Now that OTC, or over the counter, hearing aids are available in the US I decided to revisit my auditory challenge. Technically, I was reminded to revisit it. My wife knows I have trouble hearing her at times. She also prefers not to watch television with me because I constantly ask her to boost the volume. So I did some research and ultimately?
I didn’t buy an OTC hearing aid. Instead, I opted for the $249 second generation Apple AirPods Pro and their “hearable” magic.
Before I continue, a few disclosures are in order. I am not an audiologist, nor do I play one on the internet. I have not visited an audiologist, although I foresee doing so in the coming years. If you have, or think you have, hearing loss, you should consider visiting a trained professional.
With that out of the way, let’s get back to modern hearables!
This isn’t my first foray into this world. In 2020, I bought a set of Nuheara IQ Buds Max earbuds. Like the Apple AirPods Pro, the Nuheara product isn’t FDA classified as a hearing aid. Instead, these are PSAPs, or personal sound amplification products. Although they helped improve my hearing, I eventually stopped using the Nuheara’s. The main issue was unexpected, ear-splitting feedback at times, particularly when charging.
So, are the Apple AirPods Pro a better choice? For me, so far, yes. I’ve only had a handful of minor feedback issues and none of them were as jarring as what I used to experience. I also have many more controls to fine tune my sound based on different scenarios.
That’s likely due to more modern technology in Apple’s newer product.
For example, the custom Apple H2 headphone chip, samples external sounds 48,000 times per second (compared to 700 times per second for Phonak’s certified hearing aids) and supports Bluetooth 5.3. This second generation hearable also improves upon the first version by adding sound augmentation for media playback; a feature not available in the original model when tested. And the sound processing, all done lightning fast locally on the earbuds, is customized for my mild to moderate hearing loss.
Using a third-party hearing test app, I was able to upload my audiogram to my iPhone and have the sound tailored based on my test results.
I used the Mimi hearing test app for my testing and audiogram, with these initial results:
The Mimi app shows how much hearing loss I’ve experienced and at which frequencies. In my case, the upper frequencies are a challenge. Since my wife doesn’t have a low-range voice like Morgan Freeman, that explains why I often struggle to hear her.
Armed with my audiogram, I shared it with my iPhone and then hit the Accessibility settings in iOS. There’s an entire section here for the AirPods Pro that’s chock full o’ options and features:
- Headphone accommodations: Here’s where you tune incoming sound with your audiogram, or you can choose from Balanced Tone, Vocal Range, and Brightness. There are also three levels of soft sound boost.
- Transparency Mode: Options here include external sound amplification and tone levels between darker and brighter; these essentially boost bass and treble frequencies respectively. You can also enable, disable and control the level of ambient noise reduction for this mode.
- Conversation Boost: This optional feature boosts speech specifically from the person you’re facing when wearing AirPods Pro; I wish I had this ability at the crowded Consumer Electronics Show a few weeks ago.
Note that these photos are from my iPad, rather than my iPhone, to show more information with fewer images:
While the AirPods Pro earbuds aren’t certified hearing aids, I am definitely hearing much better. Over the course of five hours one night, for example, I heard every word in a conversation with my wife and son. That never happens. And I watched television with my son with the soundbar volume set lower than my wife usually has it at. That was game changing, with all dialogue sounding crisp and loud enough.
The in-ear design Apple uses almost put me off because I don’t like things in my ear canal. However, they surprisingly fit well right out of the box with the small sized rubber ear-cups. Apple includes several more sizes in the box. And I can wear them comfortably for a full five hours. I didn’t think that would be possible.
I noted that the experience was five hours long because that’s when generally AirPods signal a low battery. Given that people who need hearing aids wear them continuously over the course of a day, this could be a drawback. However, the wireless rechargeable AirPods Pro case, with UWB radio to find lost earbuds, adds five more full charges. So I wear mine as needed: When I’m chatting with my wife or watching content. When she’s in her office and I’m working in another room, I simply put the AirPods in their charging case.
I did quite a bit of research on potential hearables and certified hearing aids. I considered the $799 Jabra Enhance Plusmore the latest $1,299 Sony CRE-E10 earbuds, which are OTC hearing aids. I also nearly pulled the trigger on Eargo’s $2,950 product, which is currently enjoying a $350 sale. However, after watching this video of an audiologist testing the original AirPods Pro product and reading this more recent article on the hearing enhancement featuresI spent far less with good results so for.
All in all, I’m impressed with how the AirPods Pro earbuds work for me and my specific hearing impairment. The first few times I heard everything in a conversation, I had a smile on my face that even my wife noticed. Everyone is different, of course. After a certain hearing loss level, I’m sure I’ll need certified hearing aids. For now, I think I’m covered for the next handful of years with Apple’s latest smart hearable.