Adam Savage on hearing loss

He gives a good answer to a common question.

My hearing is fine, thank you very much, except for an obnoxious tinnitus that isn’t yet affecting my life much. My wife, however, is losing her hearing in an unusual way, with the lower registers progressively dropping out (usually it’s the other way around, losing the higher frequencies first). Savage mentions the high cost of hearing aids, and we have some experience with that — there’s a reason for it. Modern hearing aids aren’t just amplifiers that make all sounds louder, they have to be more sophisticated than that. For instance, my wife has an app on her phone that lets her tweak the amplification, it’s like a built-in equalizer so she can boost the volume at specifically the frequencies that are affected. The technology is cool, but Savage is right — it’s also awkward and clumsy and expensive.

At least her condition means my voice is becoming gradually more inaudible, while she can hear the grandkids just fine, which is probably for the best. It still ought to be a right for everyone to have this kind of necessary support. You never know, maybe someday I’ll say something worth listening to!


  1. Snarki, child of Loki says

    MEN lose the higher frequency sounds.
    WOMEN tend to lose the lower frequency sounds (some higher too, but less so)

    Over time, communication becomes more difficult.
    An evolutionary adaptation? Probably just accidental side effect.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    coincidentally, I’ve been noticing many more commercials for cheaper hearing-aids, just as technologically sound as medical one, far cheaper than those prescribed. Combined with ones small enough to essentially disappear into your ear canal so it is never obvious one is wearing them.
    My bias was expecting Adam, to at least mention in passing, how much damage he likely did to his ears during MythBusters, exposing himself frequently to loud explosions, never showing ear protection during those shows. Not saying it was the cause of his hearing loss, simply worth mentioning how vulnerable our ears are. Like recommending wearing ear muffs when mowing the lawn is a good idea.

  3. littlejohn says

    As I understand it, the FDA will not let people with uncomplicated hearing loss problems simply go to a drugstore, try some various hearing aids, then buy it over the counter. You can do that with reading glasses, and they cost less than five bucks.
    I’m an electronics hobbyist, and I could build you a hearing aid from junk found in my workshop. And yes, I could incorporate an equalizer if you need a boost at a specific frequency. I think anyone who’s fiddled around with audio amplification could do it, and the parts would cost maybe 2 or 3 dollars. It would be big and clunky, but it would work. If I mass-produced them, they would be small and sleek.
    Forcing people to go to audiologists is at least part of the problem. Also, until recently, there was only one brand – Beltone – that most audiologists handled, so there was no meaningful competition. That’s changing. Costco now offers a Kirkland brand aid, but you still can’t buy it over the counter.
    I normally hate to tout free enterprise as the solution to anything, but it would help here. Keep out the quack stuff, of course, but otherwise deregulate the market. Allow anyone to try out models and buy what works best for them at any store that wants to sell them. Limitations on decibel output would keep people from damaging their ears with overpowered models. The price of hearing aids would drop easily 95% in short order. There is nothing about the technology that justifies the current price.
    If your hearing problems are unusually complex, then by all means go to an audiologist and get a specialized device. It’s the same for people with astigmatism, like me. I can’t benefit from over-the-counter readers, so I go to an optometrist and pay more. But my wife’s eye problems are simpler, so she goes the drugstore readers route and saves a bundle.

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Doing some simple things can help protect against hearing loss. Like slithey tove said, using hearing protection while running powered yard equipment. Even the foam ear inserts will help, and are easy to use. Also, don’t play your TV/audio equipment real loud, as some folks do. Like the car with its windows closed where you can hear them at a stop light even with your windows closed. You can also have your earbuds too loud for too long a time.

  5. Allison says

    I use a CPAP machine, which requires a prescription, which I guess is the situation for hearing aids. Anyway, the doctors would just arrange for me to get a machine, but at some point, the co-pay was pretty substantial, so I looked around, and there were on-line suppliers who were offering to sell my choice of machines for less than the monthly co-pay on the one from the doctor. They still required a prescription, but at least I had a choice. The one I have now is miles better than any of the ones that the doctors ordered.

