The line between hearing aids and hearing aids has blurred since over-the-counter hearing aids hit shelves last month. Case in point: file iScience A study claims that 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 alternative to earphones, it’s not quite that simple.
Researchers recruited 21 study participants to test how well the second-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro performed compared to a $10,000 premium hearing aid and a $1,500 basic aid. Participants were asked to repeat short verbatim sentences that were read to them while wearing each device. It was found that AirPods Pro are comparable to basic hearing aids in quiet environments and slightly worse than premium hearing aids. The second-generation AirPods performed the worst of the four, but it was better than nothing.
On the other hand, the results of the study are encouraging from a cost perspective. AirPods are much cheaper than earphones. Prescription hearing aids cost an average of $2,300 per ear, and Medicare does not cover the devices. And although nearly 30 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids, most don’t wear them because of the stigma, cost, and lengthy process of obtaining them. Comparatively, over-the-counter hearing aids can range from $99 to $1,000 for a pair and don’t require a doctor’s visit. This is an improvement, however AirPods Pro too Inexpensive, easy to buy, and no one will blink twice if you wear them on the street.
Apple’s AirPods come with a few hearing-related accessibility features, including Live Listen and Conversational Enhancement. The former lets users amplify sounds, while the latter is a dedicated transparency mode that isolates sounds from background noise. As the study showed, these types of features can be very effective. However, this does not make them suitable replacements for hearing aids – especially for people with more advanced hearing loss.
According to the study authors, AirPods Pro are very similar to Personal Audio Amplification Products (PSAPs). PSAPs are more expensive than hearing aids but cannot be customized to a person’s unique hearing loss. Instead, they amplify all sounds. They are also intended for people with normal hearing who want a little boost. For example, hunters and bird watchers 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 similar to Personal Audio Amplification Products (PSAPs)
“This particular study focuses on technical measurements, but the entire hearing wearer experience is a bit more complex,” says Blake Cadwell, founder and CEO of Soundly, a website that helps consumers compare hearing aids to prescription hearing aids. “For example, the study suggests that the AirPods do not pick up the sounds in front of the wearer. In fact, most people need to hear the sounds in front of them the most.”
AirPods also may not be as comfortable to wear all day as in-ear hearing aids, Cadwell explained. And while the AirPods won’t catch the eye, they can be very conspicuous on certain occasions, like dinner parties or business meetings.
The bottom line is that AirPods Pro can be a useful hearing aid when necessary, but consumers shouldn’t confuse 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. (However, its technology is still used in Lexie B2 hearing aids.) Sony also recently launched two OTC hearing aids. Meanwhile, technology companies including Apple and Samsung continue to create hearing technology that works similarly to hearing aids and PSAP devices. While opening up the market is good for innovation, it also means that people who are new to hearing aids may be overwhelmed with choices.
On that front, Cadwell says he’s not too concerned about the AirPods. “Overall, there is no 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.”
“My concern is the category of devices that are more like hearing aids with patterns or invisible tubes that go into the ear,” says Cadwell, referring to PSAP devices. “These devices appeal to people looking for all-day support but not quality.”
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