It’s a great moment for this question—this month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to give the go-ahead for the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids, the first time Americans with hearing loss have access to the aid without a prescription. This also opens the door for tech companies to adapt their earbuds to FDA requirements and market them as hearing devices. Sony, for example, has said it has plans to manufacture over-the-counter hearing devices. Acoustics company Jabra already makes headphones with what it calls “medical” hearing improvement.
For people who already wear hearing aids, most newer aids come with Bluetooth compatibility, says Lindsey Creed, associate director of hearing practices for the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. This means that you can connect it to your audio source without any wires. Check with your audiologist or manufacturer to see if your hearing aids have Bluetooth technology and how to “pair” them with an audio source such as a mobile phone, computer, or MP3 player.
Coming Soon to a Phone Near You: A New Wave of Accessibility Tools
If your hearing aids do not have Bluetooth technology, the manufacturer may sell an adapter that acts as intermediaries between your phone and the hearing aid. In the absence of that, you can always use a pair of behind-the-ear, over-the-ear or in-ear headphones, audiologists tell me — just make sure you keep the volume around 50 percent to avoid further damage.
As to whether a good pair of earphones can replace the entire earpiece – depends, says Payal Anand, director of audiology at the University of California San Francisco.
“Ear buds can provide some amplification, but they will be limited in terms of how much amplification they provide and how well they are customized,” she said.
So-called hearing aids, or ear buds with improved hearing, can work great for people with mild hearing loss or problems in noisy environments, Anand said. She said Apple, Beats, Bose, and Panasonic are the brands whose patients have had the best luck with wireless earbuds with amplification or noise cancellation.
How to modify earphones to improve hearing
If you own a newer generation Apple or Beats headphones, Apple hardware allows you to adjust volume levels using an audiogram or audio test. The best results will come from a test administered by an audiologist, but at rock bottom, an audiogram app can estimate your levels of hearing loss. I used the Mimi Hearing Test app to measure the highs and lows that I could hear at a different volume. Then I shared my results with the Apple Health app. Finally, I went to Settings -> Accessibility -> Audio/Visual -> Headphone Equipment. I turned the green slider to on, then tapped Custom Audio Setup to tell the phone to use my unique sound scheme to adjust amplification, transparency, and tone levels, reduce ambient noise, and enhance conversation on my AirPods.
Your AirPod’s custom settings should remain the same even if you’re using the earbuds with your Android device.
To modify the sound settings on your Android phone, try to go to Settings -> Sounds and vibration -> Advanced sound settings -> Sound quality and effects -> Sound conditioning. Select your age and “preview” the audio to see if the adjustment is helpful. Go to Settings -> Accessibility -> Hearing improvements to turn on Hearing Aid Support to improve sound quality, adjust the balance between your left and right ears when using headphones or switch to mono audio (one ear only).
Remember: You can always see an audiologist for help ordering earphones or over-the-counter hearing aids.
Although earbuds with advanced features like fall detection and AI-assisted volume adjustment may soon be approved as over-the-counter hearing aids, they will likely still have limitations in terms of battery life and adjustability compared to standard hearing aids, to Anand . In short: It will be a cost-effective resource for people with mild to moderate hearing loss or who want an additional pair that is specialized for exercise or other specific use.
For example: Creed once had a 90-year-old patient bring in an old pair of hearing aids for some fine-tuning. She wrote a “bucket list” that includes skydiving, and didn’t want her latest hearing aid to fall at 10,000 feet.
“I’ve gone skydiving three or four times with my old hearing aids,” Creed said.
Hearing aids with great hearing improvement software are an exciting step toward improving the affordability and accessibility of hearing devices. (Only one in five people with a hearing loss gets the treatment they need, Creed points out, and some research has linked hearing loss to dementia.) But if you have moderate to severe hearing loss, don’t get rid of these. Just traditional aids.
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