The line between hearing aids and hearables has blurred since over-the-counter hearing aids hit the shelves last month. Example: a new one iScience study claiming that a pair of $249 AirPods Pro sometimes outperform prescription hearing aids that often cost thousands more. But while AirPods may seem like an affordable alternative to hearing aids, it’s not that simple.
Researchers recruited 21 study participants to test how well second-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro performed compared to a premium hearing aid costing $10,000 and a basic device costing $1,500. The participants were asked to literally repeat short sentences that were read to them while wearing each device. The AirPods Pro proved to be comparable to standard hearing aids in quiet environments and only slightly worse than the premium hearing aids. The second-generation AirPods performed the worst of the four devices, but were better than nothing.
On the one hand, the results of the study are encouraging from a cost point of view. AirPods are significantly cheaper than hearing aids. Prescription hearing aids cost an average of $2,300 per ear and the devices are not covered by Medicare. And while about 30 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids, most don’t wear them because of the stigma, cost, and lengthy process of purchasing them. By comparison, OTC hearing aids can range from $99 to $1,000 for a pair and don’t require a doctor’s visit. That’s an improvement, though AirPods Pro are, too cheap and easy to buy, and no one would blink twice if you wore them on the street.
Apple’s AirPods come with a number of 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 quite effective. However, that does not make them suitable hearing aid replacements, especially for people with more advanced hearing loss.
According to the study authors, the AirPods Pro are more like personal sound reinforcement products (PSAPs). PSAPs are much less expensive than hearing aids, but cannot be customized for an individual’s unique hearing loss. Instead, they amplify all sounds. They are also aimed at people with normal hearing who want a boost. For example, hunters and bird watchers who listen for small, vague 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.
The AirPods Pro are more like personal sound reinforcement products (PSAPs)
“This particular study focuses on technical measurements, but the whole 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. “The study suggests, for example, that AirPods don’t pick up sounds in front of the wearer. In reality, most people need to hear the voices in front of them most.”
AirPods may also not be as comfortable to wear all day as in-ear hearing aids, Cadwell explains. And while AirPods won’t turn heads, they may be too flashy for certain occasions, like dinner parties or business meetings.
The bottom line is that AirPods Pro can be a useful hearing aid in a pinch, but consumers shouldn’t confuse them with hearing aids — over-the-counter or otherwise.
An increasing number of headphone manufacturers are getting into the OTC hearing aid game. Bose launched its SoundControl hearing aids in 2021, but has since stopped producing them in-house. (However, the 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 innovate hearing technology that works similarly to hearing aids and PSAPs. While opening up the market is good for innovation, it does mean that people new to hearing aids can become overwhelmed with choices.
On that note, Cadwell says he’s not overly concerned 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 who actually use AirPods for hearing amplification.”
“What worries me is the class of devices that are more like hearing aids with invisible struts or tubes that extend into the ear,” says Cadwell, referring to PSAPs. “These devices appeal to people who seek support all day long, but don’t deliver quality.”