A group of four seniors sit together, talking loudly, smiling and discussing hearing aid cost

Hearing Aids: What is the difference Between Loudness and Clarity?

Published: September 9, 2020

Updated: March 9, 2021

Sound loudness and clarity fall under the umbrella term “sound quality” and understanding the difference between the two is key to understanding the hearing loss you may be experiencing. It is also the first step in understanding loudness and clarity in a hearing aid.

What is sound loudness and clarity?

Loudness refers to the volume or intensity of sound and is measured in decibels (dB). The amplitude of a soundwave determines its loudness. If a soundwave has a large-amplitude, this sound will be louder compared to a smaller soundwave amplitude that will result in a softer sound. Sound clarity, on the other hand, depends on the speaker’s ability to articulate speech without distortion and the listener’s ability to decipher the various speech sounds. In short, clarity refers to the quality of sound. 

If you experience sound clarity issues, it might be the norm for you to blame your hearing difficulties on others. You may think that if you can’t hear a person, it’s because the person is either mumbling or is speaking too soft. You may also assume that if the person speaks in a louder tone that you will then be able to understand them. You might find yourself saying that you experience no problems with your hearing and that you can hear that people are speaking, but you cannot understand them. If you experience these difficulties, you might have a hearing loss. These problems are usually related to you losing your natural ability to hear the frequencies that define consonants in speech and, this, in turn, makes it hard to decipher certain sounds. 

It is essential to know the difference between loudness and clarity because you may think that if you increase the loudness, you will improve the clarity, being able to hear and understand speech better. Although this could be partially true, if the problem is related to clarity, the increase in loudness will not resolve the issue. This increased intensity may lead you to listen at an uncomfortable loudness level, and you may still experience difficulties understanding what is being said by others. If you are experiencing these issues, you may want to consider speaking to a hearing healthcare professional. 

How does a hearing test relate to loudness and clarity?

The most common type of hearing loss is high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is usually a result of aging (known as an age-related hearing loss or presbycusis) and exposure to loud noise. Presbycusis occurs over time and causes damage to the high frequencies from 2000Hz upwards. A noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) mainly affects the high-frequency range from 2000Hz to 6000Hz. In cases of a high-frequency hearing loss, the low frequencies may still be intact; therefore, the loudness of sound may not be impacted as much as the clarity of sound. The reason why the clarity of sound is impacted in a high-frequency hearing loss is that important speech consonants (such as “s” and “th”) are found in these damaged high-frequency areas. These consonants transmit the majority of the meaning of speech. If they are missing due to a hearing loss, this makes it hard to understand what people are saying, and therefore, conversations can become difficult to understand. In addition to the clarity of sound, you may also find yourself unusually tired from listening fatigue. Listening fatigue occurs when your brain has a constant strain on it due to the brain trying to decode the sounds and speech around you and, as a result, drains your energy. 

In addition to high-frequency hearing loss, you may also experience a low-frequency hearing loss. A low-frequency hearing loss is when you cannot hear sounds that occur in the lower range of the frequency region (2000Hz and lower). These sounds are referred to as low-pitched sounds and are more intense and carry less information than high-frequency sounds. If you have a low-frequency hearing loss, you may still be able to understand speech and take part in conversations as the important high-frequency speech sounds are still audible. However, a low-frequency hearing loss may significantly impact your ability to hear speech in the presence of background noise. A low-frequency hearing loss usually occurs due to genetic origins, infections, such as otitis media, or it may be related to certain diseases, such as Meniere’s disease. 

How do hearing aids help?

Loudness and clarity are the primary factors concerning hearing aid satisfaction. The primary goal of hearing aids is to amplify sounds, especially speech. In short, this is achieved by the hearing aid microphone picking up sound from the surrounding environment, amplifying it, and sending this amplified signal into the ear. This increase in loudness can help you overcome your difficulty of hearing soft sounds, and help you better understand speech. 

However, not only do hearing aids amplify sounds, they have various technological advances that can help improve the clarity of sound. The technology employed by modern hearing aids can enhance the clarity of sound through multiple features that enhance the high pitched sounds without distorting your good low-pitched sounds. One of these features is frequency-lowering. This feature can capture the high frequencies and shift them into the lower frequency range, as opposed to increasing the volume. Frequency lowering allows the higher-frequency speech content to be heard in a frequency range that the individual can hear well. 

Additionally, advanced hearing aids can provide a clearer speech signal when there is competing background noise by reducing this noise. All hearing aids can amplify sounds; however, digital hearing aids with digital signal processing abilities can improve the clarity of sounds better than analog hearing aids. 

The value of getting used to hearing aids

Though digital hearing aids have many features to improve the clarity of sound, it is essential to note that to experience complete satisfaction regarding clarity and loudness; you have to adjust to the hearing aids and practice listening. Hearing aids can help to stimulate the hearing areas in the brain for better listening. Keeping the brain stimulated with regular hearing aid use can keep your listening abilities stay sharp and tuned for hearing. This way, you can improve your hearing for clarity.  It does, however, take time to get used to hearing aids, so this improvement may not be immediate.  The adjustment to hearing aids can take from a few months up to a year because your brain has to re-familiarize itself and learn new ways to comprehend the speech sounds effectively. 

Having hearing difficulties can make us feel isolated and can reduce our quality of life; therefore, it is crucial to overcome these difficulties. It is important to remember that hearing aids can help overcome certain listening difficulties, such as loudness and clarity, and can lead to a better quality of life. 

Image of post writer Lisa Brown.

Written by Lisa Brown

MA Audiology; B.Communication Pathology Audiology



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