    Would that be possible for hearing aids?

  6. garnetstar says

    littlejohn @3, I can only say, amen. My father is ninety and of course has experienced the hell that is modern hearing aids. They cost in the vicinity of $8000 (wholly out-of-pocket) and never work. He goes constantly to get them re-tuned (more $$), and even then they always need cleaned (apparently just being in your ear makes them dirty enough not to work) or the batteries aren’t working, or they just fail unexpectedly. And I mean on a daily basis: it’s an even chance any day that they won’t be working. He’s had to go through two different brands ($8000 for each) and there’s no improvement.

    I’ve told him many times to just get an old-fashioned amplifier, the kind that you mention and that my grandparents had. They were, in the old days, clunky, but they worked. I’m certainly getting that when I get hearing loss, even if I have to learn to make it myself, and for me, that’d be a tough learning curve as I have no knowledge.

    Please put your devices on the market! I can assure you that you’d have at least one customer (me).

  7. whheydt says

    I’m not sure most people realize how far hearing aids have advanced. My mother’s first hearing aid used vacuum tubes.

  8. Paul K says

    slithey tove, #2. I have to take issue with one point you made: As someone who had a son at the perfect age to grow up with Mythbusters (we watched them again and again on DVD), I recall them wearing hearing protection almost all of the time when they knew anything was going to be loud. Adam often had head phones on the sides of his head, and both he and Jaime usually had insertable ear protectors hanging over their necks.

    In fact, if you watch the video linked at the end of this one posted by PZ, wherein Adam discusses his hearing loss, he says right away that his hearing loss is congenital, and not a result of all the explosions on Mythbusters. He’s even had surgery for it.

    Adam admits often in his videos that he does not use protective equipment — masks, eye protection, etc. — as much as he should. He’s impatient and sometimes careless, and he knows it. So there were certainly times on the show, I’m sure, when he wasn’t taking care of his ears, but you wrote ‘never’. I just wanted to correct that. Sorry if I seem pedantic!

  9. René says

    Synchronicity is a thing. When this op popped up, I was on the phone for over an hour, waiting mostly, listening to muzak, trying to make an appointment with my hospital’s E(ar)N(ose)T(hroat) specialist in order to get a prescription to a hearing thing. Like PZ, I have a terrible tinnitus plus a growing loss of higher and lower tones.

    In my experience some people think it’s polite to speak in a soft voice. I don’t always consciously notice until it has driven me in almost a rage. I cannot hear you! My heartbeat goes up and I get hot.

    In one word, it’s horrible.

  10. consciousness razor says

    littlejohn, #3:

    As I understand it, the FDA will not let people with uncomplicated hearing loss problems simply go to a drugstore, try some various hearing aids, then buy it over the counter. You can do that with reading glasses, and they cost less than five bucks.

    Well, if you have myopia, good luck finding ones that don’t make things even worse. I’ve never seen any cheap over-the-counter glasses with a negative optical power — only positive numbers. Those “reading glasses” are ostensibly “so you can read things,” for certain values of “you” and “things.” I’m sure they’re great for some people.

    For me, reading a book isn’t such a big problem, although I wouldn’t normally hold one so close to my face (which is what I’d need to do). But road signs, clocks, television sets, computer monitors, sheet music, people’s faces when they’re not right in front of me, etc.? Nope.

    Nerd, #4:
    Also, from what I’m told, don’t be drafted into a war. Working in a loud factory for a few decades is also to be avoided.

  11. Mobius says

    I was in the Air Force and hearing loss had been bugging me for several years. I finally bit the bullet and had a hearing test at the VA. No surprise my high end hearing was not so good. The audiologist said I was borderline on needing hearing aids. I dithered for a minute then agreed to get them.

    When they came in the audiologist warned me to take care of them. While the first set were provided free the replacement cost was $4000 each. Yikes.

    I have to say they have worked great. I was amazed how more lively music sounded. I had gotten used to it being rather flat.

