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Hearing Assistance

1. Introduction

Under the Equality Act 2010 and UK building regulations there is a legal duty for service providers (for example venue operators) to make reasonable provision for those with a disability.

This document is an introduction to a venue operator, user or decision maker about the sensible options available to add or incorporate a hearing assistance system into the audio system of a Theatre, Performance Space, Multi-Purpose Hall or other similar venue. The document introduces the options looks at technical feasibility but also what it means for the hearing-impaired user of the hall as well as the venue management.

2. Audio Input

All hearing assistance systems require attaching to an audio system to function, if a presenter chooses to speak loudly in a hall instead of using a microphone attached to a hearing assistance system, he or she will not be addressing those in need of hearing assistance.

In absolute terms each presenter/performer needs to have their own microphone into a sound mix so their own voice is properly represented, this may be practical in a theatre where there is a sound operator for the show and management of radio microphone frequencies and shutting off the sound of performers backstage. In a multi-purpose venue it may not be practical or reasonable to do this and other options need to be found, in this case the sound pick up should be of the performance and not of ambient noise in the auditorium or surrounding areas, amplifying the ambience puts additional noise into the ears of the recipient and may be difficult to differentiate from the presentation/performance.

In line with the above advice it commonly produces an acceptable quality to use one or ideally two good quality rifle microphones above the first few rows of audience pointing at the stage, in general a hanging microphone with 360 degree pick up will not perform well and will not exclude unwanted noise.

The voice from the microphones should then be mixed at suitable levels with any music or media used in a presentation video (for instance) and put into the hearing assistance system.

All the hearing assistance systems comprise of a transmitter, which broadcasts the sound using different types of wireless technology to the receiver which is in the hearing aid or on the person of the user.

3. Induction Loop Option

This is the longest established system and it involves taking the audio input and converting through a special amplifier into a variable electrical current in a wire or copper tape, this wire or tape is normally installed into the fabric of the building (or in a small antennae for reception or meeting room applications). The user with almost any hearing aid can receive the audio by selecting the ‘T’ mode on their hearing aid, a component in the hearing aid can detect the variable electrical current in the wire by induction.

Key points- Induction Loop

• Can be received by most hearing aids so no receivers need to be managed by the venue
• Non-discriminatory, the user does not need to request or wear non-discreet equipment
• Omnidirectional (line of sight between transmitter and receiver not needed)
• Sound quality received is very poor compared with all other option herein
• Installation to give even coverage is usually difficult (especially in an existing building)
• Specialist installation design needed to comply to standards (see below)
• Very dated technology
• Special installation design needed for adjacent spaces with induction loop
• Could be received by hearing aid users outside the room
• Often the only choice considered

Notes: It is often presumed that installing an induction loop just requires a perimeter wire or tape around the venue skirting or ceiling connected to the Induction Loop Amplifier, however this is not the case and an installation in this manner is likely to have very poor coverage only giving the seats closest the wire a good signal. An installation should be carried out to International Standard IEC 60118-4 and the UK code of Practice BS7594:2011 which has a tolerance threshold between highest and lowest signal. The best and most even performance is given by a series of overlapping cable arrays in the floor or suspended ceiling (normally only possible in a new build or major refurbishment), this needs to be designed by a specialist.

4. Infra-Red Option

Infra-Red uses similar technology to a domestic television remote control and converts the audio into a light frequency that cannot be seen by the human eye, this is broadcast from transmitters called radiators that are typically mounted either side of the proscenium arch or screen surround in a theatre or cinema. The receiver is normally a ‘V’ shaped headset that sits in the ears of the user with the actual receiving component at the base of the ‘V’ sitting just below the wearers neck. As with your television remote control, a direct line of sight between the transmitter and receiver is required

Key points- Infra Red

• Can only be received by specific headsets normally managed, distributed, collected, cleaned, charged by the venue.
• Can be considered discriminatory as the user has to request, collect, wear and return a non-discreet headset
• Unidirectional (line of sight between transmitter and receiver is needed making it difficult to apply to venues with varied seating layouts)
• Sound quality received is extremely good
• Installation to give even coverage needs to be carefully considered to maintain line of sight with all seats especially with a flat floor venue or shallow raked seating.
• Sound is consistent at the same strength to all users.
• Modern technology
• No complications with spill into adjacent venues

Notes: This technology used to be the only system that offered better audio quality than induction loop and thus has been extensively installed in Cinemas and Theatres where there are ‘Front of House’ staff to distribute and collect headsets and where the poor audio quality of Induction Loop is considered to be inadequate.

