The line between hearing aids and hearing aids has blurred since over-the-counter hearing aids hit shelves last month. Example: a new iScience study that claims a $249 pair of AirPods Pro can sometimes work just as well as prescription hearing aids that often cost thousands more. But while AirPods may seem like an affordable alternative to hearing aids, it’s not that simple.
Researchers recruited 21 study participants to test the performance of second-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro against a premium hearing aid costing $10,000 and a basic hearing aid costing $1,500. Participants were asked to verbatim repeat short sentences that were read to them while wearing each device. The AirPods Pro were found to be comparable to basic hearing aids in quiet environments and only marginally worse than premium hearing aids. The second-generation AirPods performed the worst of the four devices, but it was better than nothing.
On the one hand, the results of the study are encouraging from a cost point of view. AirPods are significantly cheaper than hearing aids. Prescription hearing aids cost an average of $2,300 per ear, and the devices are not covered by Medicare. And while about 30 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids, most don’t wear them because of the stigma, cost, and lengthy process of acquiring them. Comparatively, over-the-counter hearing aids can cost anywhere from $99 to $1,000 for a pair and don’t require a visit to the doctor. It’s an improvement, but AirPods Pro are also inexpensive and easy to buy, and no one would blink twice if you wore them down the street.
Apple’s AirPods come with a few hearing-related accessibility features, including Live Listen and Conversation Boost. The former allows users to amplify sounds, while the latter is a custom transparency mode that isolates voices from background noise. As the study shows, these types of features can be very effective. However, this does not make them adequate hearing aids, especially for people with more advanced hearing loss.
According to the study authors, the AirPods Pro are more like personal sound amplification products (PSAPs). PSAPs are much more affordable than hearing aids, but cannot be customized to match a person’s unique hearing loss. Instead, they amplify all sounds. They are also for people with normal hearing who want a little boost. For example, hunters and birdwatchers who listen for small faint sounds. Finally, PSAPs are not regulated by the FDA and may not meet the same requirements for maximum sound output or quality as hearing aids.
AirPods Pro are more like Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs)
“This particular study focuses on technical measurements, but the overall experience of the hearing aid wearer is a bit more complex,” says Blake Cadwell, founder and CEO of Soundly, a website that helps consumers compare hearing aids. over-the-counter and prescription hearing aids. “For example, the study suggests that AirPods don’t pick up sounds in front of the wearer. In fact, most people need to hear voices in front of them the most.
AirPods also may not be as comfortable to wear all day as in-ear hearing aids, Cadwell continued. And while AirPods won’t turn heads, they might be too noticeable for certain occasions, like dinner parties or business meetings.
The bottom line is that AirPods Pro can be a useful hearing aid in a pinch, but consumers shouldn’t confuse them with hearing aids — over-the-counter or otherwise.
A growing number of headphone manufacturers are getting into the OTC hearing aid game. Bose released its SoundControl hearing aids in 2021, although it has since stopped producing them in-house. (Its technology is still used in Lexie B2 hearing aids, however.) Sony also recently launched two OTC hearing aids. Meanwhile, tech companies, including Apple and Samsung, continue to innovate hearing technologies that work similarly to hearing aids and PSAPs. While market openness is good for innovation, it means new hearing aid users can be overwhelmed with choices.
On that front, Cadwell says he’s not too worried about the AirPods. “In general, there is no doubt that AirPods can compete on some technical aspects, but in the real world, very few consumers actually use AirPods for hearing amplification.”
“What concerns me is the class of devices that look more like hearing aids with invisible styles or tubes that go into the ear,” Cadwell says, referring to PSAPs. “These devices appeal to people who want all-day support but don’t deliver the quality.”
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