Apple AirPods Pro 2: Improved Hearing Aid Functionality
Last week, Apple hosted an event to launch all of its latest hardware—new iPhones, new Apple Watches, and the long-awaited next generation of Apple’s industry-leading wireless earbuds, AirPods Pro 2. But the big news for people with hearing loss was the announcement that AirPods Pro 2 now offer better sound quality, more battery power, and noise cancellation for very loud sounds like sirens. Sadly, Apple made no mention of Bluetooth LE Audio or Auracast technologies that offer to revolutionize accessibility in public spaces.
Take a quick look at a HearingTracker Audiologist Matthew Allsop’s YouTube short, “Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation Hearing Aid Hack” that highlights all the new hearing enhancement features.
Improvements in sound quality, battery life, and noise cancellation
AirPods are the most popular wireless earbuds in the world, so they’re closely monitored by the business press. There was A LOT of speculation—and even some concern from stakeholders in the traditional hearing aid industry—that Apple AirPods Pro 2 would incorporate more hearing aid features. Apart from improved sound quality, battery life, and loud noise suppression, this did not come to pass. Predictions that AirPods 2 would incorporate new “healthable” features—like heart rate monitors and core body temperature sensors—also appear to be wrong.
Top features affecting hearing aid-like functionality updated in the Apple AirPods Pro 2 are Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), improved battery life, and Adaptive Transparency. Source: Apple
In a press release Apple said that AirPods Pro 2 “offer richer bass and crystal-clear sound across a wider range of frequencies” thanks to a “new low-distortion audio driver and custom amplifier.” Substantial improvements in sound quality could mean improvements in speech clarity for those attempting to use AirPods Pro 2 as hearing aids. And Apple’s new H2 chip—which replaces the H1 chip found in the original AirPods Pro—delivers twice as much Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) with the help of optimally-placed microphones and acoustic vents.
Importantly, AirPods Pro 2 provide 1.5 hours of additional battery life—or up to 6 hours total on a single charge with ANC active. This represents a 33% improvement when compared to the 1st gen AirPods Pro. While this may sound sufficient for the uninitiated, most hearing aid users will know that it is anything but; rechargeable hearing aids typically last 16-24 hours on a single charge, and all-day use is a must if you hope to truly adapt to an amplified world. And with AirPods Pro, if you’re using a lot of high-drain features like Transparency Mode, you would expect less than 6 hours of operating time.
AirPods Pro 2 provide up to 6 hours total on a single charge with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) active, representing a 33% improvement over the previous version. Source: Apple
Adaptive Transparency reduces very loud noise
The new Adaptive Transparency feature offers better listening comfort and protects against sudden, intense noises. This is a feature most advanced hearing aids possess. According to Apple Senior Engineer Mary-Ann Rau, this will dynamically reduce environmental noise—like sirens, construction jackhammers, or even loudspeakers at a concert—for more comfortable everyday listening, with the sound being analyzed at 48,000 times per second to react instantaneously to any loud noise.
Apple is still focused on Conversation Boost
Conversation Boost is designed to use computational audio and beamforming microphones to help the wearer focus on the voice of the person in front of them and stay more connected in conversations in noisy environments. A recent study from the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) in Australia showed that Conversation Boost with Ambient Noise Reduction (ANR) is comparable to hearing aids with conventional directional microphones that provide 3-6 dB SNR improvement.
These features, as well as Adaptive Transparency, work best when there is a more snug (closed) fit on the earbuds. That’s why four sizes of eartips, including a new extra-small size, are offered to provide a better acoustic seal and control of sound inside the ear canal, preventing frequencies from “leaking” out of the ear.
With the addition of an extra-small eartip, the Apple AirPods Pro 2 earbuds now come with a total of four eartip size options for a snug acoustical fit. Source: Apple
A new mic for Live Listen?
The new charging case for AirPods Pro 2 sports a speaker that will provide Find My, pairing, and low-battery tones. Mysteriously, Apple did not mention the function of the single port on the left-hand side of the case. Some in the hearing industry are speculating, and hoping, that the mic might serve as a new audio source for Live Listen, which currently allows users to stream audio from their iPhone mic to their AirPods. “Remote microphones” are extremely powerful tools that allow people with hearing loss to better hear distant speech or speech in heavy background noise.
The new case might sport a microphone for Live Listen. Source: Apple
No lossless audio, and no mention of Bluetooth LE Audio or Auracast
Apple made no mention of support for lossless audio in their launch event or press release. Implementing lossless audio would allow the new earbuds to reproduce streamed music bit-for-bit the same as the original audio file, resulting in extremely high-quality sound. As Apple Music currently offers lossless audio, it’s possible AirPods Pro 2 may offer it via its Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) codec at a future date.
