What if a hearing aid could be replaced with
a pair of wireless earbuds and a smartphone app?
A Swiss startup is trying to make this a
reality with an app called Fennex, recently
released for the iPhone, that works with
Apple’s $159 AirPods wireless earbuds.
Alex Mari, CEO of the startup of the
same name, says that he chose Apple’s
devices and mobile platform for the app
in part because of their popularity but
also because he thinks an Android phone
would result in more latency when processing sound.
The app is still in its earliest days; it’s
currently free, though Fennex may even-
tually charge for certain features. Mari
says today’s version functions like a “cheap
hearing aid”: it simply tests your hearing
in each ear and uses those results to act
as a personalized, adjustable amplifier. If
you’re having trouble hearing in a class, for
instance, you could place your phone near
the lectern while you’re sitting a few rows
back and listening in on a pair of AirPods.
But upgrades are coming, Mari says:
the app is slated to gain features that will
help reduce unwanted noise and feed-
back. And beyond helping people who
just want to hear better in some situa-
tions, the software could eventually work
with Apple’s hardware to serve as a viable
alternative to a regular hearing aid for
people who have moderate hearing loss,
“We want to get as close as we can to
hearing aid technology,” he says.
Fennex is latching onto a broader
trend in using smartphones and earbuds
to augment hearing, both for people with
hearing loss and for those who simply
want to adjust how they hear. Already,
Apple Wireless Earbuds Could
Double as Hearing Aids
This app that pairs with AirPods promises to help people with hearing loss.
there are similar apps that work with earbuds and smartphones, like Petralex, as
well as specialized earbuds that work with
their own smartphone apps, like Doppler Labs’ Here One. Unlike hearing aids,
which can cost thousands of dollars for a
pair, these so-called hearables may cost
up to a few hundred dollars on top of the
price of a smartphone.
Fennex claims to have the only app
designed for AirPods specifically. And
since Apple is clearly moving away from
the traditional headphone jack—it cut it
out of the iPhones released last year and
included just its proprietary Lightning
connector for charging—it is possible that
in the coming years AirPods will become
a lot more common.
Larry Humes, a distinguished professor of speech and hearing sciences at
Indiana University Bloomington, is optimistic that something like Fennex could
take the place of a traditional hearing aid
for those with mild to moderate hearing
loss. He thinks the recent passage of legislation that orders the FDA to create a
new class of over-the-counter hearing aids
could help, too, as he expects it will lead
to a range of hearing-related products
that people can get without needing to
visit a doctor.
However, as Mari knows, it’s clearly a
risk to focus on making software for one
pair of earbuds, since Fennex can’t control
what Apple does with its hardware or the
access it gives to developers who want to
develop software that works with it.
There’s also the issue of hearing delays. Fennex works by using the
AirPods’ microphones to record sounds in
the world around the wearer, after which
it sends the audio to the iPhone app for
processing and then back to the earbuds.
The delay, for now, is 130 milliseconds,
which might be fine for listening but is
noticeable if you’re trying to engage in a
conversation. —Rachel Metz