Are AirPods the Hearing Aids of the Future?

New research suggests that personal sound amplification products like earbuds may help some people hear better in certain scenarios

Doctor looking into someone's ear
New research suggests earbuds may be an affordable, low-stigma alternative to hearing aids for some people. Pexels

Though millions of Americans could benefit from wearing hearing aids, very few of those people actually use them. This is because hearing aids can be expensive, require time-consuming visits to an audiologist and are socially stigmatized.

Now, some scientists believe Apple Airpods and other earbuds could help alleviate some of these issues, according to new research published Tuesday in the journal iScience.

AirPods are ubiquitous and, when paired with an iPhone or iPad, they can act as a sound-boosting microphone, thanks to a feature Apple released in 2016 called Live Listen. Apple does not market Live Listen as a tool for people with hearing loss, however, the company does tout on its website that the feature can “help you hear a conversation in a noisy area or even hear someone speaking across the room.”

Using this feature, AirPods serve as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), over-the-counter devices meant to aid people without hearing loss in certain situations, such as loud restaurants.

But researchers at the Taipei Veterans General Hospital got curious and wondered how AirPods using the Live Listen feature would stack up against medical hearing aids.

To test this question, they recruited 21 individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss. Then, the scientists read a short sentence out loud and asked the participants to repeat it back under a variety of different conditions: with nothing in their ears, wearing a basic hearing aid (Bernafon MD1), wearing a premium hearing aid (Oticon Opn 1), wearing Apple AirPods 2 and wearing Apple AirPods Pro. The AirPods were paired with a smartphone.

In some situations, the AirPods helped the participants hear better. In a quiet environment, the AirPods Pro—which have a noise-canceling feature—performed as well as the basic hearing aids and were only slightly inferior to the premium hearing aids.

Man wearing AirPods typing on laptop
AirPods are trendy and not socially stigmatized like hearing aids. Pexels

In a noisy setting, the AirPods Pro performed as well as the premium hearing aids, but only when the noise came from the sides of the participant. When the noise came from in front of the listener, the Apple devices did not help improve hearing. This finding alone may help “inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions,” says study co-author Ying-Hui Lai, a bioengineer at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, in a statement.

The AirPods Pro also met four out of the five electroacoustic criteria for hearing aids known as ANSI/CTA-2051 standards.

The AirPods 2, meanwhile, performed the worst of all the devices, but they did help participants hear more clearly compared to when they listened unassisted.

Though the AirPods weren’t perfect, this research suggests they may be a viable option for people who could benefit from sound amplification. Both types of earbuds are significantly cheaper than hearing aids: The AirPods 2 cost just $129, while the AirPods Pro are $249. Compare that to around $10,000 for premium hearing aids and $1,500 for basic ones.

The cost of hearing aids is expected to come down, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August established a new category for over-the-counter hearing aids that do not require a prescription, as had historically been the case. Still, as Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski points out, many of these devices will still cost more than $1,000.

Beyond their relative affordability, earbuds are wildly popular and, thus, some users may feel less social stigma while wearing them.

“The design of AirPods does not mimic the traditional hearing aid, as most PSAPs do, but is even considered trendy,” the researchers write in the paper. “One major reason for the low fitting rate of hearing aids is social stigma; the use of AirPods may eliminate such concerns and enhance the willingness of individuals to wear hearing assistive devices.”

Researchers next hope to test earbuds among people with more severe hearing loss, reports Healthline’s Kimberly Drake. The study’s findings may also encourage earbud-makers like Apple to pursue products or features designed to help people hear better.

“Technology in hearing aids is not so sophisticated,” says Charles Limb, an otologist and neurotologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study, to the Wall Street Journal’s Dominique Mosbergen. “These companies that are making products that can make things sound good for entertainment purposes could start directing their attention to these needs.”

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