PSA: Your AirPods Pro are Hearing Aids
(and don’t let a 1977 regulation tell you otherwise)
The first thing I should probably state is that, legally, my headline is misleading. Airpods Pro are not officially hearing aids, they are PSAPs: personal sound amplification products.
Technically, however, in every other way (factually, actually, affordably, gloriously) they aid in the act of hearing for those, like me––and perhaps you––with mild to moderate hearing loss. Which in my case is a not insignificant 40% loss of hearing in both ears, with my left ear slightly worse for the wear and also plagued with tinnitus ever since that bomb went off in my face in Afghanistan. So I’m gonna go ahead and call my AirPods Pro hearing aids because: a) I’m a writer, and I find overwrought descriptors such as “personal sound amplification product” both ridiculous and in need of an editor; and b) I’ve tried both the fancy $6000 official hearing aids and several PSAPs at much lower price points, and I prefer the $249 AirPod Pros1 over all of them.
First, let’s get the legal stuff out of the way. According to 1977 federal guidelines––which were obviously long overdue for an overhaul––“hearing aids” must be prescribed and fitted by a professional audiologist to be granted official hearing aid status. In 2017, Congress passed legislation, sponsored by Senators Warren and Grassley, that would allow anyone to buy FDA-approved hearing aids over-the-counter without a prescription by August of 2020. But then COVID hit, and ever since then the FDA has been understandably busy.
Bad timing, all of this, because the minute masks were donned, those of us with undiagnosed mild-to-moderate hearing loss suddenly realized our world had become radically diminished in more ways than one: we were both locked inside and locked in silence. “What?” I found myself saying, over and over again, every time a masked grocery store clerk, pharmacist, doctor, Covid tester, friend, or my own masked children opened their mouths to speak. “Can you please repeat that?” But repetition, alas, only produced more confusion.
Clearly I’d been reading lips for many years without realizing it.
Sure, I’d had hints of my own deteriorating hearing prior to COVID. Like my children shouting, “Mom, are you deaf? Did you just hear what I said?” (No, I had not. First clue.) Or, while sitting close to the stage in the orchestra section of a Broadway theater with a presumably excellent sound system, I had to cup both of my ears with my hands to hear the dialogue, while everyone else around me did not. (“Can you hear what they’re saying?” I whispered to my partner. “Yes,” he said. “You can’t?” Clue number two.) Meanwhile, I’ve found myself turning on the subtitles of every TV show I’ve ever watched for the past several years. I told myself this was because I didn’t want to miss important plot points, but really it was because without subtitles, I couldn’t understand a single word. (Third clue.)
So, at my grown children’s urging/nagging, off to the audiologist I went. Or, rather, I ended up going to two ENTs, both of whom had me tested by their in-house audiologists, who diagnosed me as moderately hearing impaired and in need of a hearing aid. Stat. The audiologist at the first ENT’s office––fancy address, Upper East Side, odd chandelier in the waiting room––prescribed a deluxe, $6000 bluetooth compatible, practically invisible BTE (behind the ear) hearing aid by Widex. I had a month to try them out and and return them, at full refund, if I didn’t like them.
Did they help me hear? Yes. Yes, they did. In fact, the sounds of the city outside that ENT’s office were suddenly overwhelming, an aural assault. I could hear private conversations from a block away. The squeals of unseen children on an unseen playground. A truck backing up, also somewhere out of my field of vision. Then, remarkably, the distinct tick-tock of my turn signal, which was nothing less than revelatory, insofar as it had never previously revealed itself.
But then, after calling my health insurance company, I found out they would only cover $2000 of that $6000. For a product, I’d been informed, that would need to be replaced approximately every two years. “Seriously?” I said. I’ve been told I speak too loudly in general––clue #4 of hearing loss––but I might have actually yelled this at the poor customer service representative who answered the phone: “Why are my ears any different from any other part of my body that fails?” This was followed by a far quieter: “Sorry, I know it’s not your fault that the American healthcare system is a fu%king joke.”
Was I surprised to learn that only 14% of Americans with hearing loss use hearing aids? No, I was not. Because oh my god, who can afford them?
Then there was the issue of comfort. Turns out that hiding a tiny invisible wire inside your ear canal feels like sticking a Q-tip in there, only with the soft, cotton Q part replaced by a tiny, stabby V. Being a human with hair was also a problem. Did they not test these things out on women and non-bald men with longer locks? I have to imagine they did not, because the mere brush of a single strand of my hair against the behind-the-ear receiver sounded not unlike a needle scratching an LP or one of those anxiety-producing noises they put in surround-sound action films when they want to shock you into sudden discomfort.
A week after donning them, I returned the $6000 hearing aids to my ENT’s office for a full refund, much to the scorn and bafflement of the audiologist. In fact, she seemed so put off by my refusal to pay an exorbitant fee for a product that, yes, worked, but I didn’t like because of comfort, price, and being a person with hair, I couldn’t help but wonder if the ENT’s office gets some sort of a kickback from the manufacturer.
ENT number two––cozy Brooklyn brownstone office, lovely guy, down-to-earth, with an equally down-to-earth audiologist––said forget the fancy hearing aids. The ones at Costco deliver the same bang for one-fifth of the buck. Okay, cool, I thought, but wait: I don’t belong to a Costco; my Brooklyn apartment has no pantry to store the bulk products they sell; and frankly even $1300 for a hearing aid seemed ridiculous, given that I was collecting unemployment.
