$249 AirPods work just as good as $10k professional hearing aids

AirPods can help millions with hearing impairment.
Rupendra Brahambhatt

A team of researchers in Taiwan claims that wireless earphones from Apple, popularly known as AirPods, can be used as a cool and super-affordable alternative to conventional hearing aids. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 400 million people are hearing impaired globally, that’s more than half of Europe’s population. A shocking report from the National Institutes of Health reveals that about 15% of the US population is also facing issues related to hearing

However, what’s really surprising is that about 75% of such patients in the US do not use any hearing aids. If that’s the case in a developed country, one can imagine that the situation might be worse in many underdeveloped nations. This is where the recent research could make a great difference.

The dilemma with hearing aids

$249 AirPods work just as good as $10k professional hearing aids
A digital image of human ear.

Most patients with some sort of hearing impairment don’t use hearing aids because such devices comes costly. The price of entry-level hearing aids starts from $1,000, and if you want to buy something of premium quality, it could cost you over $10,000. That’s a lot of money, especially for college students and young professionals.

Plus, “there’s also a social stigma associated with hearing aids. Many patients are reluctant to wear them because they don’t want to appear old.” said Yen-fu Cheng, one of the authors and an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist at Taipei Veterans General Hospital. “ 

Cheng and his team have come up with an interesting solution to both these problems. In their latest study, they propose that AirPods can be embraced as hearing aid devices because of a feature (called “Live Listen”) that was added to AirPods in 2016 for sound amplification purposes.

AirPods vs hearing aids

The "Live Listen" feature allows a user to listen to an activity (sound of water drops, birds chirping) more clearly through the AirPods by placing their iPhone near the spot where the action is happening. The feature amplifies the sound signals coming from a target, and interestingly, a hearing aid also does the same

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The researchers tested AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro against an entry-level hearing aid and a premium hearing aid on 21 subjects. The participants had hearing impairment levels ranging from mild to moderate. When the performance of the four devices was tested in an environment with noise coming from the front, only the hearing aids were able to help the participants hear better.

However, in the following tests that involved hearing in a noisy setting (with noise coming from lateral directions) and a quiet environment, AirPods Pro managed to perform at almost par with the premium hearing aid. In the noisy situation, the earphone showed similar performance as that of the premium hearing aid and in quiet conditions, it worked as good as the basic aid.  

Moreover, for the other model (AirPods 2), that although couldn’t perform better than the hearing aids in any of the tests. The authors noted that participants were still able to hear well with the earphone as compared to when they used no device

They also pointed out that due to its noise-cancellation feature AirPods Pro emerged as a better hearing aid alternative than AirPods 2. While explaining the results of their study further, co-author, Ying-Hui Lai said, “This finding will hopefully inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions.” 

He further added, “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.”

But what makes AirPods a great alternative to hearing aids?

$249 AirPods work just as good as $10k professional hearing aids
Apple AirPods.

Affordability and social stigma are two major problems with hearing aids that haunt most patients with hearing impairment. The researcher suggests that using AirPods and other such earphones as hearing aids could make these problems vanish.

For instance, the price of the premium ear machine used by the researchers during their study was $10,000 but AirPods Pro which delivered similar performance cost them just $249. Even at such a low price, the Apple earphones come equipped with four of the five technological features that govern the functions of a typical hearing aid.

Moreover, AirPods Pro is used as a mobile accessory or communication device by millions of people on a daily basis. Any patient using wireless earphones as a hearing aid is likely to feel more comfortable. No scope for any of the social stigma is left in that case. 

“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 (patients) will see an increase in quality of life even with these earbuds,” said Professor Cheng.

The study is published in the journal iScience.

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