Historically, people with hearing loss delay evaluation and treatment for several years after they first notice it. In my 30 years as a clinical audiologist, many patients reported that part of this hesitancy involved actually getting to my office.
The coronavirus pandemic caused the medical community to fast-track remote care options across many disciplines. This is helpful for asking your internist about a new prescription, but can you really do an accurate hearing test online? Actually, you can.
Before COVID-19, if you wanted to check your hearing or buy hearing aids, you needed to arrange a face-to-face visit with either an audiologist or licensed hearing instrument specialist. Once the shutdowns started, several hearing aid companies beefed up their online hearing screenings to provide a much more accurate estimate of hearing sensitivity. Companies deployed these tests in smartphone apps and on their company websites, making hearing tests much more accessible.
Online hearing tests available as of late March 2021 fall into two categories: Tone tests and speech-in-noise (SIN) tests. The process is basically the same for both. In this guide, we'll show some detailed steps for a SIN test and direct you to hearing tests available from several popular providers.
Getting Started: An Online Hearing Test Checklist
To test your hearing, you'll need a few pieces of technology and a space that's conducive to listening to very quiet sounds. Review the checklist below before taking your test to get the most accurate results possible.
Select a quiet room with a low ceiling and carpet or throw rugs on the floor. If possible, windows should have drapes that you can close during the test.
All of these tests will send signals over the internet. The better your connection, the lower the risk of distortion of intermittency that might interfere with your test. When picking your room, check the Wi-Fi signal strength. This is usually shown in the toolbar of your computer or tablet as a cone of concentric arcs, like the image below. The more arcs you see, the better the WiFi signal.
Quick Tip: Has your internet connection been slow lately? Head to our guide on how to speed up your internet connection to ensure that your signal is as strong as possible before starting your hearing test.
The closer the sound source is to your ears, the better and more accurate your results will be. Earphones are best, but if your computer speakers are within a few feet of your head, they should work as well, especially if your room setup is ideal. On an iPad, the speakers are on the edges of the tablet, so as long as you're within arm's length of it, you should be fine.
The online tests currently available test your ability to hear tones, understand speech (words or numbers) in background noise, or both. Most also include a short questionnaire to better identify areas of your life where you have concerns about your hearing.
From a clinical perspective, I appreciate the trend toward assessing hearing from a more “real world” perspective. Hearing aids are eventually programmed based on pure-tone hearing thresholds. Still, these online tests suggest that the manufacturers and researchers have recognized that there are a significant number of people who have normal or near normal hearing sensitivity for tones but who experience real communication difficulty in adverse listening settings. Let's face it, most of the world is an adverse listening environment.
Consider the Source
Currently, there are online hearing tests available from hearing aid manufacturers, resellers, and independent sources. In looking at them for this article, I can't say that one is “better” than the other in terms of evaluating my hearing ability. They differ primarily in the after-test communication.
How to Take an Online Hearing Test
My preferred independent test is Know Your Noise, developed by the National Acoustics Laboratory (NAL) in Australia. It takes a while to complete, but the prerequisites and results are the most comprehensive of the tests we looked at for this article. Below is a step-by-step walkthrough of this test.
One of the things I like most about this test is that it starts with a suitability check. While online testing is appropriate for most people with early hearing loss, I appreciate that NAL acknowledges that their test isn't for everyone.
After it is determined that you are a suitable candidate for the online test, you'll click “Audio Set-up” at the bottom right corner of the page and then follow a few steps before you conduct the hearing test.
As with most online tests, the NAL test works with both headphones and speakers. You can choose which you'd like to use. During this step, you'll adjust the volume to ensure that the signals are at the appropriate level so the results are valid.
The actual test consists of listening to three-digit numbers in the presence of background noise. As the test progresses, the relative volume of numbers and background noise change based on your responses. The better you do, the harder it gets. Be patient, as this part takes several minutes to complete.
After you complete all of the test items, NAL will show your results. The first screen shows your total results compared to others your age. While this isn't a diagnosis per se, it lets you know roughly where you stand in your age group. It's important to note that as we age, hearing deteriorates for most people.
On this screen, you also have the option to get your results emailed to you, add your test data to the ongoing research, and complete the noise risk calculator.
The following results screen compares your results to truly “normal” hearing, so, despite your age, you can see how you fared. Regardless of how “normal” the results are, if your hearing is interfering with your quality of life, you should do something about it!
After your hearing test is complete, the NAL tool gives you the option to complete the noise risk calculator to estimate how much your lifestyle might be contributing to your hearing changes over time. I strongly recommend doing this; the more preventable hearing loss we can avoid, the better our hearing care outcomes will be.
The NAL test is a great way to get an unbiased assessment of your hearing, but what if you already know you need hearing aids? Fortunately, most major hearing aid manufacturers have customized online hearing tests.
Manufacturer-Specific Online Hearing Tests
The tests provided by manufacturers are specifically designed to generate sales leads. This isn't a bad thing, but you should know that if you use one of these tests, you'll need to provide them with a way to contact you (usually your email address and phone number) and opt into their marketing to get your results.
If you are ready to buy hearing aids and just want a remote test, this is a great option. The following manufacturers have online tests that I've looked at. While these are not a replacement for a face-to-face evaluation by a trained and licensed hearing care professional, I found them to be reasonably accurate. To avoid implying any favoritism, these are listed alphabetically. Click on any of the links in the right-hand column, and you'll be taken to that provider's hearing test. If you want to learn more about a specific provider, my hands-on reviews of each company are linked in the left-hand column.
My Final Thoughts on Online Hearing Tests
The increased availability of well-designed online hearing screening and tests makes getting help for early hearing loss more accessible and more discreet. While these tests do not replace those administered by a licensed hearing care professional, for many, particularly those with mild hearing loss, they can provide a good enough picture of your hearing to get started on your journey toward better hearing and improved quality of life.
FYI: Want to compare popular hearing aid companies to decide which brand is right for you? Head to our list of the best hearing aids for seniors to take a closer look.
We encourage you to take several of the tests linked in this article and find the one that suits your needs best. If the results suggest that hearing aids might be appropriate, check out the reviews of these products and companies here and get going on your better-hearing journey!