Study: AirPods Pro are *this close* to being full-fledged headphones

Apple AirPod Pro
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Pro, with their noise-canceling and live listening features, perform quite well in tests with more traditional headphones.

jeff dunn

A study in iScience magazine suggests that, in some noise situations, AirPodsparticularly the Professional modelit can work just as well as much more expensive prescription-only models.

AirPods are not sold or approved by the Food and Drug Administration as devices for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. But with cheaper Over-the-counter hearing aids are now available at common retailers.there’s renewed interest in non-medical companies entering the space to help people who don’t need expert care, even from Apple.

Researchers from Taipei Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan’s National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University and others conducted what they believe is the first comparison of smartphone-oriented hearing aids with medically prescribed hearing aids. The study had a very small sample of 21 people between the ages of 26 and 60 and was conducted in a laboratory with a single sound source. Still, the results are intriguing, especially considering how many people already have access to iPhones, AirPods, and their audio-enhancing features.

The researchers tested AirPods with their Live listening function activated against five standards for a personal sound amplification product (PSAP) under ANSICT 2051-2017:

  • Smoothness of frequency response
  • Frequency response bandwidth (range)
  • Maximum Output Sound Pressure Level (OSPL) at 90 decibel input
  • Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
  • Equivalent input (or internal) noise level (EIN)

AirPods 2 only met two of the standards, Bandwidth and THD, whereas AirPods Pro it complied with all except EIN, registering sound pressure levels of 37 decibels (dB SPL), when the standard requires 32 or less. A study co-author told The Wall Street Journal that passing the EIN threshold could make it difficult for people to distinguish softer sounds and speech.

The AirPods were tested against a $1,500 Bernafon MD1 and a $10,000 OTICON Open 1. In quiet environments, AirPods Pro helped people hear as well as Bernafon and almost as well as OTICON. The AirPods 2 performed the worst, but still helped people hear a human voice better than not wearing any devices.

In a noisier environment, the AirPods Pro’s active noise cancellation brought their performance within the range of the OTICON device, but only if the noises were coming from the sides (as you would expect from headphones). Neither AirPod worked very well when the noise was coming from the front while trying to listen elsewhere.

The report fails to mention a couple of distinctions between AirPods and more typical headphones. One is battery life, as the Bluetooth-based AirPods use an iPhone connection to listen to ambient sounds and prioritize size over longevity. Another is repairability, another low or no priority for the AirPods line.

Apple has long welcomed hearing aids for pairing with iPhones, giving them a variety of features and controls on their Made for iPhone (MFi) Program. It has also pushed the assistive listening features of its own audio hardware with Live Listen and conversation boost (which, studio-related, improves the microphone’s pickup of the people in front of you). A 2021 Wall Street Journal report suggested that Apple was considering positioning of AirPods as hearing devicessomething that is more feasible with the recent change from over the counter to hearing aid regulations.

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