So I went online, did some product sleuthing, and ordered a pair of $129 hearing aids with relatively good reviews from iBstone. These worked well enough and were comfortable-ish enough when they were inside my ear, but they had a disturbing, high-pitched feedback problem whenever I put them in or yanked them out, which would have been fine had I not had to remove them every time I needed to speak on the phone, as they were not bluetooth compatible. Next I tried the allegedly bluetooth-compatible, $299 Olive Pros, which I’d ordered from an Indigogo campaign with a really cool and convincing marketing video, but they would not pair with my iPhone no matter how hard I tried. When I alerted the manufacturer to the bluetooth pairing issue, they emailed back a trouble-shooting list of steps that, though I followed every one, did not work either.
A bummer, as I was hoping to use them to better hear the various zoom conversations for the Covid-era launch of my latest book about, among other things––oh, the irony––all the ways in which the U.S. healthcare industry does not actually serve, support, or protect our health.
Then, like manna from google-the-hell-out-of-the-problem heaven, I stumbled upon a youtube video by Dr. Cliff Olson, an audiologist and founder of Applied Hearing Solutions in Arizona, reviewing the AirPods Pro as...a hearing aid? What? Apparently Apple had quietly issued a press release in May of 2021, after their latest software update, which I had not heard about or read. But Dr. Olson clearly knew about this exciting news, and he was on it.
Because I wear earbuds many hours of the day anyway––phone, podcasts, meditation, radio, music––and they are comfortable enough in my ears that I sometimes forget I’m wearing them, this was, to say the least, life-changing information. In fact, I had just recently purchased a pair of AirPods Pro, having lost my regular AirPods...somewhere, and now I fished them out of my pocket and looked at them anew, like Dorothy gazing down upon her ruby slippers at the end of The Wizard of Oz.
What? The solution to my increasingly pressing problem has been in my pocket all along?
I updated my iPhone’s software. Put the AirPods Pro in my ears. Turned on transparency mode. Voilà: I could hear! It was so simple, it made me cry. (I also cry at videos of visually impaired babies putting on glasses for the first time, so do with this information what you will.)
In the weeks that followed, I dug a little deeper and realized I could customize the AirPods Pro basic transparency mode for my own specific hearing needs. First I downloaded the Mimi app, took its audio test––which matched nearly precisely the professional audio tests I took––and uploaded that information to my iPhone’s health app. Then I followed a bunch of steps I found online to activate my iPhone’s hearing accommodations.
Not that the AirPods Pro are perfect. For example, it was hard to hear my son at an outdoor restaurant, even with the earbuds in. The street noise and conversations of the other diners seated on the crowded sidewalk outside Veselka drowned out his voice. So I learned how to activate Live Listen, which turns my iPhone into a receiver which I can point directly at the person who is talking to me in a noisy environment. It has a tiny delay, but it fixes the problem of background noise so well, if I point my phone in the direction of other diners, I can hear the precise content of their conversation to a scarily perfect, James Bond degree.
The relief I felt at finally being able to hear again––without having to go broke, feel discomfort, or listen to each wayward strand of my hair––is impossible to describe. The further I’d dipped into deafness, in fact, the more isolated I felt, to the point where I had to shut off a recent film, The Sound of Metal, within its first half hour, as it was hitting way too close to home. (I know, I know, it’s great, I hear. I’ll finish watching it when I feel up to it.)
Hearing loss has been linked to all manner of health problems, including the kind of social isolation that leads to dementia. And yet, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one in eight people in the United States over the age of 12 has hearing loss in both ears, and 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.
The major issue, as I’ve already explained, is that our health insurance industry refuses to pay for our ears. We obviously need to fix this. But one of the other issues keeping those of us with hearing loss from seeking out and wearing hearing aids is stigma and shame. Which is weird, since glasses perched atop on our noses are a far more visible sign of visual impairment than hearing aids in our ear canals. But unlike visual impairment––which we not only blithely accept without embarrassment, we fetishize eyewear fashion in glossy ads––hearing impairment has been mercilessly mocked and linked with old age and senescence to the point where media stereotypes such as hard-of-hearing Grampy Simpson have kept many of us from seeking the help we need, for fear of our hearing aids marking us as old in a society that only values its young.
Even my own children, who are in every other way polite, kind, and loving, had been mocking my growing deafness for so long, I recently had to say, “Please, stop making fun of me. I can’t help it.” Because at that point, with the cost of a workable solution out of reach, I really couldn’t.
Now, with my Airpods Pro, I can.
To be clear, the AirPods Pro are not a perfect solution to the problem of hearing impairment, nor are they appropriate for those with more severe hearing loss than mild to moderate. It will also take time and a paradigm shift for strangers with whom I converse both to get used to and to not to get offended by the fact that I must keep my earbuds in my ears when we speak. (“I’m not blocking you out,” I’ve learned to say, “I’m letting you in.”) Plus, with only 4.5 hours of battery power, I’m going to need to buy at least one extra pair if not two. But even three pairs of AirPods Pro are half as expensive as one pair of basic Costco hearing aids and one tenth the price of a pair of the pricier ones I was originally prescribed.
But beyond the youth/cool factor of AirPods Pro as antidote to the social stigma of hearing loss, the shame of needing hearing aids will only disappear when the nearly 30 million of us in the U.S. who need them finally come out of the woodwork to say so out loud. Hence this missive, which I will end thus:
Hi, my name is Deb Copaken. I am 55 years old, and I am hearing impaired.
No, this post is not sponsored nor is Apple, in any way, paying me to say this.