Earlier this week, a reader contacted me with a dilemma: his wife has always had super sharp hearing when it comes to environmental / ambient noise. She can “hear a gnat blink at 1,000 yards. Forty years ago, she could hear electronic clocks running,” he said. And so they’ve been in search of a solution that would help eliminate some of that background clamor while still helping her clearly hear conversations happening directly in front of her.
I’m no doctor, nor am I any kind of hearing health expert. Consulting an audiologist would be my top recommendation for next steps — regardless of anyone’s age. But increasingly, consumer earbuds are trying to plug away at these common issues: everyday life can get loud. And when it happens gradually, you might not even notice until you’re suddenly overwhelmed by the noise. So I can at least toss out some ideas based on the products that I do have thorough knowledge of.
Apple AirPods Pro: conversation boost
Apple’s wireless earbuds are routinely praised for their natural-sounding transparency mode, and for good reason. But did you know you can customize the level of ambient noise that transparency mode lets through? And if that’s not enough, there’s a separate “conversation boost” mode that’s designed to make it easier to hear face-to-face conversations happening in front of you.
On this support page, Apple explains both features. To save you a click, if you want to test out ambient noise reduction and conversation boost, here’s what to do:
- Make sure your AirPods Pro are in your ears and connected to your iPhone.
- Go to Settings, then Accessibility, then Audio/Visual.
- Turn on Headphone Accommodations.
To customize transparency mode:
- Tap Transparency Mode, then enable Custom Transparency Mode, and do the same for Ambient Noise Reduction. You’ll then see a slider that you can drag to adjust how much environmental noise is piped in whenever transparency mode is active.
To use conversation boost:
- From the same Transparency Mode menu, enable conversation boost.
Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro: enhanced ambient sound mode
Samsung also provides granular control over the ambient sound mode on the company’s Galaxy Buds 2 Pro. You can choose between five different levels of amplification and set individual preferences for each ear. Moreover, there’s also a slider that can adjust ambient sound from “soft” to “clear” based on what sounds best to each person:
Users can adjust the volumes on the left and the right respectively, as well as customize their Ambient Sound tone range from soft to clear across five different stages. Additionally, Ambient Sound can tune to users’ ears through the Adapt Ambient Sound feature, allowing for even more clarity in helping users hear the world around them better.
The company has funded (non-peer-reviewed) studies that showed the Buds 2 Pro “significantly improved speech perception in those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.”
Over-the-counter hearing gadgets
A rule from the FDA last year ushered in a new era of over-the-counter hearing aids that can be purchased without a prescription or even an exam. For example, you can now walk into a Best Buy and purchase Sony’s $1,300 ITE self-fitting hearing aids. Jabra has also joined in with its own OTC solution.
These options are far more expensive than mainstream consumer earbuds, but they’re also more directly targeted at the issue. Sony’s hearing aids have a “situation analyzer within the hearing aid” that “adjusts sound based on your surroundings to improve listening experiences in environments with background noise.”
Sennheiser also has a $900 product called the Conversation Clear Plus. Reticent to call them hearing aids, the company instead refers to these as “a true wireless hearing solution.” As you can see in the image above, the companion app provides extensive controls over how much external sound you want to experience at any given time. Like the other devices I mentioned, Sennheiser’s hearing buds use “advanced technologies — including active noise cancellation and beamforming — to precisely separate language from noise.”
Again, these hearing-focused gadgets come at a premium. It might be worth first exploring the software solutions from Apple and Samsung before spending three times as much on an OTC hearing aid. It’s undoubtedly a goal of these companies to make their consumer products genuinely useful for everyday hearing protection on top of music consumption and at a much lower price.