Driving and Listening When You’re Hard of Hearing

                            Tips for the best ways to enjoy recorded music and books.

Hearing Blog: Driving and Listening

The average American drives 13,746 miles a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. What is the safest activity to fill those hours? Listening. Listening to recorded books, music, the radio – they all help while away the hours behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, for many people with hearing loss, that is not an easy accomplishment.

Even if you’re not a driver, listening can divert you while taking a power walk, working out on a treadmill or exercise bike, riding on a train or bus, even lying in bed. And summertime means long vacation car, plane or bus trips for many.

One caveat: if you’re not a confident driver — someone with years of experience driving with your eyes rather than your ears, with the instinctive habit of constantly checking the rear and side view mirrors —  don’t listen to anything! Just concentrate on driving. 

Here are some tips:

  • Use Bluetooth. If you have mild to moderate hearing loss, you may have trouble hearing through earbuds or your smartphone over the noise of the car. Most new cars come with Bluetooth. A simple solution is to link your blue-tooth equipped device to the car’s sound system. You can listen to music or books through the sound system, and get and send phone calls.
  • Try a Bluetooth streamer. If your hearing loss is more serious, you may need to stream books, music or phone calls on these devices through a Bluetooth streamer connected wirelessly to your hearing aid or implant. All major hearing aid manufacturers make Bluetooth streamers. The one I use is a ComPilot, which streams to my Phonak hearing aid and my Advanced Bionics cochlear implant (both are made by the same company, Sonova). The Oticon Streamer Pro is also a popular brand. Made for iPhone hearing aids (including those made by ReSound and Starkey), it connects to an iPhone without the need for the intermediary streamer. Ask your audiologist for information about Bluetooth streamers for your brand of hearing aid.
  • Choose music or books wisely. It can make a big difference in comprehensibility and enjoyment. Recorded books can be borrowed from your library or by subscribing to a service like Recorded Books and played on your car’s CD player. If you can’t hear clearly enough through the car’s sound system, however, you’ll have to switch to a service like Audible, which downloads books to your smartphone or iPod, which you can then access through a Bluetooth streamer. These are subscription services, with new credits for books available monthly.
  • Listen to a free audio sample first. We all have our favorite literary genres, but genres that are good for reading are not always good for listening, especially with hearing loss. Listen to the free audio sample of a recorded book before you order, to see if you can hear and understand the reader’s voice. If you find a reader whose voice you like, you can search for other books featuring the same reader.
  • A professional reader is preferable. I have found that a plot-driven novel, with a single professional reader, not too many place names or proper names, and no background music or sound effects is easiest to understand. Sorry, authors, but a professional reader is often more understandable than the writer reading his or her own work.
  • Multiple readers can be confusing. I try to avoid books read by more than one reader (an increasing trend) because I get lost trying to understand who is who. I also need time to adjust to a voice. Sometimes I even start a book over again once I’ve figured out the reader’s voice.
  • Need a really long story? The first recorded book I ever listened to was Moby-Dick, read by Frank Muller, which had me enthralled for almost all 21 hours and 20 minutes. Anna Karenina, read by either Davina Porter or David Horovitch, is also a spellbinder at 38 hours and 5 minutes (Horovitch) or 36 hours and 8 minutes (Porter). Is the difference in time because Porter reads faster? That might make Horovitch better for the hard of hearing. You can also slow down the recording, but that sometimes distorts the sound.
  • For nonfiction fans, how-to and advice books, self-help, history and biography are all popular car listening material. If you Google “best recorded books,” you’ll find a variety of lists, but always listen before you buy. Otherwise you may find you can’t understand a word.
  • Music is also according to personal taste, but I find that complicated orchestral music is almost impossible to listen to via streamer. I also love opera, but for listening in the car, I go for music with a strong beat or a strong solo voice, like rock or blues songs that don’t obscure my hearing with too much background music.
  • For podcasts, you want a professionally recorded, clear-spoken narrator. Once you get two or three guys joking around, or environmental sounds in the background, or laughter interrupting the spoken words, you — or I, anyway — are going to be lost.
  • What about the good old-fashioned radio? All of the above advice applies: a clear professional speaker, no background sound effects or music, no multiple speakers joking around and interrupting each other. Unfortunately for me, that limits my listening to traffic and the occasional baseball game.
  • Talking on the phone? No. Avoid using even a hands-free phone. Talking on a hands-free phone is legal in most states, but I don’t recommend it for people with hearing loss. The concentration required to follow a phone conversation may distract you from the road. Also, unless you have a very good voice recognition system, you may have to futz around looking for the phone number — even if it’s on speed dial. Don’t do it. It’s amazing how few milliseconds it takes for a car to swerve when you take your eyes off the road.

