Study: This is how close the AirPods Pro are to full-fledged hearing aids

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Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Pro, with their noise-cancelling and Live Hearing features, perform fairly well in tests compared to more traditional hearing aids.

jeff dunn

A study in the journal iScience suggests that AirPods, particularly the Pro model, can perform just as well as far more expensive prescription models in some noisy situations.

AirPods are not sold or approved by the Food and Drug Administration as devices for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. But with cheaper, over-the-counter hearing aids now available from regular retailers, there’s renewed interest in non-medical companies stepping into the space to help people who don’t need expert care — including from Apple itself.

Researchers from Taipei Veterans General Hospital, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taiwan and others conducted what they believe to be the first comparison of smartphone-focused headphones to medically prescribed hearing aids. The study had a very small sample size of 21 people between the ages of 26 and 60 and was conducted in a laboratory setting with a single sound source. Still, the results are intriguing, especially considering how many people already have access to iPhones, AirPods, and their audio-enhancing capabilities.

Researchers tested AirPods with the Live Listen feature enabled against five Personal Sound Amplification Product (PSAP) standards under ANSI CTA 2051-2017:

  • smoothness of the frequency response
  • Frequency Response Bandwidth (Range)
  • Maximum output sound pressure level (OSPL) at 90 decibels input
  • Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
  • Equivalent input (or internal) noise level (EIN)

AirPods 2 met only two of the standards, bandwidth and THD, while AirPods Pro met all but EIN and registered 37 decibels of sound pressure level (dB SPL) when the standard calls for 32 or less. A co-author on the study told The Wall Street Journal that crossing the EIN threshold might make it harder for people to distinguish quieter sounds and speech.

The AirPods were tested with a $1,500 Bernafon MD1 and a $10,000 OTICON Opn 1. The AirPods 2 performed the worst, but still helped people hear a human voice better than without a device.

In a noisier environment, the AirPods Pro’s active noise cancellation put their performance within range of the OTICON device, but only when the noise was coming from the sides (as you might expect for earbuds). Neither AirPods performed very well when there was noise coming from the front while trying to listen elsewhere.

Not mentioned in the report are some differences between AirPods and more typical hearing aids. One of them is battery life, as the Bluetooth-based AirPods use an iPhone connection to hear surrounding sounds and prioritize size over longevity. Another reason is repairability, another low or non-existent priority for the AirPods line.

Apple has long welcomed hearing aids that pair with iPhones, offering them a range of features and controls in its Made for iPhone (MFi) program. It’s also enhanced its own audio hardware’s listening assistance features with Live Listen and Conversation Boost (which, relevant to the study, improves microphone pickup of people in front of you). A 2021 Wall Street Journal report indicated that Apple is considering positioning AirPods as hearing aids, which is more viable with the recent change in over-the-counter hearing aid regulations.

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