Can you use Apple AirPods as hearing aids?

You may want to hold off from using  AirPods as hearing aids just yet  (Apple)
You may want to hold off from using AirPods as hearing aids just yet (Apple)

Can AirPods replace a hearing aid? A new study from Taiwan shows that Apple’s true wireless earbuds perform surprisingly well against dedicated hearing-aid devices in certain conditions.

What’s more, while AirPods aren’t known to be cheap, they’re certainly competitive when compared to the dedicated opposition. While the second-generation AirPods and first-generation AirPods Pro mentioned in the study launched at £159 and £249 respectively, the two dedicated hearing aids they were pitched against cost $1,500 (£1,270) and $10,000 (£8,469) respectively.

But there are reasons to treat the study as interesting, rather than game-changing — especially for UK-based sufferers of hearing loss, who could benefit from free dedicated hearing aids on the NHS.

In the study, 21 patients with mild to moderate hearing loss (average age: 41) were asked to take part in what’s known as a HINT (Hearing in Noise Test). Participants were read a series of sentences in Mandarin and asked to repeat them verbatim, both in a quiet environment and another with distracting background noise.

AirPods using Apple’s accessibility-friendly Live Listen feature, where a connected iPhone serves as a microphone to pick up speech, were compared to the traditional hearing-aid setup.

The basic AirPods fared the worst of all four in every test, though were deemed better than nothing. But surprisingly, AirPods Pro beat the $1,500 set and closed in on the $10,000 model for performance in both tests, presumably helped by the built-in noise cancellation that the basic AirPods lack.

That is until the distracting noises of the second test were delivered from the front. At that point, performance nosedived, despite coping admirably when noise was delivered from the sides.

One of the paper’s collaborators, Ying-Hui Lai, puts this down to the signal-processing algorithm in the AirPods Pro. “I hope that [Apple] can improve the algorithm and the internal [buzz] in future AirPod generations so that they will be a better fit,” he told Popular Science.

There are other reasons not to rush out and buy AirPods Pro to replace a hearing aid. Firstly, this study concentrated on those with mild to moderate hearing loss — and only 21 of them at that. That’s a small study focused on those at the milder end of the spectrum.

The study’s authors also compare AirPods Pro to personal sound-amplification products (PSAPs) rather than dedicated hearing aids. PSAPs, as the acronym suggests, amplify sound, but can’t adjust to the unique hearing loss needs of the individual, which makes them unsuited to those with severe hearing loss.

That’s before we even get on to the question of comfort for extended wear and the perpetual risk of them slipping out in use. In other words, AirPods shouldn’t be treated as a replacement, even if the results can be the same in favourable conditions.

That said, the study does give us an enticing glimpse of a world where technology could eventually double up without the need for dedicated devices, and Apple has been considering the accessibility potential of its products for some time.

For AirPods, as well as Live Listen used in this study, conversation boost isolates voices from background noise, making them easier to hear. Apple has also introduced Live Captions for iPhone, iPad, and Mac, where real-time subtitles are provided both in real-world conversations and in FaceTime or Podcasts.