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Apple Airpods and hearing loss

Is Apple becoming more accessible? Apple have recently announced that their Live Listen feature that is available on their Made for iPhone hearing aids, will now be made available for their wireless Airpod earphones in their next software update. So what does this mean for people with hearing loss? Jesal Vishnuram, Technology Manager, tells us more.

Live Listen has been on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch since 2012 with the launch of the Made for iPhone (MFi) hearing aids. This allows the MFi hearing aid wearer to use their Apple device as a remote microphone, which wirelessly sends the sound to the hearing aids. This is very useful in background noise and group conversations to hear the speech more clearly over the noise by placing the device closer to the speaker.

Remote microphones

A remote microphone is a standalone microphone that can be placed anywhere, usually around someone’s neck or clipped onto their clothing, so that their speech can be heard more clearly due to the close proximity to the speaker’s mouth. This results in being able to hear speech more clearly in background noise, as the noise which is further away is picked up less.

Remote microphones for hearing aids have been around for a very long time. However, the ease of using a smartphone, something almost everyone now carries with them, means that you don’t need to carry lots of extra devices and it can be discreet for those who are not comfortable with telling people about their hearing difficulties.

So why has it taken so long for phone manufacturers to use the microphone on mobiles and smartphones? It is no easy task getting sound to travel from a remote microphone to a receiver such as hearing aids and headphones in real time with no distortion. Smartphone microphones have improved significantly as well as the processing power (time it takes to complete a task) of smartphones. This means that smartphones are now finally able to transmit clear sounds from their microphones into hearing aids and headphones in real time, resulting in a much more acceptable sound quality and experience.

Live Listen for Airpods

Previously, only hearing aids have been able to receive the sound from the Apple device’s microphones. However, with the new software update iOS 12 (currently in beta testing) coming out in autumn this year, the Apple Airpods (Apple’s wireless earphones), will also be able to receive the sound from the Live Listen microphone function.

The Live Listen software will also enable the user to adjust the sounds in pre-set environments, such as the restaurant setting, to make it more comfortable to hear speech in noisy places. This could prove to be very useful for people with normal hearing who struggle in noise. However, currently their processing capability doesn’t quite compare to that of hearing aids.

Using Airpods and Live Listen instead of hearing aids

Live Listen was designed to work with the MFi hearing aids. These are capable of personalising sound to someone’s hearing loss and personalising the sound to their needs through the assessment and fitting process, as well as ongoing adjustments if there are any further difficulties. The Airpods, in comparison, are much more basic and reliant on the software and pre-programmed sound settings in order to improve sound. While this is likely to be useful in noisy places, it is unlikely to be useful for people with hearing loss at this stage.

Airpods are also not designed to be used for long periods of time like hearing aids are, which makes them much more suitable for uses in short periods of time for specific situations, rather than all day like hearing aids. The volume or amplification of hearing aids is also set for the person wearing them. With Apple devices, the volume limits as a default are not set.

What’s in store for the future

Live Listen with the Apple Airpods is a huge step in mainstream technology, recognising the challenges being faced in an increasingly noisy world and with people likely to be experiencing hearing loss at a younger age due to noise damage. It also starts to bring new thinking in how technology can be used to help people struggling with their hearing. Although the current development is likely to only help people with normal hearing in noise, it may be possible for solutions like this to be further developed to help people with hearing loss.

Apple also has a huge global market where, unlike in the UK, hearing aids that are currently the far superior product to help people with hearing loss are not provided free of charge. Solutions such as this may be able to make it much more affordable for people to manage their hearing.

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