhere in the room. It delivers low-end bass — like feeling the rumble of a helicopter or roar of a dinosaur. Nearly all new models have integrated Bluetooth technology, allowing you to stream music to the soundbar from your smartphone, tablet or computer.
The Zvox family of soundbars, from $99, has a patent-pending technology called AccuVoice that lifts voices out of soundtracks to make them clearer and more understandable, according to the company. Zvox says this works much like hearing aid technology, using a more advanced processor that’s capable of subtle manipulation of sound.
The Klipsch Cinema 800 is a more expensive option at $969, but it comes with several internal speakers, Dolby Atmos 3.1 support, voice-enabled smart assistants — Google and Alexa — plus a wireless subwoofer. It is also ideal for those who may struggle to clearly hear content. This soundbar “has a neutral, balanced sound profile well-suited to many different types of audio content from bass-heavy music genres to dialogue-centric TV shows,” according to Canadian review site Rtings.com, which buys its products for testing.
Wireless headphones: Can you do Bluetooth?
For more private listening, you could go with headphones that wirelessly connect to the TV.
If your smart television supports it, Bluetooth is the best wireless technology option since you likely won’t need anything other than compatible headphones. Other wireless technologies like RF, which stands for radio-frequency, or IR, infrared, likely require a base that plugs directly into the headphone jack of the television and then transmits to the headphones.
Most of these headphones go over the ears so they can be used with hearing aids. Prices start at less than $30 and can go up to several hundred dollars, depending on the brand.
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For Bluetooth-enabled smart TVs, the setup process may vary depending on the manufacturer, but in most cases you’ll open your TV’s Settings or Accessories menu, select Bluetooth options and then set your TV to pairing mode. Then put your Bluetooth headphones into pairing mode, too.
For those who don’t wear hearing aids, Bluetooth earbuds are also a trendy pick, including the Apple AirPods (from $129), Sony’s Truly Wireless In-Ear Headphones (from $100), Samsung Galaxy Buds (from $100) and Beats by Dr. Dre (from $120).
Pro tip: Many smart TVs with Bluetooth support will let you customize the “multi-output audio” options in Audio Settings to toggle between hearing audio only via Bluetooth headphones or Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids or Bluetooth and the TV’s speakers — in case the person you’re with wants to hear sound from the TV itself.
Hearing aids, loop systems
You probably know that hearing aids are smaller and more powerful than a few years ago. Newer models can also make a big difference with televisions because they have built-in Bluetooth connectivity, which means they are designed to pick up sound from digital devices — usually smartphones for calls.
Unless your smart TV has built-in Bluetooth, what’s required is a small Bluetooth streaming box or adapter, as low as $13, that connects to the TV and acts as a middleman of sorts. Whenever you’re within range of the transmitter, about 33 feet on average, you’ll be able to hear the television in your hearing aids — loud, clear and without any echoes or delays. You can even adjust the TV’s volume independently from others in the room via a small remote or an app on your phone or tablet.
If a call comes in when you’re watching TV, choosing to answer it will switch you from the TV’s audio to that of your smartphone or a Bluetooth cordless phone. When you hang up, the sound switches back to the TV.
Another option is a loop system, sometimes called an audio induction loop, that gets its power from a wireless magnetic field generated by a small hub plugged into the audio output of a television. A loop worn around the listener’s neck, compatible hearing aids or cochlear implant processors then can pick up that audio. It is a different technology from Bluetooth, and a compatible hearing aid needs to have a telecoil (t-coil) to access the sound that a loop system transmits.
Closed captioning: Required since 2006
However you choose to improve your TV’s sound, turning on its closed captioning option can help you catch even more of what’s being said on screen.
Congress has required that all television programs display audio content as text on screen since 2006. Cable operators, satellite distributors and online providers are also required to provide closed captioning.
According to the law, such captions need to be accurate, matching the spoken words and background noises to the greatest extent possible; synchronous, coinciding with the spoken words and sounds to the fullest extent possible; complete, running from the beginning of the program to the end; and properly placed, not blocking other important visual information on screen or running off the edge of the screen.
In other words, these subtitles are supposed to be a pretty complete transcription of what’s being heard on screen. How to enable closed captioning may vary slightly but usually involves pressing Settings on your TV remote and then selecting Closed Captioning in one of the submenus, such as Display.
Additional tools to help you hear movie dialogue
If you struggle to understand the dialogue when watching a movie from your couch, hearing loss may not be the problem. Instead, how that film’s audio was created could be what’s frustrating you.
In theaters, different sounds are played through different speakers, with the dialogue projected from a center channel for clarity. Most television sound systems aren’t built that way.
So, if you’re tired of riding the remote — turning up the volume for dialogue and then turning it down for action scenes or music swells — you have two other options in addition to investing in a soundbar, getting a good pair of headphones and setting up subtitles:
• Turn down the bass. Bass “is the enemy of understandable speech,” according to tech website CNET. A hearty low end might enhance a rumbling earthquake or an exploding building, but you won’t be able to hear any character plan her escape from the impending disaster.
• Compress the volume range. Some TVs feature a night mode, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a movie soundtrack. The purpose is to keep your TV quieter when others are asleep in your home, but you can keep it on this setting all the time. Some TVs refer to it as dynamic compression.
— Gabriel Baumgaertner
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies.
Gabriel Baumgaertner is an associate editor for AARP the Magazine, working as part of a Columbia University fellowship.
More on Personal Technology
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- Videoconferencing tips for people with hearing loss