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If Not Nature ReSound

by Carlos Baez
Manager of Electroacoustic Technology,
ReSound Corporation

The ReSound hearing device has been designed with the goal of restoring to hearing-impaired individuals that which Nature
intended them to have. The rationale behind the signal processing system is straightforward and logical: to the extent possible,
the system should perform the functions that would normally be performed by the cochlea if it were not damaged.

The dynamic range of normal hearing is about 100 dB, from just audible to very loud sounds. The dynamic range of sensory
hair cells within the normal cochlea, however, is no more than 60 dB .(1) The healthy cochlea functions to compress the 100 dB
range of the outside world into a 60 dB range through nonlinear signal processing known as dynamic range compression. The
healthy cochlea accomplishes compression by providing progressively more amplification for soft sounds than for loud sounds.
Damage to the cochlea, however, causes a loss of this nonlinear operation, a phenomenon known as loudness recruitment .(2)
Loudness recruitment can be considered a loss of the normal dynamic range compression within the cochlea. Soft sounds
become inaudible. Above a certain level (the new hearing threshold), however, sounds become audible and their perceived
loudness increases rapidly towards normal as they approach high levels. This occurs because the hearing loss is much less (and
sometimes nonexistent) at high levels. The phenomenon is often called "abnormal growth of loudness".

The degree of recruitment can vary with frequency. Typically the amount of recruitment for high frequency sounds, such as
consonants, is considerably greater than for low frequency sounds, such as vowels. Many of the characteristics of speech that
convey meaning are contained in low-intensity, high frequency sounds - the fricatives such as s, sh, f, th, and plosives such as p
and t. When these are not heard, the remaining speech sounds are undifferentiated, meaning is lost, and speech becomes
difficult to understand. (3) The hearing-impaired person perceives speech as blurred and jumbled, and overall intelligibility is

In the ReSound hearing system, Full Dynamic Range Compression in each of two independent frequency bands (MBFDRC)
operates to accommodate the sounds of the outside world to the reduced dynamic range remaining to the hearing-impaired
person. It accomplishes this in a manner and to a degree consistent with that of the normal, healthy cochlea. To that end, the
compression system operates over the fu1l 40-dB dynamic range of speech (from 45 to 85 dB SPL), with only a modest
amount of amplification (if any) for loud sounds and progressively more and more amplification for the softest sounds of

In each band, the compression ratio of each compressor is digitally programmable, with high resolution, from 1:1 (linear) to a
maximum of 3:1, in eleven steps. Flexibility and precision are required within this programming range so that the compression
system can be adjusted to the varying degrees of recruitment associated with different degrees of hearing impairment. This
range appears ample to address even the more extreme cases of recruitment, as in the case where there is complete outer hair
cell damage in the cochlea. (4) Lesser amounts of damage would require correspondingly lower compression ratios. More
compression would be disproportional to the amount of recruitment, and would make speech sound unnatural.
At all times, the compression threshold remains very low (at approximately 45 dB SPL) in order to provide maximum
amplification to the softest sounds. Nonlinear processing is thus performed over the full dynamic range of speech. The
compression threshold is not a variable characteristic. Think about it - soft high-frequency consonants will always be at the
lowest intensity levels and the most difficult to discriminate. Correspondingly, shouldn't the hearing aid always provide
maximum amplification at this level?

A band-split filter, with the crossover frequency adjustable over a wide frequency range, is used to form two independent
compression channels. With a single channel, compressor action would be controlled by the most intense sounds regardless of
frequency. Intense vowels would cause the gain of the channel to be reduced. Unfortunately, the gain for the soft consonants
would then be insufficient. With two channels, however, the gain for the vowels can be reduced at the same time the gain for
the consonants is substantially increased. It should be noted that the healthy cochlea processes high frequency sounds
independent of low frequency sounds.

In contrast, with ReSound hearing systems design, some multi-channel compression hearing aids incorporate designs that
appear not to appreciate the important elements of the recruitment phenomenon. Though feature rich and programmable, they
do not necessarily address the abnormal growth of loudness problem:

Programmability is needlessly given to characteristics like compression threshold that should not be variable. The
compression threshold needs to be set to match the dynamic range of speech, not of the patient. More often than not,
however, the threshold is programmed closer to 65 dB SPL than to 45 dB SPL, 20 dB above the softest speech

Compressors with excessively high compression ratios and high compression thresholds merely protect the patient
against painfully loud sounds. They are properly called "compression-limiters", but are often mislabeled "dynamic
range compressors" by the manufacturer to suggest a higher level of performance and a function they do not have.

Some compressors vary the compression ratio as the signal intensity changes. Soft sounds are given less compression
than loud sounds. The basis for this design is difficult to understand: recruitment is more pronounced near threshold,
with high-level loudness growth closer to normal. (5) Thus, more amplification is called for near threshold, not less.

Mother Nature equipped us with an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated Multi-Band Full Dynamic Range Compression
System in each ear. ReSound hearing devices, though not identical to the original equipment, have been developed with the
utmost respect for Nature's design choices.

1. Neely, ST, Dynamic Range Compression in Cochlear Mechanics. Presented at the Third Lake Arrowhead Conference on Issues in
Advanced Hearing Aid Research, Lake Arrowhead, California, June 1994.

2. Allen, .JB and Neely, ST, Micromechanical Models of the Cochlea, Physics Today, July 1992.

3. Waldhauer, FD and Villchur, E, Full Dynamic Range Multiband Compression In a Hearing Aid, The Hearing Journal, September 1988.

4. Kates, JM, Hearing-Aid Design Criteria. Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, Monograph Supplement 1, January 1993.

5. Killion, MC, Design and Evaluation of High-Fidelity Hearing Aids, Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1979.

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