A segment of the population without hearing loss present important hearing difficulties in noisy environments that have a serious impact on their quality of life and mental health, and that increase their risk of developing social isolation, anxiety and depression. In fact, approximately one out of ten people who present to the clinic reporting communication difficulties in noisy venues cannot be helped because they do not have a measurable hearing loss. This causes severe frustration on both clients (who are left without any guidance or recommendation most of the times) and clinicians (who often report to feel confused and disempowered due to the absence of evidence-based recommendations for these clients).
Aims and Hypothesis
This project aimed to investigate to what extend the AirPods Pro hearables improve the hearing experience of people with normal audiograms but speech-in-noise hearing difficulties, and whether the target population would continue using this technology in similar situations in the future. We hypothesized that the directionality provided by the AirPods Pro would provide an acoustic advantage that would improve the end-users’ hearing experience.
Seventeen normal-hearing adults (9 females, 21-59 years) with speech-in-noise hearing difficulties participated in this study. This project used (1) objective measures to quantify the acoustic benefit provided by the AirPods Pro; (2) laboratory measures to evaluate whether the intelligibility of the participants increased with the AirPods Pro in a controlled noisy environment; and (3) real-life measures where participants could rate their satisfaction, usability and perceived value of the technology in the venues where they usually struggle communicating with their peers.
Acoustic measures showed that the AirPods Pro hearables provide a moderate improvement on speech clarity in noisy situations. Consistent with this finding, laboratory measures showed that participants understood more words in noise when they were wearing the AirPods Pro – on average they understood 66.4% of the words with the AirPods Pro, against 54.6% intelligibility when they were not wearing them. Furthermore, real-life measures demonstrated that participants wearing the AirPods Pro in venues where they usually have hearing difficulties could understand their peers “a bit more”, and they rated their participation in conversations as “a bit better”. This study also revealed a large dispersion in the reported satisfaction with the devices, with only five participants willing to continue using the AirPods Pro in similar situations in the future. The most relevant barriers to continue using this technology were that the hearing benefit was not substantial enough, social factors (the AirPods Pro are not yet socially viewed as an assistive listening device), and comfort.
This research will inform audiologists and clinicians about the perceived value of the AirPods Pro as an assistive listening device for people with normal audiograms and speech-in-noise hearing difficulties, which may assist them in providing more informed recommendations to their clients with this hearing profile. Moreover, the barriers identified in this project may inspire manufacturers the implementation of marketing campaigns and/or the development of new technologies that improve the uptake by their end users. This project has also validated a research methodology that could be applied to evaluate the value of other technologies.
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