Future Apple AirPods may be able to conduct hearing tests

Apple’s wireless earbuds may – in future – offer far more than audio.

Apple looks set to continue developing the health-related aspects of its products, if recent rumours are to be believed. According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, Apple is working on new AirPods that could include a hearing test feature. 

Apple has been placing increased emphasis on health and wellbeing, with the likes of Apple Fitness Plus, and there are rumours of an AI-powered coaching service in development. Now, it seems that Apple is turning its attention to the hearing aid sector. 

An older gentleman in a suit stands outside reading a tablet, with AirPods in his earsCredit: Shutterstock/My Agency

How AirPods could help your hearing

In his most recent Power On newsletter, Gurman reports that the hearing test feature will play different tones and sounds. The AirPods can then use the results to figure out how good your hearing is and identify if you have some potential hearing issues.  

AirPods already offer some tools to help with hearing, including audiograms. These audio profiles can identify where your hearing may be weakest, and then adjust the audio balance accordingly. There are also features such as Conversation Boost (which helps to focus on the person talking in front of you) and Live Listen, which can help you hear a conversation in noisy environments. It’s worth noting, though, that these features have not received regulatory approval.  

Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration changed the rules around a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids, with a view to making these devices more affordable for consumers (hearing aids are classed as regulated medical devices, and more expensive as a result). In the UK, hearing aids are classed as Class IIa medical devices (the category used for low-risk devices). The change in US rules could mean that more development work goes into hearing aids, which could benefit UK consumers too.  

Companies such as Jabra have already launched earbuds that are focused on hearing enhancement, and Sony has aproduced something similar. Gurman also confirmed that Apple has hired engineers from traditional hearing aid makers. This suggests there is a concerted effort by Apple to produce suitable products. 

These features are still very much in development, and they may still be several years away. Apple has not yet confirmed any of these rumours, but they are certainly intriguing. If Apple does release new AirPods with these features, they could be a major step forward in the company’s health-tracking efforts. 

Hearing loss matters

A man wearing headphones in his living room while playing an electric guitar.Credit: Shutterstock/Krakenimages.com

We contacted the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People), to ask its thoughts on the implications of this technology. Franki Oliver, audiology manager at RNID, told us:  

“Building a hearing check into consumer devices which people wear as part of daily life could be a helpful early warning system, encouraging people to seek support for hearing loss at an early stage. It’s exciting to see new technology develop, and we hope this opens up conversations about hearing loss and encourages more people to value their hearing as much as they value their eyes and their teeth.”  

Early intervention and treatment may help to lessen the impact of hearing loss in individuals. According to the RNID website, hearing loss affects 12 million adults (one in five) in the UK. More than 40% of over-fifties, and 70% of over-seventies, have some level of hearing loss. And one study has shown a link between hearing loss and an increased risk of dementia. Interestingly, the same study suggests that people with hearing loss who use hearing aids have no increased risk of developing dementia.  

Of course, prevention is better than cure, and Oliver gave us some tips to help look after our hearing: “Some simple ways for everyone to look after their hearing include wearing earplugs at gigs and live music events, being careful not to exceed the safe volume levels on your phone when listening to music through headphones, and taking regular breaks.” 

If you want more information about hearing loss or ear health, you can visit RNID.org.uk. The charity also offers a free online hearing test, which may indicate whether you need to see a professional to check your hearing. 

Steven Shaw

Written by Steven Shaw he/him

Updated:

Steven Shaw has been a freelance writer for a variety of outlets, most notably TechRadar. His degree in Medieval History prepared him less adequately for his career than you might expect, but the years spent working in technology focused retail were much more helpful.

Outside of work, Steven is passionate about health and fitness, and particularly enjoys high-intensity interval training, weight training, and increasingly, spending time recovering. Steven loves reading, films and a wide variety of sports. A particular highlight was watching Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar batting together in an exhibition match.

He wishes he could travel more. He can also tell you a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Carolingians. Most of his non-work time is spent with his young children, who are the living embodiment of high-intensity training.