Could Smartphone Apps Replace Hearing Aids?

By: Bradley White | Published: 25th February 2019

Using smartphones to assist people with hearing loss is nothing new. Just take a look at any major hearing aid manufacturer and more likely than not they will have at least a couple of apps designed to work in conjunction with their products. These generally allow the users extra control over their hearing devices. For example, they’re often able to change the volume, check the battery level and switch between hearing programs for different listening environments. In this capacity, mobile devices are improving the experience for those relying on hearing aids. But there are also apps out there designed to fill the role of a hearing aid. And with phones getting progressively more powerful, do mobile devices have the potential to eventually replace hearing aids?

How do these apps work?

The technology behind traditional hearing aids is pretty simple. The device just amplifies sound around the user and feeds it into their ear. A mobile app would work in just the same way, it just requires a microphone to pick up the surrounding sound and headphones or earbuds to then feed the amplified sound into the user’s ears. The app itself can then be used to control volume and EQ in the same way as a standard hearing aid control app.

Hearing Aid

What are the Advantages of Hearing Aid Apps?

When compared to a traditional hearing device, a mobile app has a number of clear advantages, both for hearing aid manufacturers and their customers. The most obvious advantage is the cost of a mobile app is significantly less than a hearing aid. For a start, hearing aids can often be expensive. It’s not uncommon for it to cost thousands of pounds for a pair. Obviously this isn’t practical for everyone with hearing loss, and given that most people already own a smartphone of some kind, downloading a mobile app will be of minimal cost. Developing an app would also save the hearing aid manufacturer money as the cost of developing and maintaining an app would likely be significantly cheaper than producing physical hearing aids.

The combination of this lower price point and the fact that the majority of people already have smartphones means hearing aid solutions for mobile devices are far more accessible than purchasing traditional hearing aids. This means that apps could be the perfect solution for those suffering from minor hearing loss or is an easy way to make people aware that they have hearing loss in the first place.

The stigma around wearing hearing aids has been identified as one of the major barriers preventing people with hearing loss from using them. Using a hearing aid app would help with this issue as the user wouldn’t need a specialised hearing device, but could instead just use standard earbuds which are far less conspicuous.

Studies into Apps as hearing aids

A number of studies have been done to look at the viability of using hearing apps as a way to treat hearing loss. One example being a 2014 study which compared two smartphone apps – Mobile Ears by Listen AS and Microphone by Pocket Lab – with a traditional hearing aid. The study found that there was very little difference in actual performance between a bare-bones traditional hearing aid and the hearing aid apps. Although the test subjects did ultimately show a preference towards the traditional hearing aid, it concluded that for the time being, hearing aid apps can play a role assisting those with mild to moderate hearing loss or they can serve as a temporary solution for someone suffering from hearing loss.

Hearing Aid Apps Available

However, this study was carried out in 2014 and mobile technology has come a long way since. There are now a few more apps available intended to serve as hearing aids. Mobile Ears is still one of the more popular hearing aid apps. Designed to amplify speech in settings where speech clarity might be an issue such as lecture halls, cafes or the cinema. All Mobile Ears requires is for the user to plug in a pair of earbuds. In addition to the standard amplification, Mobile ears contains noise reduction and noise filtering features to help increase speech clarity for users.

AirPods Hearing Aids

However, as with the majority of mobile hearing aids, Mobile Ears requires wired earbuds to work – it isn’t able to work over bluetooth. This is where Fennex sets itself apart. Branding itself as an ‘Augmented Hearing’ app, it has the ability for users to use Apple AirPods in addition to wired earbuds. This could be a huge step forward for hearing aid apps as it will make them significantly more convenient. Also, considering Apple’s decision to remove the jack from their iPhones, it’s likely that AirPods are going to become an increasingly popular item for iPhone users.

While hearing aid apps aren’t going to replace traditional hearing aids overnight, the considerable advantages that using an app has over standard hearing aids means there’s huge potential for them to become the standard solution. This means it’s essential for hearing aid manufacturers to begin thinking about mobile solutions now, otherwise they’re running the risk of being left behind.

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