Health Tech

Apple wants to sell its AirPods as hearing aids

Experts say including sound amplification features in the wireless headphones could offer an alternative to the high cost and stigma of traditional hearing aids
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· 4 min read

After years of being scolded for the damage listening to loud music in Apple’s headphones does to your ears, AirPods might now, ironically, be one solution to help improve your hearing.

Apple is reportedly exploring turning AirPod Pros into hearing-aid devices, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The company launched “Conversation Boost”—a feature that increases the volume and clarity of the person speaking in front of the wearer—last week. This new capability is aimed at those who have minor hearing impairment, but it can be used by anyone.

An Apple a day

It’s not yet clear whether Apple plans to market Conversation Boost as a hearing aid or further develop hearing-assistance features. The company is expected to present its AirPods-as-health-devices pitch on Monday at the Apple Unleashed event.

The move is part of a larger effort to incorporate health and wellness components into its products. For instance, the Apple Watch can already detect heart rate and irregular heart rhythms, provide ECG readings, measure blood oxygen levels, and track sleep. And Apple is working on technology that would use iPhones to help diagnose mental health concerns like depression and cognitive decline.

The company is also working to enable AirPods to take the wearer’s temperature from the inner ear.

When it comes to regulation, the FDA is currently crafting new rules that would allow companies like Apple, Bose, and Samsung to sell over-the-counter hearing aids in order to increase competition and lower prices. Consumers could have access to these OTC options as soon as next summer.

Market reach

Hearing-aid technology has advanced significantly over the past few years. Today consumers can find hearing aids equipped with AI to help with processing sound in challenging environments like loud, crowded spaces. But they cost thousands of dollars and often are not covered by health insurance.

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Bose already has FDA approval to sell its SoundControl hearing aids. AirPod Pros have some similar functions with Conversation Boost and Headphone Accommodation—which allows you to customize your AirPod settings to amplify sounds you have trouble hearing—but as of now, Apple can’t legally call them hearing aid devices without going through the FDA.

“Once you’re amplifying the world around you based on your own hearing needs, that to me is where you kind of cross the line into something that’s acting like a hearing aid,” Abram Bailey, an Austin, Texas-based audiologist, told Emerging Tech Brew.

With hearing-enhancement features built into every pair of AirPods, people who weren’t even seeking treatment “might end up with a hearing loss solution just by way of buying a device that has other uses,” Bailey. “I think that may end up being a bigger impact than just changing the affordability.”

Apple is by far the biggest player in the Bluetooth headset market—its 2020 revenues from AirPods ($12.8 billion) were five times that of distant second Bose, per Strategy Analytics figures cited by the WSJ. Still, marketing AirPods as hearing aids could extend their reach.

About 430 million people across the globe require assistance to hear, according to the World Health Organization. That figure could grow to 700 million by 2050. Traditional hearing aids can be cost-prohibitive and carry some old-age stigma. By comparison, AirPods might seem more discreet and affordable, encouraging a greater number of people with moderate hearing loss to use an aid.

Fewer than one in five people with hearing loss in the US actually uses a hearing aid.

“Maybe companies like Apple will change the stigma part as well,” Bailey said.

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