    So I have to say I agree with Adam. They make a huge difference. With mine (a rather standard design) they are not very noticeable. So if you think you need them, go for it.

    BTW, my audiologist warned me…cats will hide them and dogs will swallow them. So keep them in their storage box at night.

  12. consciousness razor says

    Also, they’re not just a simple amp with an equalizer. That would be relatively easy — miniaturized components aren’t hard to come by these days either — but still not so effective. wiki:

    Early devices, such as ear trumpets or ear horns,[1][2] were passive amplification cones designed to gather sound energy and direct it into the ear canal. Modern devices are computerised electroacoustic systems that transform environmental sound to make it audible, according to audiometrical and cognitive rules. Modern devices also utilize sophisticated digital signal processing to try and improve speech intelligibility and comfort for the user. Such signal processing includes feedback management, wide dynamic range compression, directionality, frequency lowering, and noise reduction.

  13. alan1 says

    Just got hearing aids. Here is what I have learned. Aids come in various form factors and quality levels. If you want the Bluetooth connection to your phone, then a behind the ear unit is needed, The in-the-canal units are less featured and more expensive for the feature set. If your hearing loss is not severe, then the best option is receiver (speaker) in the canal, with a thin, fairly stiff plastic tube with wire inside that connects the receiver to the unit behind the ear. These are easy on/off, and hardly noticeable when on. Stronger amplification needs require the receiver in the unit with a hollow tube feeding the sound into the ear. The low/medium/high quality bands deal with the number of channels, with more channels allowing a finer tuning of the hearing loss to get you closer to “flat” hearing. If your map is already flat, then the bottom end units will be fine, but they also have fewer features. The sophisticated features other than Bluetooth connectivity have to do with “programs” where the aids adjust to the sound environment and can permit isolating speech and direction and other kinds of filters. These programs are reasonably effective, and the high end units will switch programs automatically.

    Here was the big surprise for me. While audiologists typically charge $50-$100 for a hearing test and $4000-$7000 for a pair of medium or high end aids, Costco does hearing tests for free, and have premium aids for $1500-$2500, and include lifetime free adjustments and cleanings. I went to two different audiologists for hearing tests and consultations (one specializing in tinnitus, and one covered by my health insurance), and also got a hearing test at Costco. I have moderate mid-to-high frequency losses in my left ear, and mild high frequency losses in my right. All three tests showed nearly identical results. All three tests did a frequency mapping, voice (phoneme) recognition, bone conduction test, and other tests, all painless. Both audiologists recommended aids that would cost over $7000/pair, with my health care plan reducing the pair from the covered doc to about $4200. I went with the Rextons from Costco for $1800. I picked them over the Kirkland, which are rebranded Phonaks, $1400 units because the Rexton is supposed to have better Bluetooth connectivity and are rechargeable. I tried some ReSound units from the first audiologist, and the Rextons have much better Bluetooth connection and purer Bluetooth audio, although none of the aids have good bass response. The ReSounds audio streaming sounded like a pocket AM radio by comparison.

    It is hardly surprising that, after the VA hospital, Costco is the second largest seller of hearing aids in the US. However, while each of the half dozen brands Costco carries, they only have the top of the line models, but most are Costco specific models with one or two features missing for 1/4 to 1/3 the normal price. For example, none of Costco units include tinnitus mask generators. However, many get tinnitus relief from basic amplification alone, and mask generators are free apps for your phone that can be streamed with Bluetooth. Also, most brands are available with battery or rechargeable models while Costco may only offer one or the other. Ditto with most brands having t-coil options where Costco either includes or does not offer that option per model. Finally, most hearing aid/audiologist shops will give a 30 or 90 or whatever day trial period, Costco has a 180 day trial period with 100% money back if not delighted.

    If my tinnitus has not calmed down within the 6 month trial, then I may take them back and return to the tinnitus specialist, but the odds of getting help when basic aids don’t are only marginally better.

