AirPods, the popular wireless earbuds from Apple, include a feature known as Live Listen. This functionality increases accessibility for people with hearing problems. Live Listen is designed to drown out background noise and amplify sounds, which would help those with mild hearing loss, but isn’t meant to replace hearing aids completely. 

Key takeaways:

  • While the Live Listen feature on AirPods can amplify hearing for those with mild hearing loss, the device isn’t meant to replace hearing aids, especially in cases of severe hearing impairment.

  • You can turn on the Live Listen capabilities by going into your Apple device’s Control Center (step-by-step directions below).

Potential benefits of AirPods for those with mild hearing loss

Live Listen’s functionality can be a valuable tool for people with mild hearing loss. The feature turns your Apple device (iPhone or iPad) into a directional microphone. The device sends voices and sounds directly to your AirPods, which helps you hear speech better. AirPods’ Live Listen feature is especially useful for listening to conversations across rooms and in noisy environments where there’s lots of background noise or chatter from groups of people. 

AirPods are not a good solution for people with more severe hearing impairment

Hearing aids and cochlear implants are both designed specifically to help people with hearing loss. For people with more severe hearing impairments, AirPods are not a great solution because they don’t have the same audio technology. Hearing aids are also tailored to a person’s specific ear and impairment, which isn’t the case for AirPods. AirPods were designed with the primary intent to help people privately listen to sounds from electronic devices. While you can certainly try AirPods out, if you’re struggling with hearing, you should always consult with a healthcare provider to see what will help you best, based on your unique hearing needs.

Barriers to hearing aids and how AirPods could help

Fewer than 30% of adults over 70 who could benefit from using hearing aids use them. Their cost is a significant factor in accessibility. 

Hearing aids are expensive, and they aren’t covered by Medicare. Traditional hearing aids can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000.  As of 2022, you can also buy over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids for mild to moderate cases. The cost of over-the-counter hearing aids can vary between $200 to $1000. AirPods can be even cheaper, with prices ranging from $130 to $600. And you can often buy them used for cheaper. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the cost of an iPhone or iPad, which you would need for the Live Listen feature.

One other potential barrier may be lack of diagnosis—if you don’t know you have hearing loss, you may never visit the doctor for a confirmative diagnosis. Even if you don’t feel like your hearing loss is affecting your day-to-day life, we recommend discussing any hearing issue with your doctor during your free Medicare Annual Wellness Visit.

AirPods as potential OTC hearing aids

With their relative affordability, more people are considering AirPods as an over-the-counter (OTC) alternative to conventional hearing aids. You might be wondering how both of them compare. A study published in iScience in December 2022 cites that the AirPods Pro’s speech recognition is similar to conventional hearing aids and may serve as a hearing assistive device for people with more mild hearing impairments. Researchers found that the only time AirPods didn’t perform as well as OTC hearing aids was in noisy settings.

How to set up Live Listen with AirPods for better hearing

If you have AirPods, we’ll show you how to set up Live Listen in this step-by-step guide. You can set up Live Listen with AirPods, AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, Powerbeats Pro, Beats Fit Pro, or Beats Studio Pro. Make sure that your iPhone and/or iPad device is fully updated—to IOS 14.3 or later.

1. Add Live Listen to Control Center: In iPhone settings, go to your Control Center and add the Hearing control. Tap Settings to save changes.

2. Connect Wireless Earbuds: Ensure your AirPods are connected to your iPhone via Bluetooth.

3. Access Control Center: Swipe down or up on your screen, depending on your iPhone model.

4. Activate Live Listen: Tap the hearing icon (it will look like an ear) and switch Live Listen from "Off" to "On."

5. Adjust Settings: Place your phone in front of the person or situation you want to hear and adjust the volume as needed.

Challenges with using AirPods as hearing aid

There are certain drawbacks to be aware of when considering AirPods as a hearing aid for mild hearing loss. While AirPods are less expensive than conventional hearing aids and some OTC hearing aids, they’re still relatively expensive, especially since you need to pair them with an iPhone or iPad for the Live Listen function. 

If you already have an iPhone or iPad, then AirPods could be convenient. Traditional hearing aids, however, work wherever and whenever you need them, and without a paired device. Both AirPods and pairable Apple also have battery lives that can deplete mid-conversation. 

Finally, people with hearing impairments who are less tech savvy may find it more difficult to use AirPods’ Live Listen feature.

The future of hearing technology

While AirPods cannot replace traditional hearing aids, their evolved Live Listen technology could support people with mild hearing loss. As Apple continues to refine AirPods and explore new advancements in hearing technology, the future holds possibilities for more inclusive every day auditory solutions.

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