Professional hearing aids are extremely expensive, and require expert help to tune – but a new study has suggested Apple Airpods can work just as well.
The researchers say that Airpods Pro perform similarly compared to basic hearing aids, and are only slightly inferior to premium hearing aids costing more than £8,000 – despite having a far lower price of £250 in the UK.
“There’s also a social stigma associated with hearing aids,” says Yen-fu Cheng, the study’s corresponding author and an otolaryngologist at Taipei Veterans General Hospital.
“Many patients are reluctant to wear them because they don’t want to appear old. So, we started exploring if there are more accessible alternatives.”
The researchers tested Apple Airpods against professional-grade hearing aids – with 21 participants with mild to moderate hearing loss.
Researchers read out a short short sentence, such as “the electricity bills went up recently”, to participants, who were asked to repeat their words verbatim wearing the devices.
They found AirPods Pro performed similarly well compared with basic hearing aids in a quiet environment and were only slightly inferior to premium hearing aids.
AirPods 2, while having the lowest performance among the four, helped participants hear more clearly compared with wearing no hearing aids.
The research was published in the journal iScience, and could help a large proportion of people with hearing loss access more affordable sound amplification devices.
In the US, up to 75% of people with hearing loss don’t wear hearing aids, the researchers say.
Apple came out with a feature called Live Listen in 2016 that allows people to use its wireless earphones, AirPods, and iPhone for sound amplification.
The feature makes AirPods functionally similar to a personal sound amplification product, designed for people with normal hearing for certain occasions like birdwatching.
Cheng and his team wanted to investigate whether AirPods, which are widely available devices, can serve as alternative hearing aids.
The team compared Airpods 2 and AirPods Pro—the model with a noise canceling feature—with a type of premium hearing aids and a basic pair of hearing aids.
The premium hearing aids cost $10,000 (£8,400), and the basic type cost $1,500 (£1,250).
In a noisy environment, AirPods Pro showed comparable performance to premium hearing aids when the noises came from the side of the participant.
When the noises came from the front of the participants, both AirPods models failed to help participants hear better.
“Two reasons may account for the difference between the two scenarios,” says Ying-Hui Lai, the study’s co-author and a bioengineer at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taipei.
“It may relate to the trajectories soundwaves travel with, as well as the advanced signal processing algorithm by premium hearing aids. This finding will hopefully inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions.”
“Globally, the wireless earphone market is growing rapidly. Some companies are interested in exploring the possibility of designing earbuds with sound amplification features. Our study proves that the idea is plausible.”
Cheng says, “These wireless earbuds are of course not perfect, but they would be a good starting point for many patients who don’t have access to professional hearing aids. They will see an increase in quality of life even with these earbuds."
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