Three years ago Richard Einhorn, an orchestra composer who reveled in the symphony and Broadway performances, went deaf – overnight.
"It was horrifying," said Einhorn, 61, who lives in New York City and had sensory neural hearing loss caused by a virus.
"One day, I felt like I had allergies, and my head was stuffed up and I couldn't hear well and was dizzy," he said. "The next morning my head was spinning with total vertigo and raging tinnitus. I knew immediately I was deaf in my right ear."
Einhorn jumped out of bed and instantly fell to the floor. By the time he got to the hospital, it was too late – the damage to his inner ear had been done.
Today, he has lost 70 percent of his hearing in one ear. Einhorn said he can still use his training and "imagination" to compose, but hearing in theaters and other public places is next to impossible – even with a hearing aid -- because of the background noise.
"To be blunt, it sucks," said Einhorn. "I go to a noisy restaurant and I literally can't hear. It's totally wiped out by the sound of all the noise around you."
But all that changed, when he saw a special production of "Wicked" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where hearing loops were installed.
"I was so overwhelmed, because for the first time, I was able to hear live music," said Einhorn. "The sound quality was so good."
So Einhorn turned into an advocate for a not-so-new, but remarkable technology that magnetically transfers the microphone or TV sound signal to hearing aids and cochlear implants that are equipped with a special magnetic receptor called a telecoil or t-coil.
As a result of his activism and that of others in the hard of hearing community, Broadway has now invested in hearing loops. The global Nederlander organization, which operates nine theaters in New York City, has already looped the Richard Rodgers Theater ("Romeo and Juliet") and soon the Gershwin Theater will add the technology this month to mark the 10th anniversary of "Wicked."
Today's digital hearing aids enhance hearing in conversational settings, but for many, the sound becomes unclear when auditorium or TV loudspeakers are at a distance, when the context is noisy, or when room acoustics reverberate sound. Hearing loops change all that, blocking out ambient sound.
"It's fantastic," said Bill Register, director of facilities and theater management for Nederlander's New York operation. "Everybody is so excited about it. And the cost is not as expensive as you would have thought," he said.
Installation in a large theater costs $30,000 to $60,000, according to Leo Garrison, owner of the A-V integration company Metro Sounds Pros, who pulled up the carpeting at the Richard Rodgers Theater to lay down the copper cable to create a magnetic field around the seating area.
Until now, those who were hearing impaired were able to check out conventional FM and infrared systems equipped with bulky headsets. "But, when people turn to talk to a friend, they lose the feed," said Garrison.
In addition to the Nederland theaters, he just outfitted the TMZ tour bus in New York City with loops.
Hearing loop technology has been widely used in Europe for decades, but is just now catching on in the United States.
"The interest in loop has skyrocketed since last year," said Russ Gentner, CEO of Listen Technologies, one of the major suppliers of A-V equipment to dealers. "The final piece of the North American loop market is falling in place because at least two key assistive listening system manufacturers and their supporting consultants and dealers are firmly embracing the technology and the concept of loop. Now we can really start to see a significant increase in venues with hearing loops. This will drive more people to get t-coil hearing aids and get excited about the real benefits hearing loops bring."
An estimated 36 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. About one in four, about 8.4 million, have hearing aids.
In order to use hearing loops, a person must have a hearing aid with a t-coil. About 69 percent of the 183 hearing aid models and new cochlear implants come with t-coils, according to a 2009 Hearing Review Products Report.
Hearing loops can also be installed in churches and public auditoriums. New York City Transit Authority has installed hearing loops at 488 subway information booths and new Nissan taxis will also be equipped. In Milwaukee, hearing loops will be part of the main concourse of the new Amtrak terminal.
They are also available connected to the television in the home for $140 to $300.
The man responsible for bringing the technology to the United States is David Myers, a 71-year-old professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, who has significant hearing loss.
"I was the child of a mother who was severely hard of hearing and was completely deaf for the last 12 years of her life," he said. "We would write notes to her."
For two years, Myers lived and worked in Scotland.
"On one of those trips in 1999, I was at the Iona Abbey on the West Coast and could not understand a word being spoken – the sound was reverberating off the walls. Then I noticed a sign – and I had a hearing aid with t-coil. So I turned it on and it worked. Suddenly there was a crystal clear voice speaking from the center of my head as if I were at the podium."
He discovered that all over Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, every church, cathedral and post office with a public address system used hearing loops. "There were in hundreds of thousands of venues. When I came home, I said, 'Why can't we have this in the U.S.?'"
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that theaters and other public venues accommodate the hearing impaired, but doesn't specify the technology to be offered.
Myers continues to travel to Europe, where loops are compatible with U.S. systems. "It doesn't matter where I am -- what state in the U.S. or what country or what brand of hearing aid I have – it works universally for everybody."
Composer Einhorn, who can once again enjoy Broadway with the new loops, agrees.
"It's wonderful and very simple technology," said Einhorn. "One of its main assets is that it gives you dignity. You are not wearing an embarrassing pair of earphones."