And while Airpods Pro 2 use Bluetooth 5.3 wireless technology, there was no mention of Auracast, a Bluetooth Low-Energy (LE) Audio technology released in June that is expected to become the “next generation” assistive listening technology. The Auracast platform will enable an audio transmitter, such as a smartphone, laptop, television, or public address (PA) system, to broadcast audio to an unlimited number of nearby Bluetooth audio receivers—including hearing aids, earbuds, and similar Auracast-enabled devices.
Although Bluetooth is becoming prevalent in hearing aids and Auracast could ultimately replace the venerable telecoil, we anticipate the telecoil will coexist with Auracast for many years to come. As with lossless audio, Apple could be planning to announce Auracast compatibility at a future date.
One of the best “OTC hearing aids”—even if they don’t call it that—just got even better
If you’re unfamiliar with the idea using AirPods Pro as hearing aids, then check out the video below. The key step is uploading a hearing test to Apple Health (or taking a hearing test on your iPhone), which allows your AirPods to compensate for your unique hearing loss while in Transparency Mode. Even without taking the test, it is still possible to use Transparency Mode and Conversation Boost to receive less custom-tailored amplification and speech enhancement.
HearingTracker Audiologist Matthew Allsop explains how to use Apple AirPods Pro earbuds as hearing aids. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.
Could Apple AirPods Pro 2 Earbuds Become OTC Hearing Aids?
Apple could submit an application to the FDA for its Airpods Pro 2 to be classified as an over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid, but this seems unlikely to happen. Certainly, the new Airpods Pro 2 and its predecessor have all the attributes expected in high-quality OTC hearing aids, including:
- Personalized audio processing, based on a hearing test, that compensates for milder forms of hearing loss;
- Directional microphones and speech enhancement algorithms for better hearing in noise and listening comfort;
- Bluetooth streaming and connectivity,
- Rechargeability, and
- An in-the-ear form factor with both manual and app-based volume controls.
Apple has made no recommendations for the use of AirPods as hearing aids, and—like personal sound amplification product (PSAP) manufacturers—the company’s marketing is devoid of the words “hearing loss” or “hearing aids.” Instead, it promotes accessibility with “powerful software features designed for people with mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive disabilities”, “mild hearing challenges”, and other supporting features for “neurodiversity.”
Apple announced Conversation Boost at the 2021 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Senior Engineering Program Manager (Siri), Gagan Gupta was careful to use the phrase "hearing challenges" in place of "hearing loss". Source: CNBC
This suggests Airpods Pro 2 earbuds will continue to focus on core music listening and richer audio experiences, while not being restricted in product development by having to adhere to OTC hearing aid regulations set by the FDA. It also strongly suggests that Apple doesn’t view hearing aid functionality as a “make-or-break” feature for selling AirPods.
The best hearing aid alternative on the market?
Despite the limited battery life, the first-generation Apple AirPods Pro were one of the best hearing-enhancement hearables on the market. Considering the improvements in battery life, noise cancellation, and sound quality, AirPods Pro 2 are definitely on the short list of next-generation contenders. And if Apple adds LE Audio / Auracast compatibility in a firmware upgrade, AirPods Pro 2 will likely solidify a long-term position as a market leader.
HearingTracker has published detailed instructions on how to set up and use AirPods Pro earbuds as hearing aids. But there are several obvious downsides when compared to professionally-fit hearing aids. The most notable is getting only a few hours of use-time with the earbuds. Additionally, our own testing showed that AirPods Pro did a relatively poor job of providing adequate personalized amplification based on the individual’s hearing test results. Finally, using the conspicuous white earbuds in everyday situations might lead people to think you’re not engaged enough to provide your full attention!
However, AirPods Pro 2 should continue to provide a good situational boost in hearing for people with milder forms of hearing loss, or even people with normal hearing who just need a little help in background noise. And, due to their popularity and prevalence, accessibility is a huge factor; many people who could benefit from AirPod’s amplification need only step through the setup process to start hearing better. And they can move on to OTC or medical-model hearing aids if and when they are ready.
There could also be some new hidden gems in the new Apple AirPods Pro that will be revealed with time, and HearingTracker plans to investigate all the possibilities. Stay tuned!
The editor thanks HearingTracker’s Abram Bailey for his comments and contributions to this article.