The line between hearing aids and hearables has blurred ever since over-the-counter hearing aids hit shelves last month. Case in point: a new iScience study that claims a $249 pair of AirPods Pro can sometimes perform as well as prescription hearing aids that often cost thousands more. But while AirPods may seem like an affordable hearing aid alternative, it’s not quite that simple.
Researchers recruited 21 participants in the study to test how well second-gen AirPods and AirPods Pro performed compared to a premium hearing aid costing $10,000 and a basic aid costing $1,500. The participants were asked to repeat verbatim 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 slightly worse than the premium hearing aids. The second-gen AirPods performed the worst of the four devices but were better than nothing.
On the one hand, the study’s results are encouraging from a cost perspective. AirPods are significantly cheaper than hearing aids. Prescription hearing aids cost an average of $2,300 per ear, and the devices aren’t covered by Medicare. And although roughly 30 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids, most don’t wear one due to stigma, cost, and the lengthy process to acquire them. Comparatively, OTC hearing aids can range between $99 to $1,000 for a pair and don’t require a doctor’s visit. That’s an improvement, but AirPods Pro are also inexpensive and easy to buy, and no one would blink twice if you wore them on the street.
Apple’s AirPods come with a few hearing-related accessibility features, including Live Listen and Conversation Boost. The former lets users 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 quite effective. However, that doesn’t make them adequate hearing aid replacements — especially for people with more advanced hearing loss.
According to the study’s authors, the AirPods Pro are more like personal sound amplification products (PSAPs). PSAPs are much more affordable than hearing aids but can’t be customized to match a person’s unique hearing loss. Instead, they amplify all sounds. They’re also intended for people with normal hearing who want a bit of a boost. For example, hunters and birdwatchers who are listening for small, faint sounds. Lastly, PSAPs aren’t regulated by the FDA and may not meet the same requirements for maximum sound output or quality as hearing aids.
The AirPods Pro are more like personal sound amplification products (PSAPs)
“This particular study focuses on technical measurements, but the whole hearing aid wearer experience is a bit more complex,” says Blake Cadwell, co-founder and CEO of Soundly, a website that helps consumers compare OTC and prescription hearing aids. One example, Cadwell says, is that in the study, AirPods Pro weren’t as effective at helping users hear sounds in front of them in noisy environments. “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 wear as in-ear hearing aids, Cadwell went on to explain. And although AirPods won’t turn heads, they may be too conspicuous for certain occasions, like dinner parties or business meetings.
The bottom line is that AirPods Pro can be a helpful hearing tool in a pinch, but consumers shouldn’t conflate them with hearing aids — over the counter or otherwise.
An increasing number of headphone makers are getting into the OTC hearing aid game. Bose released its SoundControl hearing aids in 2021, though it has since stopped producing them in-house. (Its tech is, however, still used in Lexie B2 hearing aids.) Sony also recently launched two OTC hearing aids. Meanwhile, tech companies, including Apple and Samsung, continue to innovate hearing tech that function similarly to hearing aids and PSAPs. While opening up the market is good for innovation, it does mean folks new to hearing aids may be overwhelmed with choices.
On that front, Cadwell says he’s not too worried about AirPods. “In general, there is little doubt that AirPods can compete on certain technical aspects, but in the real world, there are very few consumers that actually use AirPods for hearing amplification.”
“What does concern me is the class of devices that look more like hearing aids with invisible styles or tubes that reach into the ear,” Cadwell says, referring to PSAPs. “These devices appeal to folks who are looking for all-day support but don’t deliver on quality.”
Update, November 21st, 2022, 3:45 PM ET: Clarified Cadwell’s description of the study’s results and noted that he is co-founder of Soundly.