New hearing aid feature unmuffles voices of masked speakers

Over-the-counter hearing aids are becoming smarter all the time. Being digital, they can employ clever analysis of our surroundings and adjust what we hear to boost conversation and dampen intrusive sounds. The new EarGo 6 goes one step further and uses these smarts to improve understanding when someone’s voice is muffled by a mask.

Hearing without lips

In noisy environments my wife often says, “Let me put my glasses on so I can hear you.” There’s nothing wrong with her hearing – and she’s certainly not a lip-reader – but being able to see someone’s lips simply makes it much easier to hear them in noisy places.

Now imagine that you do have a hearing impairment.EarGo 6 Hearing Aids with black round charger

When someone is wearing a mask, it’s a double challenge as their voice is more muffled and their mouth is covered. Thus the importance of leveraging the clever algorithms employed in digital hearing devices that can artificially augment the lost frequencies and boost the clarity of the speaker’s voice.

It helps that modern hearing aids are smaller and less obtrusive than traditional analogue devices, removing much of the associated stigma. There are many to choose from, however, at a range of price points - and so advice is still important – even if you’re considering foregoing a formal audiologist assessment and going over-the-counter.

How can technology help? 

Discover our Don't Disable Me training course series that focuses on the lived experiences of people with disabilities including those who face hearing, visual, and physical barriers. In the course, you can learn first hand how technology can support those facing these barriers at work, in study and day-to-day life.


The hearing aids you may already have

Several earbud and headphone manufacturers offer really quite sophisticated accommodations to help those with a hearing impairment – and I’m not just talking about people with a diagnosis here.

Being blind myself, my hearing is very precious to me. Thus it was quite concerning when I began to realise, at the ripe old age of 50, that my hearing wasn’t what it once was. When I heard that Apple’s AirPod and Beatz ranges of headphones can be programmed like actual digital hearing aids, I pounced on the feature like a guide dog puppy would a bone.

If you’re interested in the specific steps to customise your Apple earbuds or headphones, we’ve a guide for that. You can choose from several pre-sets that boost all frequencies, those in the vocal range only or the upper frequencies (that tend to go first when you experience hearing loss) – but it’s the ‘Custom’ option that has the most potential to change lives.

The custom option looks for an audiogram in the iOS Health app. This could come from a professional audiologist (recommended if you do have severe hearing loss), but it can also be generated by a number of hearing test apps available in the app store.

I chose ‘Mimi Hearing Test’ which checked my hearing (which is worse than 95% of people my age, apparently), created my audiogram and saved it into the Health app in a matter of minutes. I used that audiogram to optimise my AirPods 3 for my hearing and, voila, my phone’s audio (music, movies, Teams calls and VoiceOver – the built-in screen reader for blind users) suddenly became crystal clear. Toggle it off again and you realise with a bit of a shock that what you’ve been hearing up to now is muddy and without any of the higher frequency content whatsoever.

Screenshots of Mimi Hearing Test app showing test results

You may be wondering how the above process could begin to approach the proficiency and accuracy of a proper consultation with a professional audiologist. The answer lies in Apple’s ownership of all aspects of the hardware. That’s why only certain headphones are supported.

The hearing check app does not allow you to take the test if you are not wearing approved headphones or earbuds, or if you have the device’s volume set to anything other than 50%. In these controlled conditions you can create an audiogram that will be remarkably close to the real thing.

Hearing tech hits the big time

Other big tech companies have been adding more hearing-related features to their devices. In 2021, Bose launched its SoundControl Hearing Aids, which don’t require an audiologist to set up and, at $840, cost a fraction of the price of many on the market.

Samsung added Voice Detect in early 2021 to the Galaxy Buds Pro and Buds 2. The feature works by activating Samsung’s Ambient Noise mode, which automatically kicks-in when you start talking – switching off noise cancellation and allowing a conversation to be heard clearly.


Assistive technology training

Many people are unaware of the accessibility and productivity tools that are available in mainstream software.

AbilityNet can provide 1:1 training on most assistive technologies (AT). 


Of course the ability to actively cancel out noises in your environment and only pass through a conversation - or even enhance it in the case of Apple’s Conversation Boost feature – the devices need to be of the fully in-ear or fully over-the-ear kind.

Thus my beloved AirPods 3 can’t reduce ambient noise (not having the squidgy bit that goes into your ear canal to block much of the noise around me allowing active noise cancellation to do the rest) but they can still give me that crystal-clear audio in whatever is coming out of my phone that I didn’t even know I was missing.

Another helpful feature is ‘Live Listen’ - a feature that turns your iPhone into a remote microphone that sends sound from your environment to your AirPods or compatible ('Made for iPhone') hearing aids. If you are able to place your phone nearer to the speaker than you can get yourself (in a meeting, lecture or simply due to social distancing), then you may well get a better chance of hearing what’s being said.

Hear hear for hearing tech

Whether it’s the built-in benefits of cutting-edge AI to assist with understanding (or avoiding) the noisy world around you, or additional smarts in specialist tech to help unmuffle the masked speaker, there’s no doubt whatsoever that we’re living in exciting times.

We’ll continue to keep a watching brief on the hearing tech space, as it’s proving to be a bit of an eye-opener.

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