Starkey Research & Clinical Blog

Differences Between Directional Benefit in the Lab and Real-World

Relationship Between Laboratory Measures of Directional Advantage and Everyday Success with Directional Microphone Hearing Aids

Cord, M., Surr, R., Walden, B. & Dyrlund, O. (2004). Relationship between laboratory measures of directional advantage and everyday success with directional microphone hearing aids.Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 15, 353-364.

This editorial discusses the clinical implications of an independent research study. The original work was not associated with Starkey Laboratories and does not reflect the opinions of the authors.

People with hearing loss require a better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) than individuals with normal hearing (Dubno et al, 1984; Gelfand et al, 1988; Bronkhorst and Plomp, 1990).  Among many technological improvements, a directional microphone is arguably the only effective hearing aid feature for improving SNR and subsequently, improving speech understanding in noise. A wide range of studies support the benefit of directionality for speech perception in competing noise (Agnew & Block, 1997; Nilsson et al, 1994; Ricketts and Henry, 2002; Valente, 1995) Directional benefit is defined as the difference in speech recognition ability between omnidirectional and directional microphone modes. In laboratory conditions, directional benefit averages around 7-8dB but varies considerably and has ranged from 2-3dB up to 14-16dB (Valente et al, 1995; Agnew & Block, 1997).

An individual’s perception of directional benefit varies considerably among hearing aid users. Cord et al (2002) interviewed individuals who wore hearing aids with switchable directional microphones and 23% reported that they did not use the directional feature. Many respondents said they had initially tried the directional mode but did not notice adequate improvement in their ability to understand speech and therefore stopped using the directional mode. This discrepancy between measured and perceived benefit has prompted exploration of the variables that affect performance with directional hearing aids. Under laboratory conditions, Ricketts and Mueller (2000) examined the effect of audiometric configuration, degree of high frequency hearing loss and aided omnidirectional performance on directional benefit, but found no significant interactions among any of these variables.

The current study by Cord and her colleagues examined the relationship between measured directional advantage in the laboratory and success with directional microphones in everyday life. The authors studied a number of demographic and audiological variables, including audiometric configuration, unaided SRT, hours of daily hearing aid use and length of experience with current hearing aids, in an effort to determine their value for predicting everyday success with directional microphones.

Twenty hearing-impaired individuals were selected to participate in one of two subject groups. The “successful” group consisted of individuals who reported regular use of omnidirectional and directional microphone modes. The “unsuccessful” group of individuals reported not using their directional mode and using their omnidirectional mode all the time. Analysis of audiological and demographic information showed that the only significant differences in audiometric threshold between the successful and unsuccessful group were at 6-8 kHz, otherwise the two groups had very similar audiometric configurations, on average. There were no significant differences between the two groups for age, unaided SRT, unaided word recognition scores, hours of daily use or length of experience with hearing aids.

Subjects were fitted with a variety of styles – some BTE and some custom – but all had manually accessible omnidirectional and directional settings. The Hearing in Noise Test (HINT; Nilsson et al, 1994) was administered to subjects with their hearing aids in directional and omnidirectional modes. Sentence stimuli were presented in front of the subject and correlated competing noise was presented through three speakers: directly behind the subject and on each side. Following the HINT participants completed the Listening Situations Survey (LSS), a questionnaire developed specifically for this study. The LSS was designed to assess how likely participants were to encounter disruptive background noise in everyday situations, to determine if unsuccessful and successful directional microphone users were equally likely to encounter noisy situations in everyday life.  The survey consisted of four questions:

1) On average, how often are you in listening situations in which bothersome background noise is present?

2) How often are you in social situations in which at least 3 other people are present?

3) How often are you in meetings (e.g. community, religious, work, classroom, etc.)?

4) How often are you talking with someone in a restaurant or dining hall setting?