  14. charley says

    I’ve been using Costco aids for about four years. They are $1500-2000 ish and include several years of service/adjustment. I now have the choice of muffled (aids out) or artificial sound (aids in), always accompanied by ringing.

    I almost prefer the sound of cupping my hands behind my ears. I’m thinking about prototyping a cap with large upright ears and tubes going down to my ears. It seems to work for my dog.

  15. Kevin Karplus says

    I’ve been using a “personal hearing amplifier” (Sound World Solutions Sidekick), which is a hearing aid without a prescription, on-and-off for two years. The specs are similar to a $2500 hearing aid, but they cost “only” about $600 a pair. They are behind-the-ear models with rechargeable batteries (so no fiddling with tiny zinc-air batteries). I can adjust the equalizer on them with a phone app (though the computer app has not been maintained and no longer runs). The app has a rather crude user interface which makes it almost impossible for me to put in a prescription or tweak the settings away from the automatically set ones from their consumer-grade hearing test—I wish they provided an API, because I could do a lot better myself.

    Incidentally, Adam is totally wrong about everyone who gets hearing aids never going back. I’ve heard that something like 30% of people who get hearing aids stop using them, for a variety of reasons: appearance, discomfort, lack of significant advantage, … . I find that my hearing aids make my ear canals itch (I have the same problem with ear buds), so I only wear them when I have to. One of the few advantages of Zoom labs and office hours, is that I don’t have to wear my hearing aids—I can turn up the audio on my computer instead.

  16. billseymour says

    I have a loss of high frequencies in both ears and wear high-end behind-the-ear units in situations when I need to understand human speech, for example, attending meetings, including Zoom meetings, or watching TV. I don’t wear them at other times because my lower and mid-range frequencies are OK. Even when I’m speaking with another person one-on-one, I might have to ask the other person to speak more slowly and distinctly; but they don’t need to speak any louder…I can hear them just fine.

    The two units were advertised to communicate with each other via bluetooth and figure out which way my head is pointed to filter out ambient noise; but I don’t think they actually do that very well. I still have occasional problems in meetings in large rooms with lots of ambient noise, especially when folks near me are carying on private conversations.

    It never occurred to me that I might be able to get some app for my smart phone that I could use to tune the units somehow. I’ll have to ask my audiologist about that.

    The pair cost me about $6k, and on balance, I’m glad that I have them.

    As for glasses, I’m near-sighted with astigmatism, so I need to get prescription glasses from an optometrist. I have two pair:  my driving glasses are bifocals with a distance prescription for seeing where I’m going, reading road signs, etc.; my computer glasses, which I wear most of the time, have single-vision lenses with the near prescription optimised, and maybe a bit over-corrected, for an arm and a hand in front of my face. I take off my glasses to read books, newspapers, etc.

  17. Bad Bart says

    I’m on my second set of behind-the-ear hearing aids. I got my first pair with some reluctance about 10 years ago in my early forties–it felt like something “old people” did. At first, the fact that I got my first reading glasses the same week enhanced that “I’m old” feeling, but over time it actually helped me get to a mental place like what Adam described: it’s a mechanical problem that I’ve actually had all my life and there’s no benefit in not addressing it.

    The first pair came from my medical provider’s ENT/audiology group and cost ~$6K (largely covered by my health insurance at the time–a plan that no longer exists). The new set came from Costco as several people above described, and the high-end set came in at about $2.5K.

    The advances in the technology over those years were amazing. They work better, the ability to tweak on the app is awesome (mostly just used to turn them up or down, but that’s a big thing when you need it), they’re rechargable, and since they are Bluetooth devices, I have wireless headphones on all the time.

    There are several internet-only providers that have shown up the last few years. They seem to be downmarket brands from the same manufacturers making the high end (one of the ads showed a smartphone app that looks identical to the one I use, but in a different color). I’ll definitely look to an internet provider next time to see how the price compares to Costco. I don’t see myself ever going back to the ENT or a stand-alone hearing aid provider.

