Apple Watch Health app cuts through the noise

When the new updates for Apple’s Health app for iOS and WatchOS were announced at WWDC, I was pretty sure that the new Noise app would become one of my favourite features of the Apple Watch. But what I didn’t realise was just how much it would become a part of what I do every day.

The Noise app sends a notification if your environment is unhealthily loud.

The Noise app sends a notification if your environment is unhealthily loud.

As a kid, I needed several surgeries to be able to hear properly. And then, as a teenager, I became a drummer, much to my doctor’s exasperation, yet managed to maintain my now above-average hearing due to my parents’ insistence that I wore ear protection during practice and whenever I went to gigs. So, I guess it makes sense that I’m more concerned about noise levels than most.

The app works by having the watch sample background noise every 30 seconds using the second microphone introduced to the Apple Watch from Series 4 (2018’s model), and processes it on the device. It doesn’t record, share info, or listen to what’s being said: It just tells you how loud the environment is. If it’s been at 90dB or above (or a custom level you’ve set) for more than three minutes, it’ll send an alert to let you know.

You can have the Noise app as either a complication on the face to easily check how loud things are at any time. Or, if you don’t feel the need to constantly monitor your environment, you can just wait for it to give you the heads-up. You can then see the trends in the Health app on your phone and see if any patterns stick out.

Whether or not you have a watch, the Health app on iPhone can monitor how loud you are listening to music on your wireless headphones, if you use relatively recent Apple, Beats, Jaybird, B&O or Bose models. Given listening to music too loud on bad headphones is one of the worst things you can do for your hearing, it’s useful to be able to see those trends.

The Health app on iPhone monitors how loud and long you listen to compatible headphones.

The Health app on iPhone monitors how loud and long you listen to compatible headphones.

It’s not the first time a feature like that has been available on phones – Beyer Dynamic has an app that monitors volume on its headphones. But this is the first time it’s been implemented for multiple brands at an operating-system level.

The worst thing about hearing is that you can’t really get it back once you’ve lost it, unless it’s due to an obstruction or something else removable. It’s like an adult tooth in that way. Sure, you can get devices that help you use what you’ve got left, but it’s never going to be the same, not really. Hearing aids make everything louder, but not necessarily clearer.

And it’s a real “hip bone’s connected to the everything” situation, because your hearing affects your balance and independence far more than you imagine.

As well as the big stuff, it affects life’s little pleasures. Being able to comfortably listen to music, and really hear all those details that help the emotion come across, is one of my favourite parts of life. Turning up the volume on that perfect song is a near-religious experience. If I’m going to trash the hearing I’ve worked so hard to get, it’s going to be on my terms (and preferably never).

That’s why I love this feature that takes something I’ve worried about most of my life and turns it into an easy-to-read, colour-coded scale, with maths that tells me whether or not my ears are safe.

It perhaps turns me into the most annoying person in the land, because I now have a definitive number to show my Body Pump instructor that 97dBs is too loud, no matter how enthusiastic he is about Bon Jovi. But I’d counter that perhaps other people should be more concerned instead.

We have apps for losing weight, tracking exercise, monitoring how much water we drink and food we eat, our heart rate, how we slept last night, and even connected toothbrushes that judge how you’re cleaning your teeth. It’s about time we had one for hearing health.