Becoming deaf in the US can put a person out to the tune of thousands of dollars – at minimum. That’s because hearing aids, while potentially life-changing, are also very expensive – as well as often being uncomfortable, complicated to use and maintain, and for some people, a source of embarrassment.
So, while unfortunate, it’s not exactly surprising that more than four out of every five Americans with hearing loss do not use hearing aids. But, a new study out of Taiwan has found a solution that may prove invaluable for those who need an easy and affordable way to amplify and clarify the sounds around them – and it’s probably been in your jeans pocket all along.
“AirPods Pro met four out of five PSAP [personal sound amplification products] standards,” explains the paper.
“No significant differences were found regarding speech perception between AirPods Pro and hearing aids in quiet but not with the presence of background noises,” it continues. “AirPods Pro may have the potential to be a hearing assistive device for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.”
Now, PSAPs aren’t the same thing as hearing aids – they are different products, with different intended users. “While hearing aids and PSAPs both amplify sound for the user… hearing aids are intended to make up for impaired hearing, [while] PSAPs, in contrast, are intended for people with normal hearing to amplify sounds in certain situations, such as recreational activities like birdwatching or hunting,” explains the Food and Drug Administration.
And since PSAPs are not medical devices, that means there’s a lot more leeway when it comes to selling them – an fact that Apple exploited back in 2016 when they introduced the “Live Listen” feature to AirPods. This app, previously available for certain brands of hearing aid, but now extended to the earbuds, allowed users to connect the microphone from an iPhone to their ears, amplifying sounds that would otherwise be confused or too quiet to make out.
It was, in effect, a way of turning your AirPods into your very own pair of PSAPs. But could they serve as a workable alternative to a hearing aid?
To investigate, the research team compared two models of AirPods – AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro – with two types of hearing aids – one basic, and one premium. They recruited 21 study participants, all of whom had mild to moderate hearing loss, who wore the devices in a range of environments while the researchers read short sentences to them to see how much they picked up.
They did pretty well. In a noisy environment – though that description comes with some caveats, which we’ll mention later – the AirPods Pro performed about as well as a pair of premium hearing aids in conveying short sentences to the participants. In a quiet environment, AirPods Pro were beaten by the premium hearing aids, but not by much – and they were still comparable in performance to the basic pair. In total, the AirPods Pro met four out of five of the technology standards for hearing aids.
But that alone is not what makes the results so important. Here’s the thing: a pair of AirPods Pro will put you out $249 at time of writing. The “premium” hearing aids – which, remember, performed only slightly better than the Pods – cost $10,000.
Now, there are some important limitations to this study – most notably, the sample of participants, which was very small and included nobody with severe hearing loss or other types of hearing loss. Similarly, the PSAPs were both made by one manufacturer – all of which combined means it’s hard to say how generalizable these findings truly are.
And on top of that, the experiment was wholly conducted in a laboratory setting, using a single sound source. That’s not necessarily going to perfectly reflect real-world use – and in fact, even under these idealized conditions, the AirPods Pro were defeated by noise coming from in front of the participants rather than to their side. It’s not a perfect solution, by far.
But does it need to be? “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,” Yen-fu Cheng, an otolaryngologist at Taipei Veterans General Hospital and one of the authors of the study, pointed out in a statement.
“They will see an increase in quality of life even with these earbuds.”
Even AirPods 2, which performed lowest out of all four devices tested, still gave users an edge over going bare-eared, he pointed out – and the researchers think the results are enough to demonstrate that PSAPs could act as a serviceable and affordable alternative to hearing aids in future.
“This finding will hopefully inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions,” said Ying-Hui Lai, the study’s co-author and a bioengineer at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taipei.
“Globally, the wireless earphone market is growing rapidly,” he added. “Some companies are interested in exploring the possibility of designing earbuds with sound amplification features. Our study proves that the idea is plausible.”
The study is published in the journal iScience.