Apple AirPods could help you hear better

Apple AirPods could help you hear better

A pair of $249

Apple Inc.

headphones might help some people hear almost as well as hearing aids which cost several times more.

A study published Tuesday in the journal iScience found that a sound-boosting feature on Apple’s AirPods Pro helped adults with mild to moderate hearing loss hear speech nearly as well as two prescription hearing aids. The study compared two types of Apple headphones to two hearing aids other companies.

“They won’t replace hearing aids, but it’s a good way for people to find out what the world would be like if they could get some help, some improvement in their hearing,” said Yen-Fu Cheng, ear, nose and throat specialist. at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan, who co-authored the study.

Apple’s $129 AirPods 2 have not been found to provide adequate relief from hearing loss, Dr. Cheng and colleagues found.

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Millions of people in the United States suffer from hearing loss, but only a fraction use hearing aids, which can cost thousands of dollars per pair and are usually not covered by insurance. In adults aged 69 and under, only about one in six people who could benefit from the devices have used them, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

In the new study, the AirPods Pro did not meet Food and Drug Administration standards for hearing aids. But they amplified sound as well as some less advanced devices that help people hear better, the researchers said.

Apple said it didn’t advertise AirPods as hearing aids, but added some features to help the hearing impaired. One feature, Live Listen, allows AirPods users to use another Apple device such as an iPhone or iPad to help eliminate background noise and hear conversations better, Apple said. Users can also download hearing test results to customize the sound on their iPhones, AirPods and other devices.

Since October, the FDA has authorized certain hearing aids be sold without a prescription for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. The FDA has estimated that the average cost of hearing aids could be lowered to $3,000 a pair thanks to the new rule. More companies could work on better and cheaper products that help people hear better, said Charles Limb, professor and chief of otology at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Hearing aid technology is not that sophisticated,” said Dr. Limb, who was not involved in the recent study. “These companies that make products that can make things good for entertainment purposes might start to draw their attention to those needs.”

As part of the study, 21 adults with mild to moderate hearing loss underwent hearing tests while wearing Apple AirPods with Live Listen enabled. Participants also took the test wearing a basic pair of hearing aids and a premium set. The researchers said users reported the best experience with the high-end hearing aid, a $10,000 model. But the AirPods Pro worked almost as well as the hearing aids. The AirPods 2 performed worse, the researchers said.

In a sound and clarity test used to gauge the performance of some hearing aids, the AirPods Pro met the set standards in four out of five categories, while the AirPods 2 met the standards for two. The AirPods Pro exceeded the ideal threshold for internal noise levels, which could make it harder for users to distinguish softer sounds and speech, said study co-author Ying-Hui Lai, Professor Associate of Biomedical Engineering at the National Yang Ming Chiao Tung in Taiwan. University.

“There is still a long way to go before these devices can be used as over-the-counter hearing aids,” Dr. Lai said.

Using headphones such as the AirPods Pro as hearing aids won’t suit all patients, but they might encourage some to find a more permanent solution to hearing loss, Dr. Limb said.

“A number of patients before this study told me that they already used their AirPods as quick and dirty hearing aids. It seems to work very well,” Dr. Limb said.

Limitations of using AirPods to improve hearing include battery life, hearing loss experts have said. Hearing aids and other hearing aids use internal microphones to pick up environmental sounds, unlike AirPods which require a phone or other device to do so, said Michele DiStefano, director of the Shelley and Steven Einhorn Audiology Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York.

“For AirPods, only where you point your phone’s microphone will be picked up,” Dr. DiStefano said.

Write to Dominique Mosbergen at dominique.mosbergen@wsj.com

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