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TX: 27.04.06 - Digital Hearing Aids

Yesterday, you may remember, we heard the very personal story of the 44-year-old travel writer Nick Maes who'd gradually lost his hearing over the last decade to the point where he was very deaf.

Partial hearing in a busy environment is a huge hassle. What happens is that the background din of other people's chatter merges into a wall of white noise. I have to crane my neck and cup my ear in a bid to get the gist of what's being said. Eating out in restaurants could be an outward bound course of me dodging waiters and wine glasses and statuesque napkins in an effort to lean across the table to listen.

Well yesterday we left Nick contemplating how life would change for him once he had two digital hearing aids fitted. Today we find out how it did change.

The deed has been done. Digital hearing aids have been fitted into both of my ears. Tuning the devices was simple - it involved me being hooked up to a machine while wearing, what I can only describe, as a high tech tiara. So let me describe these beauties to you. Clear plastic bungs have been formed from moulds taken from inside each ear, tubes connect from these to the aid, which is, of course, a weird beige colour. I'm not sure who controls the pallet but no one I've ever met has been this colour. Okay, the gripe's over, what are my first impressions?

[Street noises]
This is a noise that most people are familiar with and me too in my way but now I'm listening to it with electronic help I'm hearing a lot more. I'd no idea there was that turbulent metallic growl on the streets, it really bothers me. I'm not quite sure what I'm hearing, I think it might be running engines, not the sound of driving but the hum a car makes. But the thing that's excited me most is conversation - I can hear people speaking on a bus or in the street, not just the noise of speech but what they're actually saying. My reaction to this has been peculiar.

I feel a bit like a spy with new ears because I've not heard passing conversations for years. It feels as if I'm eavesdropping, even when it's only a snippet of chat that I catch as I walk past. I'm like a voyeur, even though I'm not actively listening in. What's great is that I'm now able to converse on a bus myself without having to overly engaged. It's a bit like a drug - I'm getting greedy for sound.

And I've detected more sounds both manmade and natural, in supposedly quiet places, like Regent's Park. It's the subtlety of sound that takes some getting used to. Being able to hear the details around me is a source of continuing amazement. They aren't major orchestral noises - bird song has made a welcome return, I can hear what it sounds like to roll a cigarette, a rustle of the paper seems so much more vivid. Being beside a boiling kettle is positively deafening and shopping - I had no idea that supermarkets have so much aural stimulation.

I've always hated shopping and I'm sure I always will but at least there's a novelty value for me now, albeit a temporary one. I couldn't resist checking out a noisier place - a coffee bar. Digital hearing aids have a setting that helps block out background noise and homes in on what it is you want to hear, at least that's the theory.

Finding the darned button without drawing attention to myself wasn't easy first time around, it's a case of practise making perfect I think. Likewise answering the phone.

[Phone ringing]
Hello. Hello.

There's a knack to this that I also haven't mastered - I have to position the receiver over the ear piece rather than my ear, no matter how often my phone rings I still get it wrong. Joan Collins unplugs a 32 carat diamond from her lobe when she answers the dog and bone, I have to take my ear off.

Listening to the world through hearing aids is a little like listening to it through a personal stereo - everything seems so close but sounds fictitious. It's not so much about loudness as about depth and the mundane clatter that so many take for granted has in turns become revelatory, disturbing and strangely euphoric for me. But supper in a crowded restaurant last night was all too much - I had to take the hearing aids out because the background noise was unbearable.

[Street noise]
I feel a bit like a cat when I walk along the street - my ears are continually flexing for sound, it wouldn't surprise me if they turned independently towards it like a tabby's does. But I still find myself looking everywhere, it's only now that I realise quite how reliant I was on visual information, that I still don't quite trust my finely tuned new sense. No one's really commented upon my bionic ears, I've caught people having a quick glance - at least I thought they were but it's probably me being self conscious. I know I'm fascinated by ears now.

This has been a fascinating few days for me and I'm sure there'll be many more surprises in store. It takes some getting used to, wearing the devices, and I haven't quite found a volume level that works for me, I tend to change it between being indoors and out. But even though I'm muddling my way through, learning to live with the things, I'm extremely grateful to have them. My specialist said: "Sound is a wondrous thing but there is a value driven distinction between sound and noise." I guess I now have the enviable option of switching both on and off to the hubbub of the city - a choice many people would wish for.

Hear, hear! Nick Maes and the delight of his new digital hearing aids.

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