  18. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @8:
    Thank you for clarifying my foggy memory and observation skills. My fault not noticing their use of protection for their noisy demonstrations.
    My bad.
    OTOH, actually emphasizes my point, of how he missed a good opportunity to relate his experiences on MythBusters. It wan’t that long ago, and has spawned a new generation of a teenage team presenting the challenges.

  19. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @8
    yup I missed their use of protection equipment, got lost by them always saying “DON”T TRY THIS AT HOME, we are professionals and know the risks” <smirk>
    I do remember how they were rigorous at pointing out every risky aspect of their experiments, and were quite thorough at discussing every aspect regardless of risk.
    shoot, I do miss those guys so much … got a speck of dust in eye.

  20. says

    Partner has hearing aids, cleaning them works well with a spray can of (electrical) Contact Cleaner, available from auto parts stores for a few bucks. Apart from tinnitus, I fortunately don’t need aids yet, can hear quite well.

  21. says


    In my experience some people think it’s polite to speak in a soft voice.

    Well, yes, it’s rude to shout at people. Speaking in an indoor voice is polite, and required in some locations (i.e. libraries).

  22. jack16 says

    !@ #2 (twas brillig (stevem))
    Use a battery-powered mower. Mine does’not require ear protection and it’s better for the environment.


  23. brucej says

    Hearing aids cost a lot mainly because of three factors: there’s a limited (though growing) market, a huge amount of industry consolidation (there’s like three or four major players anymore) and a lot of development costs.

    No it’s NOT $2 or $3 worth of parts…mine have 10 or 15 different adjustment points in the equalizer, room for (iirc) 8 programs, intelligent adjustment (they will automagically tweak those the equalizer based on the ambient sound environment, AND change the weight given to the different microphones in each one and between ears, so I can focus on someone in front of me in a noisy restaurant and have things like feedback and wind noise supression) bluetooth, and a significant degree of environmental resistance . (the pair I had before these were water-resistant to two meters. The company rep would program them wirelessly while they were submerged in a cup of water to show them off.) This is important if, for instance, I want to be able to hear while riding my bicycle in the summertime.

    And it all fits (with battery) in a volume of about 1CC. ITE ones have even less volume, some of them are tiny.

    Now you can get a cheap one that’s essentially an indiscriminate amplifier, the ones I got in 1975 were essentially that, and in comparison to my current ones were like a Victrola wind-up record player compared to a modern high end stereo.

    I may be weird but I’ve never been put off by ‘looking old’ but that might be because I’ve worn them since I was 16 :-)

  24. says

    Phones use compression to reduce their range and get more calls in the same number of lines, both analogue and digital. That may be good for business, but horrible if you’re losing your hearing.

    A year and a half ago I gave up making phone calls permanently because too much gets lost. But too many places now demand ableist use of phones, with no option for those who can’t use them. I’m still fine with good speakers and voice face to face – unless you turn your head.

  25. says

    It’s frustrating. I have that annoying tinnitus. It sounds like I’m permanently surrounded by crickets. Ia am still trying to train my wife to stand close to me and face me when she speaks. It is increasingly hard to understand people who speak with a strong accent and this makes it hard to tune in to other languages as well.

    Hearing aids are expensive my last pair were covered by compensation insurance and cost $7000. They make a world of difference. The one downside is that I have to switch them off when I eat a packet of chips. The crunching sound is unbelievably amplified.

  26. seachange says

    Speaking in a softer voice forces people who actually want to talk to you to pay attention. It is a useful communication technique. Polite also…maybe. The Unitedstatian cultural construction of gender will get ya if you speak outside expected parameters for the gender your listener assigns you.

    My mother is quite deaf now, and a lot of the time she has left her ears out because they were likely to squeal, get uncleanably dirty, or painfully overamplify things.

