By John Salak —
Talk about a good and bad news day. Some commercial buds are equivalent to premium hearing aids, while another study suggested these devices increase the risk of hearing loss for more than a billion young people worldwide.
Don’t sneer at hearing loss. It is also not limited to old folks. The World Health Organization reports 430 million people currently have hearing disabilities, and this could grow to 2.5 billion by 2050.
On the benefits side, some buds could be a low-cost yet effective alternative to professional hearing aids. It might be an incredibly accessible option for the estimated 75 percent of Americans with hearing loss who currently don’t use hearing aids.
A Chinse research team investigated how Apple’s wireless Airpods that amplify sound stack up against professional aids. The researchers found the Airpods Pro, which includes a noise canceling feature, met four out of five technology standards for hearing aids—performing on par with many more expensive alternatives.
Even the less advanced Airpods 2 gave those with limited hearing a boost compared to not using any aids. Since these Airpods at most cost $249, they could represent an attractive cost alternative to premium hearing models ($10,000) and even basic aids ($1,500).
They may also be more socially acceptable, which encourages even greater use.
“There’s also a social stigma associated with hearing aids,” explained Yen-fu Cheng, the study’s corresponding author, and an otolaryngologist at Taipei Veterans General Hospital. “Many patients are reluctant to wear them because they don’t want to appear old. So, we started exploring if there are more accessible alternatives.”
All this sounds good for those with hearing loss but earbud makers.
“Globally, the wireless earphone market is rapidly growing. Some companies are interested in exploring the possibility of designing earbuds with sound amplification features. Our study proves that the idea is plausible,” noted study co-author Ying-Hui Lai, a bioengineer at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University.
If the Chinese study was music to the ears of bud makers, other research didn’t sound so great. It warned that listening to loud music at concerts and using earbuds puts up to 1.3 billion young people ages 12 to 34 at risk for hearing loss.
This research noted that while concerts usually exceed recommended noise levels, smartphones and earbuds also create problems because most users choose noise volumes at least 25 percent above suggested levels.
“The global estimated number of young people who could be at risk of hearing loss from exposure to unsafe listening practices ranged from 0.67 to 1.35 billion,” the study noted while calling for more oversight.
“Unsafe listening practices are highly prevalent worldwide,” it added. “There is an urgent need to prioritize policy focused on safe listening. The World Health Organization provides comprehensive materials to aid policy development and implementation.”
The obvious now for users is whether to bud in or bud out.