Hard-of-Hearing Tune In With Headsets

Times Staff Writer

The cancer hit in 1986, requiring massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy. A year later, his hearing was all but gone, fallen victim to the drastic treatments that saved his life. Hearing aids in each ear helped bring back some semblance of a normal life for Marvin McConnell of Newport Beach, but television was pretty much out of the question.

Until last year, when McConnell invested in a gadget called PrivatEar, an “infrared assistive listening device” that brought Laker basketball back into McConnell’s home.

Hearing aids and television do not mix, because hearing aids increase the volume of all sounds equally. So a device like the PrivatEar--which brings sound directly from a transmitter on the television set to a set of headphones worn around the neck--can be invaluable to Orange County’s estimated 230,000 hard-of-hearing residents.

“If you just have your regular earphones (hearing aids) in, it’s very difficult to watch television,” McConnell explains. “They pick up the regular TV sound and the sound around you. They don’t discriminate. So I could hear Chick Hearn, but I had a difficult time differentiating between his sound and the sounds of all the other activities around me.”


But wearing his wireless headphones, McConnell can pick up Lakers announcer Hearn without traffic and kitchen sounds from the house and neighborhood. The result, McConnell says, is “magnificent.”

The PrivatEar is one of a growing number of wireless headphone systems in use throughout the country--everywhere from churches, cinemas and theaters to convention halls and private homes.

The technology of infrared sound transmission was developed in the mid-1970s, originally for home, medical and educational uses; it was adapted for musical and theatrical applications around 1980.

At the end of June, Mann Theatres opened eight screens in Laguna Niguel, complete with a system called Audex, which is manufactured by Audiometrics Inc. The Orange County Performing Arts Center employs a system manufactured by Sennheiser Electronics Corp.


Here’s how home infrared listening systems work: A transmitter, usually no larger than a remote control device, is placed on top of the television set and plugged into the audio-out jack or headphone jack. The transmitter is also plugged into an electrical socket with an AC adapter. The hard-of-hearing television viewer wears a headset or headphones, depending on the brand of system.

The transmitter converts sound from the television into infrared light pulses beamed across the room via light-emitting diodes. The headphones capture the infrared light and change it back into sound. A volume control on the headphones allows the hard-of-hearing viewer to make the sound as loud as necessary.

Using an infrared system does not interfere with normal television viewing, so friends and family members without difficulty hearing can enjoy programs along with the hard-of-hearing.

The systems “work very nicely in a home environment,” said O.T. Kenworthy, director of audiology for the Providence Speech and Hearing Center, which is in the city of Orange and affiliated with Childrens Hospital of Orange County. “The infrared systems probably provide the best acoustic signal in a system that doesn’t involve hooking you up directly. They are wireless.”


But they do have drawbacks, Kenworthy says. Price is one. Providence does not sell such devices, but opens up its Hear Center to the public every Wednesday to allow free trials of infrared systems and other gadgets that help the hearing-impaired cope with life more easily.

McConnell bought his PrivatEar at the Hearing Enhancement Center in Costa Mesa. At the Hearing Enhancement Center, the PrivatEar starts at around $85.

Another widely used system is made by Siemens Hearing Instruments Inc., a subsidiary of Sennheiser, which provided the Performing Arts Center’s infrared theater system. The Siemens system runs about $325 at the Hearing Enhancement Center, says audiologist Mark Dobkin.

“You’re talking $325 to $400 by the time you buy accessories like the rechargeable batteries and various microphone units,” Kenworthy says. “In addition, only people who are hard of hearing, with mild to severe hearing losses, can benefit from such a system. Someone with a profound hearing loss, a ‘deaf’ person, would not be helped.”


But for television viewers like McConnell, a PrivatEar or Siemens system can bring entertainment back into the home via the television or videocassette recorder. And for many, that kind of help is worth the money.

“Particularly for the elder folks, who are a little more TV-prone because of their lack of full activity, it’s just a magnificent thing,” says McConnell, 68. “They can hear beautifully with it.”