Can AirPods do the job of $10,000 hearing aids?

Can AirPods do the job of $10,000 hearing aids?
The inner sides of AirPods
The inner sides of AirPods
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The inner sides of AirPods
The inner sides of AirPods
AirPod in action
AirPod in action

Hearing loss is thought to affect as much as 15% of American adults, but hearing aids aren’t always easy to come by. A team of scientists exploring low-cost alternatives has turned to Apple’s AirPods as a potential solution, assessing them alongside conventional hearing aids to find they stack up surprisingly well.

Not only are hearing aids expensive, obtaining them usually involves a series of medical exams, a prescription from an audiologist and then follow-up visits to ensure they are properly tuned. US authorities have made moves to improve access to these devices, with the FDA recently establishing a new category for cheaper, over-the-counter hearing aids that meet certain requirements.

Researchers at Taipei Veterans General Hospital have also been exploring ways to improve the quality of life for sufferers of hearing loss. This led them to Apple’s AirPods, which since 2016 have carried a feature called “Live Listen" that enables mobile devices to act as microphones that relay enhanced sound to the user’s earbuds (or Beats headphones).

In their experiments, the researchers compared basic US$1,500 hearing aids, premium $10,000 hearing aids, AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro, the upmarket version of the earbuds with noise cancelling capabilities. The four devices were tested by 21 subjects with mild to moderate hearing loss, with the researchers reading out short sentences and asking the participants to repeat them verbatim.

The inner sides of AirPods
The inner sides of AirPods

The AirPods Pro performed comparably with the basic hearing aids in a quiet environment, and were slightly inferior to the premium hearing aids. The AirPods 2 didn’t perform as well, but did still help the subjects hear more clearly than they could without hearing aids. In a noisy environment, the AirPods Pro performed comparably to the premium hearing aids, but only when the noise came from a lateral direction. When the noise came from a front-on direction, they, along with the AirPods 2, failed to enhance the subjects’ hearing.

“Two reasons may account for the difference between the two scenarios,” says Ying-Hui Lai, the study’s co-author. “It may relate to the trajectories soundwaves travel with, as well as the advanced signal processing algorithm by premium hearing aids. This finding will hopefully inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions.”

With AirPods 2 retailing for US$129 and the AirPods Pros for $249, the earbuds are far cheaper options than conventional hearing aids, though they are not a suitable replacement for a hearing device prescribed by a medical professional, either. However, the scientists see their work as a proof of concept and believe further technological advances could see wireless earbuds play some sort of role in this area in the future.

“Globally, the wireless earphone market is growing rapidly," said Lai. "Some companies are interested in exploring the possibility of designing earbuds with sound amplification features. Our study proves that the idea is plausible,

The research was published in the journal iScience.

Source: Cell Press via EurekAlert

The fact that they perform nearly as well as $1500 hearing aids makes that $250 price for AirPods Pro a lot more tolerable.
Yeah, let's not mention you get about 4 hours of use with Airpods before you have to recharge - driving a car? Sorry! While hearing aids last for multiple days on a single set of batteries!
It also shows that the market for hearing aids is a highly profitable racket
I’m sure that if Apple’s engineering team was given the go ahead to design and produce hearing aids, they’d succeed with a product that would be as good as the $10,000 item currently on the market at a vastly lower price
I’ve used “Live Listen” with regular (non-pro) Airpods in a noisy bar/restaurant, with my spouse sitting across the table. While they helped a bit, they didn’t work all that well at filtering out ambient noise.

Hopefully smart processing can improve to the point where $250 or less ear bugs will do the job. Seems like, with mature smartphone technology - where the performance capability of the cpus has now outstripped demands on it - the opportunity is there.
No help with front-on sound? No deal. That alone kills the idea of this second use for AirPods.
Tried out $5000.00 hearing aids . Left ear has nerve damage so not much help. Right ear pretty good. With aids, sound of birds etc were picked up, but because of single ear hearing couldn’t tell where sound came from, so it just became annoying. I’m in the mid 70s and sort of enjoy the peace and quiet. Why she’ll out $5000.00 just b to be annoyed? I think a simple amplifier would work just as well.
The key is 'mild to moderate' hearing loss which translates to about 30 decibels. Many hearing impaired people have hearing losses of 75 to 85 to 95 decibels (severe to profound to legally deaf). They are worthless to most people with a hearing loss.
Interesting article. Over the last 12 months I have been exploring the differences between the rechargeable Phonak Marvel high end hearing aids and Australia's Nuheara ear buds.

The Marvels set of two aids cost around 20 times what the Nuheara buds go for.

I have quite severe hearing loss especially the high frequencies and as I live in a heavily female weighted environment unassisted hearing speech is very difficult. Both the Marvels and the Nuheara buds provide clear intelligible speech.

The Marvels have a much longer battery life ( almost 20 hours ) whereas the Nuheara buds last 4-5 hours but this is easily extended using the portable carry-charger case that offers several recharges without being plugged in.

Both have Bluetooth connectivity and work well with my Pixel7 Pro mobile phone.

Both deliver almost the same day to day hearing help for me.

The Marvels are almost invisible. The Nuheara's are highly visible

The Nuheara buds have excellent active noise cancellation and I really like their "world off" function that virtually cancels the outside world. They also have excellent directional noise cancellation and highly zoned speech reception making them very useful in restaurants, lectures etc.

If I've had a busy day and just want to listen to music or a book with no external input the Nuhearas are my first choice. The music is wonderfully rich when I use Spotify with both the Marvels and the Nuheara buds but being able to block out the "world" takes it to a different level.

Where the Phonak Marvels excell for me is comfort. I can wear the Marvels all day and I often forget I even have them in whereas the Nuheara buds become quite uncomfortable with extended use and they need to be positioned snugly so that they work well together.

Bottom line: If I could get the same ear comfort from the Nuheara buds as I do from the Phonak marvels I'd happily not rebuy the Marvels when they die.