3 Types of Assistive Listening Devices for Your Church.

Do you have elderly in your Church who have difficulty hearing? It seems that we progress through stages in life. The youth want their Church as loud as possible. At the other end of the spectrum seniors complain that it’s too loud, until they can’t hear clearly at all.

In the US, there are an estimated 36 million people with hearing loss. The impending baby boomer surge will cause that number to swell in the near future, so it’s a great time to review the range of potential solutions that you can employ in your church.

In the ADA, there is reference to both ALS or assistive listening systems and ALD’s or assistive listening devices. Don’t get bogged down here. The types of solutions that are best suited for your requirements will fall into one of three categories:

1. FM Systems

These are the easiest to deploy and traditionally the most frequently utilized. Because of the wavelengths employed, they can cover a very large area at a relatively low cost and don’t require modification of the facility.

In some meeting spaces, a complexity of hearing assistance is that a mixer needs to be employed to converge all of the microphones. In a worship environment, we almost always have a mixer already. In the smallest churches, the FM transmitter will be fed directly from the mixing console. Ideally, this should use a dedicated mix bus or at least a distribution amplifier.

In larger facilities, the HOH (hard of hearing) system may be fed from a DSP processor, instead of the mixing console. I like to design Churches so that there are one or two microphone inputs available for use that bypass the mixer and run straight to the DSP (digital signal processor) to allow the room to be utilized for smaller events without requiring a trained operator. In this case, I usually design the system with the HOH system fed from the DSP for this reason.

2. Loop Systems

Inductive Loop Systems are the preferred technology for those with hearing loss. Why? These systems are compatible with a growing number of hearing aids that utilize t-coils. This means that for someone with compatible technology, they don’t have to go borrow a headset, remember to return it, and wear something that draws attention to their hearing loss. For all of these reasons, these systems are much more likely to actually be used. So what’s the catch?

Loop Systems can be more expensive to install, particularly if not addressed during construction. The loop term is really deceptive. Except in really small spaces, the amount of steel in most modern construction doesn’t make a conventional perimeter loop system practical.

A large space like a church typically requires a phased loop array, consisting of two independent loops (master and slave). Each loop is driven by its own amplifier channel with a 90 degree phase shift between the signals to create a field that is uniform in both the horizontal and vertical planes.

If you have the luxury of new construction, a loop system is worth strong consideration. It will never be as cheap to install in the future and a growing number of baby boomers will soon be demanding this convenience.

The US has been way behind Europe in adoption of these systems. A major reason in the past was that hearing aids designed in Northern Europe implemented telecoils (t-coils) in nearly 90% of their devices, as opposed to only 30% of US devices in the past. However, this percentage has doubled in recent years and will likely continue to rise. This factor combined with the aging boomer population together will bring strong demand for this technology in my estimation. My advise is that this may not be worthwhile in a retrofit situation, but is a good cost proposition for new construction. That should be no surprise. I’m a big fan of future planning and getting the infrastructure done properly the first time with all of my Church designs.

3. Infrared Systems

Typically, these systems have been employed in situations where either confidentiality was a requirement or you do not want patrons to hear outside of the venue (like in a concert hall). Essentially, you are limiting the range of transmission to a particular room. Just like your television IR remote won’t work in another room (due to the short wavelength), these systems stop at physical barriers.

These systems do offer high fidelity and have come down significantly in recent years, due to newer chip technologies. They are also not prone to RF interference. Design is more involved than RF systems, as a simple ray tracking 3D model is typically required (often performed in EASE), but the installation complexity is still a fraction of loop based systems. Just like RF systems, IR systems require that users utilize a proprietary receiver, rather than their own personal device.

Conclusion

Selection of the right Assistive Listening Device for your Church probably has a lot to do with your stage of construction (whether you are in construction or just looking for an off the shelf solution), and a look into the age of the average Church population. Keep in mind that you are buying a technology to utilize for the next 5-10 years, so you should be more interested in whether you have a large number of congregants that are entering old age than whether you have a large number that are already there.

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