Google’s Sound Amplifier is a free hearing aid

One of the least-trumpeted software launches of the last few months might be the one that ultimately makes the biggest noise. It might, in fact, be a veritable ear trumpet.

These Apple AirPods are inconspicuous when you're out and about. Cheaper rivals are available.

Sound Amplifier is a free app from Google which tries to pick out speech within range of your phone and feed it directly into your headphones or wireless earbuds. It’s basically a hearing aid.

Like conventional, and often very expensive devices, it works by increasing quiet sounds without over-amplifying louder noises. You can adjust the balance with a couple of on-screen sliders.

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It has been available for a few months now but it is the latest upgrade, which adds support for Bluetooth earphones, that is a game changer. It means you can use it without anyone noticing, and look as if you’re joining in the conversation around you, rather than trying to avoid it.

Wireless earbuds, of the type popularised by Apple, are not exactly unobtrusive – they dangle below your earlobes like plastic jewellery – but neither are they unusual any more. People will not look at you askance if you keep them in one or both ears while you’re talking. And if conversing in a noisy environment is hard for you, there is a positive advantage in doing exactly that. Suddenly, you can hear what the people across the table are saying to each other, without any of the stigma sometimes associated with conventional hearing products.

No-one is claiming that Sound Amplifier is a medical appliance, but all the same it does use some of the same technology. Modern phones have not one microphone but two – one to “hear” and the second to filter out unwanted background noise. That’s what makes it possible to conduct a phone conversation with someone outdoors. That same noise-cancelling system is what Google has brought to bear in the app, with the benefit of a few simple controls to adjust which sounds are blocked and which are boosted. You can apply the adjustments globally or separately for each ear, and once you’ve found a setting that suits you, you can turn it on and off from your phone’s accessibility menu.

Google admits that reliability is better with wired headphones than with Bluetooth buds, so it might not be worth splashing out on an expensive wireless pair straight away, but if you’d been toying with the idea of a hearing test, you will certainly want to try this first.

Sound Amplifier is already built into Google’s own Pixel phones and is available from the App Store for other Android handsets. HearYouNow by ExSilent is among several apps that do a similar job for the iPhone.

As for wireless headsets, genuine Apple airpods can’t be had for less than around £140 but rival brands at a fraction of the price are commonplace now. Around £30 will get you a similar looking pair of “fully wireless” earbuds – those with no cable connecting the two sides – and you can choose models that hook over your ear to prevent them from coming loose. You will also find coloured pairs that you can actively flaunt, rather than attempt to disguise. On the other hand, plain black clip-ons of the type favoured by cab drivers can be had for around £15. They’re no use for listening to music but they should be fine for speech.

If Sound Amplifier doesn’t work for you, it’s also worth trying Live Transcribe, another accessibility app from Google, which instead of processing what it hears, attempts to transcribe it, with the words appearing on your screen. It’s far from perfect, especially in noisy environments, and also indiscreet but as an occasional aid to understanding, it’s a useful tool in your armoury.

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