A disproportionate number of people with hearing loss don’t have hearing aids. Cost is the major factor that prevents people from getting help when their hearing degrades. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if relatively inexpensive earbuds could could fill the need? A set of AirPods Pro costs $249, which is quite rich compared to most personal earbuds, but a pittance when the alternatives are hearing aids that average $5,000 per pair. Even the least expensive conventional hearing aids can cost $1,500, so the AirPods Pro remain a relative bargain.

Researchers from National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, and National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University recently tested whether Apple AirPod and AirPod Pro earbuds could meet meet the same electroacoustic criteria as hearing aids. They also investigated whether AirPods and AirPods Pro earbuds could help people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss hear speech in natural settings. The team published the results of the study in iScience.

The team found that AirPods Pro did indeed meet most of the hearing aid electroacoustic standards and helped the study participants compensate for their hearing loss. The hearing device study tested the electroacoustic features of AirPods and AirPods Pro to see how they met five ANSI/CTA-2051 performance standards for personal sound amplification products (PSAPs). The test subjects consisted of 21 adults with an average age 42.9. The participants had mild-to-moderate hearing loss and no previous experience with hearing aids. The researchers tested the subjects with basic and premium hearing aids as well as the AirPods and AirPods Pro.

The study results were mixed, but show promise. The AirPods met two of the five and the AirPods Pro succeeded with four out of five PSAP standards. The AirPods didn’t perform as well as conventional hearing aids, but the AirPods Pro were the approximate equivalent of the tested hearing aids. In quiet environments the AirPods Pro assisted subjects’ hearing loss about as well the same as the hearing aids. With background noise added to the mix, however, the premium hearing aids scored significantly better than the basic hearing aids, the AirPods, and AirPods Pro. One interesting note, however, is that the AirPods Pro worked as well as the premium hearing aids when noises came from the side, but were not as effective with speech and noise in front of the wearers.

Next steps for the Taiwanese researchers include tests with larger subject groups and additional PSAPs. The AirPods and AirPods Pro may not compete with basic or premium hearing aids on all levels, but they can help people with unassisted hearing loss. We look forward to see more tested studies of the potential for personal hearing devices helping with hearing loss. Just as your smartphone camera is probably as good or better than any 35 mm camera you owned, we may soon find that inexpensive earbuds can be as good as or even better than dedicated hearables.