To understand the difference between analog and digital hearing aids, you need to first appreciate the history of analog vs digital, and the alternative ways that they amplify and process sounds. Analog hearing aids came out first, and were the standard in most hearing aids for many years. Then with the arrival of digital signal processing (DSP) technology, digital hearing aids also began to appear. At the moment, the majority (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 prefer them.
The way that analog hearing aids operate is that they take sound waves from the microphone in the form of electricity and then amplify them, delivering louder versions of the sound waves to the speakers in your ears “as is.” Digital hearing aids take the sound waves from the microphone and transform them to digital binary code, the “bits and bytes” and “zeros and ones” that all digital devices understand. This digital data can then be altered in many sophisticated ways by the micro-chip within the hearing aid, before being converted back into regular analog signals and delivered to the speakers.
It is important to remember that both analog and digital hearing aids serve the same purpose – they take sounds and boost them so you can hear them more easily. Both analog and digital hearing aids can be programmable, which means that they contain microchips that can be customized to adjust sound quality to suit the user, and to develop various settings for different listening environments. The programmable hearing aids can, for instance, have one setting for listening in quiet rooms, another for listening in loud restaurants, and still another for listening in large stadiums.
But beyond programmability, the digital hearing aids often offer more controls to the user, and offer more features because of their capacity to manipulate the sounds in digital form. For example, digital hearing aids may offer numerous channels and memories, permitting them to save more location-specific profiles. They can also use advanced algorithms to identify and reduce background noise, to eliminate feedback and whistling, or to selectively detect the sound of human voices and “follow” them using directional microphones.
Price-wise, most analog hearing aids are still less expensive than digital hearing aids, but some reduced-feature digital hearing aids are now in a similar general price range. Some users notice a difference in the sound quality generated by analog vs digital hearing aids, but that is largely a matter of preference, not a matter of whether analog or digital is “better.”