  27. says

    Tinnitus is certainly a nuisance. I grew up around noisy farm equipment (when ear protection was not cool — or even thought of), plus a little carpentry (electric saws, power drills, hammers and nails). In adulthood I’ve experienced a high whine that (mercifully) is usually not too “loud” and can be ignored. But at night, when all is quiet, it can be trouble. For many years now, I’ve gone to sleep with music playing at low volume to mask the tinnitus. It works pretty well. But I’d love for that pesky noise to be gone. The “remedies” that I find online are homeopathic nostrums of no value beyond placebo. My hearing remains pretty good otherwise, but time is taking its toll.

  28. wzrd1 says

    I’ve long had tinnitus, it’s not fairly roaring high tones, with one warbling whistle recently joining the chorus. Add in mid-range hearing loss from an IED blast.
    My hearing aids were around $2100 and $2000, one with a touchless telecoil, the other plain, as memory serves, 8 band EQ bandpass filtering with a built-in compander to help with processing and noise control. Those date back quite a few years and are now defunct and I studiously avoid the VA whenever possible.
    Last specs I saw had something like 16 bands, at least 16 programs for different environments, bluetooth, even better compression and processing and I think one had a photon torpedo launcher attachment or something, alas, no tricorder interface.

    @anthonybarcellos, my tinnitus is fairly loud, loud enough that the television has to be uncomfortably loud for many, so I’ve gone with not hearing most of what is said (say, understanding one word out of five) and going with closed captioning. Don’t even get me started on CNN’s online videos, where the captioning lags so much that the end of a report gets lost… When there’s any CC present at all.
    YouTube auto-transcript CC is, ahem, entertaining, comically so at times. Were anything alive have DNA transcription that was that error prone, everything would be extinct!
    Rant mode off.
    As for tinnitus, there is no realistic treatment or cure, it’ll grow worse over the years as more hair cells give up the ghost. Sorry. The closest thing to a cure isn’t much of one, gentamicin to cause total deafness, which is more frequently used for severe vertigo that’s refractory to all other treatments and still is strongly recommended against. Maybe “in another decade or two” (rinse and repeat every decade or two), we’ll learn how to grow replacement hair cells. I figure that’ll happen when they also learn how to power my farts with cold unicorn fusion.
    Which, as my calendar shows, is scheduled around the 14th of Neverember.
    Just as well, I rather prefer my unicorns warm.

    Other enhancements, a synthetic lens in one eye. Interestingly, I actually can detect limited UV-A and UV-B, likely via phosphorescence or some similar downconversion with some weird protein or two. At least, that’s what one biologist suspects, as I’m pretty damned sure I don’t have magical additional receptors in my retina. Apparently, the replacement lens isn’t coated. Makes seeing the security features on US currency easy and extremely bright.

  29. magistramarla says

    I’m losing those high frequencies, and I have been losing them for a long time. I’ve also dealt with tinnitus for a long time. It often sounds as though I am having my own private hearing test, with all of the beeps and boops.
    Back when I was teaching in a high school, I often had lots of fun with the young men. They would mumble “Can I go to the bathroom?”. My response would be “What did you say?” It would escalate until they shouted “CAN I GO TO THE BATHROOM?” I would respond, “Potty? Oh, sure – there’s the pass.” Followed by much laughter in the classroom….
    I think that my husband is losing the high frequencies, so we have that problem of hearing each other less and less.
    At first, I was told that my problem was Meniere’s disease. Later, a rheumatologist thought that it was a result of my autoimmune issues. Lately, no doctor wants to venture a guess. None of them have suggested a hearing aid.
    Luckily, my engineer husband has set up surround sound in our living room so that I can enjoy TV.

  30. Mobius says

    @16 billseymour

    ” I have two pair: my driving glasses are bifocals with a distance prescription for seeing where I’m going, reading road signs, etc.; my computer glasses, which I wear most of the time, have single-vision lenses with the near prescription optimised, and maybe a bit over-corrected, for an arm and a hand in front of my face. I take off my glasses to read books, newspapers, etc.”

    I do the same, except my current driving glasses are trifocals, which give me a better view of my dashboard. And, yeah, I take may glasses off to read as well.

  31. susans says


    My mother rejected her hearing aids fairly quickly and never used them again despite increasing hearing loss.