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AirPods Pro make surprisingly great cheap hearing aids, study says

Apple AirPods Pro in someone's hand

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It’s a feature many owners probably aren’t aware their AirPods are capable of, but a new medical study has found that Apple’s wireless earphones can work well as affordable hearing aid alternatives. 

The findings from the new report, published in the iScience journal, center around the “Live Listen” function on Apple’s AirPods and some Beats earbuds which enables your iPhone to act as microphone, which in turn relays enhanced sound to the user’s earbuds. 

The feature wasn’t originally intended as an aid for those impacted by hearing loss, instead designed to attenuate certain sounds in noisy situations for those with normal hearing. 

But with the price of hearing aids ranging anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000 in the US, researchers at Taipei Veterans General Hospital  decided to work on a study to see how Apple’s comparatively cheap earbuds using the feature would compare to dedicated hearing devices. 

The researchers put both a pair of AirPods 2nd Gen and AirPods Pro (2019) through their paces, coupling them up an iPhone XS Max. 

They compared the results of their testing against the top-of-the-range $10,000 OTICON Opn 1 behind-the-ear hearing aids as well as Bernafon’s $1,500 MD1 hearing device. 

A total of 21 participants with mild to moderate hearing loss took part in the study, with each person asked to repeat short sentences read to them in varying environments using each of the four devices. According to the study the AirPods Pro, which also rank highly in our list of the best earbuds, were found to perform just as well as the cheaper hearing aids and almost as good as the top tier OTICON model when used in a quiet setting. 

Somewhat usurpingly, the cheaper AirPods 2nd Gen came bottom of all four tested devices but still managed to provide a noticeable benefit to the participants hearing ability compared to not using any device. In noisier test environments, the AirPods Pro managed to perform even closer to the OTICON, a result that the researchers attribute to their built-in noise cancellation. 

However, these results came when the unwanted distracting noises were delivered from the sides of the participant. When the participant was met with noise coming from the front while trying to listen to the sample sentences, both Apple earbuds were unable to help improve what was being heard. 

You can find out how to make use of Apple’s Live Listen mode here (opens in new tab).  

The first Black Friday AirPods deals have also just started, if you’re looking to buy.

Oticon hearing aid

(Image credit: Oticon)

Analysis: AirPods as hearing aids are no gimmick – but also no substitute for the real deal

In a week which saw a separate study prompt the World Health Organization into warning that one billion young people worldwide could be at risk of hearing damage from listening to headphones, it comes with some irony that one of the world’s most popular wireless earphones could actually provide help to those impacted by hearing loss.

Apple’s introduction of Live Listen feature to its AirPods line-up was quite rightly well-received by the hearing loss community when it was introduced back in 2016.

Offering a somewhat more affordable tool for attenuating speech when compared to expensive dedicated devices – particularly for those living in the USA where hearing aids aren’t usually subsidised – the ability to use Apple’s ubiquitous white earbuds in this discreet way has also helped lower the stigma surrounding the wearing of a hearing device.

However, while this new study shows that the feature isn’t a mere gimmick or bonus feature, it does also emphasize that if you do have hearing loss, a pair of AirPods should only be considered a stop gap.

As the report highlights, the AirPods fared badly when presented with noise coming from a front-on, rather than side on direction, making them less useful for conversational situations or when watching a film for example, and also need your iPhone to be appropriately positioned for the feature to work well.

Dedicated hearing aids are able to be customised to boost frequencies according to the user’s needs, so if you’re concerned about hearing loss we’d highly recommend consulting an audiologist before looking to use even the best AirPods models in this way.

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