By Abram Bailey, AuD
Apple pushed an AirPods Pro firmware upgrade yesterday (version 4A400 available with iOS 15) that finally provides access to the long-awaited Conversation Boost feature. Conversation Boost adds improved hearing for speech in background noise by tapping into a technology known as beamforming directionality, which is more commonly used by traditional medical-model hearing aid companies like Phonak.
Conversation Boost is finally here. And it works.
In releasing Conversation Boost, Apple adds even more hearing-aid-like capabilities to the AirPods Pro. In the past, we’ve written about Headphone Accommodations in Transparency Mode, which allows users to personalize passthrough audio with amplification that is suited to their unique hearing loss profile (audiogram). I personally tested the feature, and published the results here.
So what do we know about Conversation Boost? When the feature was announced at WWDC 2021 (June 7), Apple senior engineering program manager Gagan Gupta described Conversation Boost as a way “to help people with mild hearing challenges stay more connected in conversations.” He went on to say, “Through computational audio and beamforming microphones, Conversation Boost focuses your AirPods Pro on the person talking in front of you, making it easier to hear and follow along in a face-to-face conversation.”
Does Conversation Boost Work?
Our friends over at Noopl recently tested the functionality of Conversation Boost using a developer preview of the firmware.
To informally evaluate Conversation Boost in a noisy environment, an AirPods Pro user conversed with a colleague at a distance of 1 meter while a recording of restaurant noise played behind him through a single loudspeaker, also at a distance of 1 meter. In this case, Conversation Boost enabled a modest improvement that can be characterized as about the same magnitude offered by a well-designed directional system available in modern hearing aids.
Aside from the “listening test”, Noopl also provided a quantitative assessment of the signal-to-noise improvement yielded by enabling Conversation Boost:
With […] Conversation Boost, however, we see a significant and meaningful improvement in the SNR of about 5.5 dB, corroborating our impression that Conversation Boost furnishes a hearing benefit approximately equivalent to that of a well-designed directional hearing aid.
Conversation Boost provides an improvement in signal-to-noise ratio of about 5.5 dB.
How to check your firmware version:
- Connect AirPods Pro to iPhone
- Settings App > General > About > AirPods Pro
- Check “Firmware Version” for 4A400
How to enable Conversation Boost:
- Settings app > Accessibility > Audio/Visual
- Tap and Enable Headphone Accommodations
- Tap Transparency Mode
- Enable Conversation Boost
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