For more information about hearing loss read my books “Shouting Won’t Help” and “Living Better With Hearing Loss,” both available at Amazon.com. 


First published on AARP, April 28, 2016.  Photo: Getty Images

13 thoughts on “Driving and Listening When You’re Hard of Hearing

  1. This is so true, Katherine. I have lost count of the books I have listened to on the treadmill, stationary bike or in the car. For years I was able to use head phones or just listen via the sound system in my car. As my hearing loss became more profound I find that an audio loop in my primary listening room is best, while the blue tooth system in the car functions well through the loud speakers – depending on the reader’s voice.

    You are absolutely correct about the reader’s voice and background “noise”. For me, anyway, any extra sound other than the primary voice tends to degrade my ability to understand. It seems to be a favorite radio production value, these days, to have street noises, music or other environmental “noise” to lend credibility, or marketability to the report or whatever it is.

    This Friday, in Boston, I will receive an Advanced Bionics cochlear Implant, and ultimately a Phonak hearing aid in the opposite ear. In time, I hope to be able to successfully use the ComPilot feature as well to enhance my listening. For now, i’m full of anxiety and excited as well. Happy listening!


      • You got it Katherine. Activation date is set for the 31st. Not sure how i’ll manage that wait. 🙂 At least we’re first in line for surgery at Tufts on Friday.


  2. I have real difficulty hearing music anymore. It all sounds flat. I don’t have a cochlear implant yet. Is this unique to me? Something with a lot of percussion works but otherwise music is sort of offensive. Used to play the piano and can’t stand the sound anymore – I miss music…..


  3. Thank you so much for this. I try to explain to my family that listening in the car is so hard to do. My kids are talking behind me and my husband talking with a radio on…about impossible. I don’t have a vehicle that I can hook bluetooth up. Saying that I do have the surflink mobile device that works with my Starkey hearing aids. I should stream my music off of my phone or an audiobook that way. Thanks for the idea. Kinda excited for a long drive now.


    • An FM system would work really well for that. You, the driver, would wear the receiver, and your passenger would wear the transmitter. The sound is transmitted wirelessly and it would cut out all the car noise and allow you to hear your companion.
      Sorry to be slow answering this!


      • Where could get a system like that . I had a cochealer implant for 5 years and developed infection a d had to remove it to clear infection which took 10 months to clear then reinstalled 3or4months had to remove it again and will not put it back body rejects it


  4. I am a vet who has hearing loss because of being 13 bravo during Vietnam era. They have given me Phonak hearing aids. I also have a Com pilot 2 for blue tooth reception. How can I listen to music or CD’s through our 2017 Murano Nissian. My son has been able to pair my phone, but when I try to pair the navigation system by blue tooth with the Phonak Com pIlot 2 so I don’t blast my wife’s ears and I can hear the music and sing with her while traveling so far it will not pair. I talked to Nissian they said for me to get a hold of Phonak. I hope they can help get my necklace receiver paired to the navigation system. It says it will do up to 5 bluetooth devices.


    • As I understand it (and I’m not a tech type), your bluetooth-equipped smart phone can send the signal either to your car’s sound system or to your hearing aids via the Com Pilot. That means that the only way you can and your wife both listen is via the car speakers. For me personally, the car speakers are not clear enough so I always use the bluetooth via my hearing aids.
      If I am wrong, I would love to be corrected. Does anyone know?
      This holds true for the navigation system ads well I think. You can get it through the car’s speakers. Or you can get it on your phone which is then relayed via the com Pilot to your hearing aids.


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