Hands-Free Phone Calls Coming to Made For iPhone Hearing Aids

Hands-free calling and more available later this year

By Abram Bailey, AuD

In a press release from Apple’s newsroom today, Apple announced three exciting new accessibility features for iPhone users:

  1. Hands-free phone calls are coming to Made For iPhone (MFI) hearing aids
  2. Direct input of audiograms into Apple Health
  3. Background Sounds adds masking sounds for tinnitus sufferers

Hands-free phone calls

One of the big issues with MFI hearing aids is one-way audio streaming dilemma. Currently implemented Bluetooth technologies limit audio streaming from the phone to the hearing aids. This means your voice cannot be picked up by the hearing aids and sent back to the caller on the phone. Some hearing aid companies have gotten around this limitation by selling intermediary remote microphone accessories, but they come at a cost, and there is a certain inconvenience factor to carrying around (and speaking into) a remote mic.

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A woman uses an Oticon ConnectClip remote microphone to enable a hands-free call via her hearing aids. Photo courtesy Oticon.

In the press release, Apple states that hands-free calling will be available for next-generation hearing aid models later in 2021:

In a significant update to the MFi hearing devices program, Apple is adding support for new bi-directional hearing aids. The microphones in these new hearing aids enable those who are deaf or hard of hearing to have hands-free phone and FaceTime conversations. The next-generation models from MFi partners will be available later this year.

Apple is likely relying on the new Bluetooth 5.2 protocol, which adds 2-way streaming using the new low-energy LC3 Audio Codec. It is notable that some hearing aids already have Bluetooth 5.2 capabilities, so it is possible that some current models would be able to get the new hands-free functionality through a firmware upgrade.

If you can’t wait for hands-free calling over Bluetooth, be sure to check out Phonak’s new Paradise line of hearing aids. Or if you’re on a budget (and a Costco member), check out the latest Costco KS10 hearing aids.

Inputting audiograms into Apple Health

Did you know that Apple AirPods also function like hearing aids? They are not technically hearing aids, and are not registered with the FDA, but they can provide personalized amplification, within limits. Currently, the setup involves taking a quick hearing check using your iPhone through the Mimi or SonicCloud apps, but Apple is shaking things up again by allowing users to input their clinical audiograms directly into Apple Health. This means that it will be possible, for the first time, to use the results of a diagnostic hearing test to customize the amplification settings of your AirPods Pro.

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Apple reveals its new direct audiogram input feature for Apple Health and AirPods Pro customization

In the press release, Apple explains that it will now be possible to directly add audiograms:

Apple is also bringing support for recognizing audiograms — charts that show the results of a hearing test — to Headphone Accommodations. Users can quickly customize their audio with their latest hearing test results imported from a paper or PDF audiogram. Headphone Accommodations amplify soft sounds and adjust certain frequencies to suit a user’s hearing.

One thing remains unclear. Where Apple refers to “recognizing” audiograms, does this mean the user will merely snap a photo of their audiogram and have the iPhone convert it automatically to a serious of thresholds? Or will the user input their hearing test results one pitch at a time? On the screenshot above, Apple asks the user to “check the listed values” to “ensure accuracy”. Presumably this refers to the accuracy of the computer vision’s photo -> audiogram data conversion job!

Background Sounds for tinnitus

While Apple doesn’t specifically say anything about “tinnitus”, it’s clear that this new accessibility feature will be welcomed by the large community of people suffering from tinnitus:

Everyday sounds can be distracting, discomforting, or overwhelming, and in support of neurodiversity, Apple is introducing new background sounds to help minimize distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest. Balanced, bright, or dark noise, as well as ocean, rain, or stream sounds continuously play in the background to mask unwanted environmental or external noise, and the sounds mix into or duck under other audio and system sounds.

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Apple's new Background Sounds will offer sounds such as as ocean, rain, and stream sounds, help minimize distractions and help users focus, stay calm, or rest.

Coming later this year

It is my understanding that all of these new accessibility features will be coming later this year. We’ll be sure to cover the new features when they become available, so subscribe to our newsletter for updates.