February 8, 2023

Money News PH

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AirPods Pro can help you hear better, but they’re not hearing aids

The line between hearing aids and hearing aids has been blurring since over-the-counter hearing aids hit store shelves last month. Case in point: A new iScience study that claims a pair of $249 AirPods Pro sometimes works just as well as prescription hearing aids, which often cost thousands more. But while AirPods might seem like an affordable hearing aid alternative, it’s not quite that simple.

Researchers recruited 21 participants in the study to test how well the second-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro compare to a premium hearing aid that costs $10,000 and a base unit that costs $1,500 . Participants were asked to repeat verbatim short sentences that were read to them while wearing each device. The AirPods Pro proved to be comparable to basic hearing aids in quiet environments and only slightly worse than the premium hearing aids. The second-gen AirPods performed the worst of the four devices, but they were better than nothing.

On the one hand, the results of the study are encouraging from a cost perspective. AirPods are significantly cheaper than hearing aids. Prescription hearing aids average $2,300 per ear, and the devices are not covered by Medicare. And while some 30 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids, most don’t wear them due to stigma, cost and the lengthy process of acquiring them. In comparison, OTC hearing aids can cost anywhere from $99 to $1,000 for a pair and don’t require a doctor’s visit. That’s an improvement, but AirPods Pro are also cheap and easy to buy, and nobody would blink twice if you were to wear them on the street.

Apple’s AirPods come with some 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 an adequate replacement hearing aid – especially for people with advanced hearing loss.

According to the study authors, the AirPods Pro are more like Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs). PSAPs are much less expensive than hearing aids, but cannot be customized for a person’s individual hearing loss. Instead, they amplify all sounds. They are also designed for people with normal hearing who want a little boost. For example, hunters and bird watchers listening for small, faint sounds. Finally, PSAPs are not regulated by the FDA and may not meet the same maximum sound output or quality requirements as hearing aids.

The AirPods Pro are more like Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs)

“This particular study focuses on technical measurements, but the overall hearing aid wearer experience is a bit more complex,” said Blake Cadwell, founder and CEO of Soundly, a website that helps consumers compare OTC and prescription hearing aids. “For example, the study suggests that AirPods don’t pick up sound in front of the wearer. In reality, most people need to hear the voices in front of them the most.”

AirPods also may not be as comfortable for all-day use as in-ear hearing aids, Cadwell explained. And while AirPods don’t turn heads, they can be too flashy for certain occasions, like dinner parties or business meetings.

The bottom line is that AirPods Pro can be a helpful hearing aid in an emergency, but consumers shouldn’t confuse them with hearing aids — over-the-counter or otherwise.

Small hearing aids held in an outstretched hand.

Sony is an example of a headphone manufacturer that also sells FDA-approved OTC hearing aids. Image: Sony Electronics

More and more headphone manufacturers are getting into the OTC hearing aid game. Bose launched its SoundControl hearing aids in 2021, but hasn’t produced them in-house since then. (However, its technology is still used in Lexie B2 hearing aids.) Sony also recently launched two OTC hearing aids. Meanwhile, tech companies, including Apple and Samsung, continue to develop innovative hearing technologies that work in a similar way to hearing aids and PSAPs. While opening up the market is good for innovation, it means hearing aid newbies may be overwhelmed with choices.

On that front, Cadwell says he’s not overly concerned about AirPods. “In general, there’s little doubt that AirPods can compete in certain technical aspects, but in the real world, there are very few consumers who 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,” says Cadwell, referring to PSAPs. “These devices appeal to people who are looking for all-day support but don’t deliver quality.”