The HINT results suggest average directional benefit of 3.2dB for successful users and 2.1dB for unsuccessful users. Although directional benefit was slightly greater for the successful users, the difference between the groups was not statistically significant.  There was a broad range of directional benefit for both groups: from -0.8 to 6.0dB for successful users and from -3.4 to 10.5dB for the unsuccessful users. Interestingly, three of the ten successful users obtained little or no directional benefit, whereas seven of the ten unsuccessful users obtained positive directional benefit.

Analysis of the LSS results showed that successful users of directional microphones were somewhat more likely than unsuccessful users to encounter listening situations with bothersome background noise and to encounter social situations with more than three other people present. However, statistical analysis showed no significant differences between the two groups for any items on the LSS survey, indicating that users who perceived directional benefit and used their directional microphones were not significantly more likely to encounter noisy situations in everyday life.

These observations led the authors to conclude that directional benefit as measured in the laboratory did not predict success with directional microphones in everyday life. Some participants with positive directional advantage scores were unsuccessful directional microphone users and conversely, some successful users showed little or no directional advantage. There are a number of potential explanations for their findings. First, despite the LSS results, it is possible that unsuccessful users did not encounter real-life listening situations in which directional microphones would be likely to help. Directional microphone benefit is dependent on specific characteristics of the listening environment (Cord et al, 2002; Surr et al, 2002; Walden et al, 2004), and is most likely to help when the speech source is in front of and relatively close to the listener, with spatial separation between the speech and noise sources. Individuals who rarely encounter this specific listening situation would have limited opportunity to evaluate directional microphones and may therefore perceive only limited benefit from them.

Unsuccessful directional microphone users may have also had unrealistically high expectations about directional benefits. Directionality can be a subtle but effective way of improving speech understanding in noise. Reduction of sound from the back and sides helps the listener focus attention on the speaker and ignore competing noise. Directional benefit is based on the concept of face-to-face communication, if users expect their hearing aids to reduce all background noise from all angles they are likely to be disappointed. Similarly, if they expect the aids to completely eliminate background noise, rather than slightly reduce it, they will be unimpressed. It is helpful for hearing aid users, especially those new to directional microphones, to be counseled about realistic expectations as well as proper positioning in noisy environments. If listeners know what to expect and are able to position themselves for maximum directional effect they are more likely to perceive benefit from their hearing aids in noisy conditions.

To date, it has been difficult to correlate directional benefit under laboratory conditions with perceived directional benefit. It is clear that directionality offers performance benefits in noise, but directional benefit measured in a sound booth does not seem to predict everyday success with directional microphones. There are many factors that are likely affect real-life performance with directional microphone hearing aids, including audiometric variables, the frequency response and gain equalization of the directional mode, the venting of the hearing aid and the contribution of visual cues to speech understanding (Ricketts, 2000a; 2000b). Further investigation is still needed to elucidate the impact of these variables on the everyday experiences of hearing aid users.

As is true for all hearing aid features, directional microphones must be prescribed appropriately and hearing aid users should be counseled about realistic expectations and appropriate circumstances in which they are beneficial. Although most modern hearing instruments have the ability to adjust automatically to changing environments, manually accessed directional modes offer hearing aid wearers increased flexibility and may increase use by allowing the individual to make decisions regarding their improved comfort and performance in noisy places. Routine reinforcement of techniques for proper directional microphone use are encouraged. Hearing aid users should be encouraged to experiment with their directional programs to determine where and when they are most helpful. For the patient, proper identification of and positioning in noisy environments is essential step toward meeting their specific listening needs and preferences.


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Cord, M., Surr, R., Walden, B. & Dyrlund, O. (2004). Relationship between laboratory measures of directional advantage and everyday success with directional microphone hearing aids. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 15, 353-364.

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Surr, R.K., Walden, B.E. Cord, M.T. & Olson, L. (2002). Influence of environmental factors on hearing aid microphone preference. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 13, 308-322.

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Walden, B.E., Surr, R.K., Cord, M.T. & Dyrlund, O. (2004). Predicting microphone preference in everyday living. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 15, 365-396.