To fully understand the difference between analog and digital hearing aids, it is important to first understand the history of analog versus digital, and the different ways that they amplify and process sounds. Analog hearing aids appeared first, and were the standard in most hearing aids for a long time. Subsequently, with the introduction of digital signal processing (DSP) technology, digital hearing aids also began to emerge. At the moment, most (90%) of the hearing aids sold in the US are digital, although analog hearing aids continue to be offered because they are often lower priced, and also because some people have a preference for them.
Analog hearing aids handle inbound sounds by taking the electrical sound waves as they emerge from a microphone and amplifying them “as is” before sending them to the speakers in your ears. On the other hand, digital hearing aids take the very same sound waves from the microphone, but before amplifying them they turn them into the binary code of ones and zeros that all digital devices use. After the sound has been digitized, the microchip inside the hearing aid can process and manipulate the information in complex ways before transforming it back to analog sound and delivering it to your ears.
Both analog and digital hearing aids carry out the same work – they take sounds and amplify them to allow you to hear better. Both types of hearing aids can be programmed by the dispensers of the hearing aids to create the sound quality that each user desires, and to create settings ideal for different environments. The programmable hearing aids can, for instance, have one setting for use in quiet rooms, another setting for listening in loud restaurants, and still another for listening in large auditoriums.
Digital hearing aids, because of their ability to manipulate the sounds in digital form, often offer more features and flexibility, and are commonly user-configurable. For example, digital hearing aids may offer multiple channels and memories, allowing them to store more environment-specific profiles. They can also use sophisticated algorithms to identify and reduce background noise, to eliminate feedback and whistling, or to selectively detect the sound of voices and “follow” them using directional microphones.
Cost-wise, most analog hearing aids are still less expensive than digital hearing aids, however, some reduced-feature digital hearing aids are now in the same general price range. Hearing aid wearers do detect a difference in the sound quality produced by analog versus digital hearing aids, but that is largely a matter of personal preference, not a matter of whether analog or digital is “better.”