It’s important to note that Apple’s earbuds aren’t FDA-approved (Food and Drug Administration) for use as hearing aids, and according to audiologist Abram Bailey, “they won’t work for more severe hearing losses”.
However, a Headphone Accommodations feature released with iOS 14 means the AirPods Pro do sport some of the features you need to hear your surroundings more clearly, including personalized amplification and noise reduction.
This is because the feature works with the noise-cancelling earbuds’ Transparency mode, “making quiet voices more audible and tuning the sound of your environment to your hearing needs”. Transparency mode allows environmental sound to pass through the earbuds, and Headphone Accommodations allows you to adjust how loud this is – essentially letting you amplify your surroundings, a little like a hearing aid would.
This only works with the AirPods Pro, so these are your best bet if you’re keen to use the accessibility feature to hear your surroundings more clearly.
However, you can still access some of the feature’s benefits if you have different Apple headphones. According to Apple, the accessibility feature also “amplifies soft sounds and tunes audio to help music, movies, phone calls, and podcasts sound crisper and clearer”, so it’ll help you hear what you’re playing through your headphones or earbuds with more clarity. This aspect of the feature works with most Apple headphones, including the AirPods (2019), AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, Apple EarPods, Beats Solo Pro, Powerbeats Pro, and Powerbeats.
How to turn on Headphone Accommodations
Firstly, you’ll need a device running iOS 14 or iPadOS 14. On your device, open Settings > Accessibility > Audio/Visual > Headphone Accommodations.
You can then set your own custom audio settings; turn on Phone to apply these to phone calls, and turn on Media to apply these to music, films, podcasts, audiobooks, Siri, Voicemail, and Live Listen.
You can then use Custom Audio Setup to listen to audio samples and choose which one sounds better to you, applying these settings to your headphones – alternatively you can adjust the EQ balance slider manually to adjust the sound.
You can also use your audiogram data from the Health app to customize your audio settings, changing the left/right balance of your audio if you have one ear that’s better than the other.
As we mentioned, these features work with all Apple headphones, but to use your earbuds as makeshift hearing aids, you’ll need the AirPods Pro true wireless earbuds specifically.
How to use the AirPods Pro as hearing aids
Apple says that, when Transparency mode is on, your existing Headphone Accommodations settings “might change how you hear your own voice or increase your environment's noise level”, and you may need to adjust these to make them more comfortable.
It’s a good idea to start from a milder setting by adjusting the Tone or Amplification slider, gradually increasing it to the setting that allows you to hear people’s voices or natural sounds around you most clearly.
To customize your Transparency mode settings, open Headphone Accommodations and then select Transparency Mode. Tap Custom Transparency Mode, and adjust the audio-volume balance between the left and right channels, using the Transparency Balance slider.
You can also adjust Transparency model settings by tapping the Hearing icon (hint: it looks like an ear) in the Control Centre.
What about Live Listen?
If you don’t have a pair of AirPods Pro, you can still amplify your surroundings temporarily using a feature called Live Listen.
It allows your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to act like a microphone that sends sound to your AirPods, AirPods Pro, AirPods Max or Powerbeats Pro, helping you to hear conversations in noisy areas or hear someone speaking from across the room.
To use the feature, your device must be running iOS or iPadOS 14.3 or later.
Firstly, add Live Listen to your device’s Control Centre by going to Settings > Control Centre. Then, tap the Add button next to the Hearing button, and finally, tap Settings to save your changes.
When you want to use the feature, you just need to open the Control Centre, tap the hearing icon, and tap Live Listen. Place your device in front of the person you want to hear more clearly, adjusting the volume on your device as needed. You’ll even be able to see your headphones’ audio levels in real time and see detailed decibel information as you listen.
- Read our Apple AirPods Pro review