5. FM Radio Option

FM radio has been poised to take over from induction loop in the hearing aid industry but has struggled to establish in the face of the continued reliance of Induction Loop in new installations and establishment of Infra Red in the entertainment industry. The audio feed is fed into a mini FM transmitter using the same technology but a rather smaller transmitter than local and national radio stations. The broadcast is on a frequency range specifically for the hearing assistance market so does not conflict with other signals, most hearing aids can be fitted with an FM module to receive the signal directly or the venue can distribute receiver boxes headphones to users.

Key points- FM Radio

• Can be received by most hearing aids (if adapted) so regular guests need not have to request equipment from the venue and the venue do not need to manage many headsets.
• Non-discriminatory to regular users but may be considered discriminatory to non regular visitors who do not have FM enabled hearing aids
• Omnidirectional (line of sight between transmitter and receiver not needed)
• Sound quality received is very good
• Sound is consistent at the same strength to all users.
• Much newer technology than Induction Loop
• Really simple installation where no adjacent spaces need to be considered
• Special installation design needed for adjacent spaces
• Could be received by hearing aid users outside the room

Notes: This option works very well for venues with a regular audience, especially school halls as the fitting of FM modules to children’s hearing aids is normally free under the NHS.

6. WiFi Option

The newest of the options, the audio is simply broadcast on the same radio frequency technology as wireless internet using a dedicated WiFi network in the venue. The user simply uses their own smartphone or tablet, downloads the application (prior) and listens to the presentation or performance using their own wired or Bluetooth headset or earpieces. If some users do not use a smartphone a WiFi enabled iPod or similar can be provided by the venue.

Key points- Induction Loop

• Users use their own portable devices and headphones, if non-Smartphone users require to be catered for then the venue can administer a basic device, such as a WiFi enabled iPod and headset.
• Non-discriminatory to those using their own smartphone
• Risk of user’s phones ringing during performance if not set to silent
• Omnidirectional (line of sight between transmitter and receiver not needed)
• Sound quality received is very good
• Sound is consistent at the same strength to all users.
• Installation very simple.
• Newest technology
• Special consideration needed for adjacent rooms
• Could be received by mobile devices outside the room

Notes: This is really modern and simple for those who are part of the Smartphone generation, so for instance for a University/FE lecture theatre it is an obvious choice as it is almost inconceivable that a modern FE/HE Student won’t have a mobile phone. In a Theatre, Cinema or Multipurpose Hall a judgement needs to be made about the extent of support given to (typically) the elderly who may not yet be Smartphone users, this issue will decline with time. Equally the system may not be suitable for a school that bans mobile phones on site.

7. Costs

There are many things that contribute to the cost of a system, installation labour as well as the cost of the components and it is not possible to say generically that one system is consistently more or less expensive than others;

Induction Loop if done as a simple loop with one amplifier can be inexpensive as long as the cable installation is easy, costs will escalate with complicated cable routes or with multiple amplifiers and phase separation units, the venue has no cost of receiving equipment with this solution.

The same can be true of WiFi and FM options that they can be inexpensive if you choose not to buy many receivers and have negligible cable infrastructure to install. Generally, however the Infra-Red option tends to be more expensive as there are quite a few components, there is wiring to install and if you are buying specific headsets for many users this will all add to the cost.

8. Conclusion

Ultimately there is no single right choice for a venue hearing assistance system, a decision must be made on the needs of your venue’s specific audience, the technical, building structure and administrative constraints, overall the system should help those who need it, be manageable so it is used properly and above all be a ‘reasonable provision’ for those that need it.

The systems need not be exclusive, for instance you can install a WiFi system for most users but an Induction loop for the elderly. Whatever you decide Stage Electrics can assist you with the design and implementation of any of the systems and its integration into your new or existing sound system.

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