How To: Use Your iPhone to Hear the World Around You Better, Spy on Conversations, Troubleshoot Weird Sounds & More

Use Your iPhone to Hear the World Around You Better, Spy on Conversations, Troubleshoot Weird Sounds & More

What started as an accessibility setting for hearing aids turned out to be a super useful tool for anyone with a good set of Bluetooth headphones. The problem is that most iPhone users still don't know about it. If you're one of them, you need to see what this underrated gem in iOS can offer you.

The feature is called Live Listen, and it's been around for Made for iPhone hearing aids since 2013. While it was and is super helpful for those with hearing impairments, Apple truly made it a killer feature when it made it compatible with AirPods, Beats, and other Bluetooth headphones in iOS 12 and later.

The concept is simple: connect a compatible pair of Bluetooth headphones, turn on the feature, then point your iPhone's microphone at a voice or sound you're having a hard time hearing. Instantly, things are much louder and clearer, as the audio is transported to your headphones at any volume range that's comfortable.

Just a Few Reasons Why Live Listen Is So Awesome

If you're at the back of a lecture hall, in a tour group, or in another location where it's difficult to hear the person speaking to the group, Live Listen means you don't have to miss a word.

It's also handy whenever you hear a noise or sound that you can't quite recognize, such as an unknown animal or bug in your yard. Better yet, a funky or abnormal sound coming from an object (your car engine, refrigerator, inside a wall, etc.) that's definitely there and might be causing issues.

When you're dining out at a restaurant or bar, and the ambient noise is so loud that you can't hear the other person or people at your table, Live Listen can help you understand everyone better. And with some headphones, such as a set of AirPods, you only need to have one of them in, so you don't look more awkward or rude than necessary chatting with others in person.

You could even use Live Listen on your iPhone as a makeshift stethoscope if you want to see what yours or someone else's heartbeat sounds like.

And there are more sinister uses you can play around with. Want to know if your friends are talking about you at the other corner of the room? Live Listen. Need help talking to somebody in a conversation? Let someone else listen to your Live Listen feed, and then they can feed you responses.

Partial List of Compatible Bluetooth Headphones

Bluetooth-capable headphones that are Made for iPhone (MFI) should be compatible with Live Listen. Apple's wireless headphones will obviously work, as well as a few Beats, but some third-party headphones may be wonky depending on what iOS version you're running.

Some third-party ones that worked in iOS 12 don't work anymore in iOS 13 and later, and some that work in iOS 13 don't work in iOS 12, so the best thing you can do is try it out and see for yourself. For example, I have a five-year-old set of Soundpeats QY7 earbuds that work with iOS 12 but not iOS 13 or iOS 14.

Here's a tiny list of wireless earbuds, earphones, and headphones that users have reported working over the years. It's not even close to a definitive list, so if you have something different, you just have to try it out. And remember, some may work in one iOS version but not another.

Some users have even stated that portable Bluetooth speakers have worked for them, but none of the ones we own worked.

Step 1: Add Hearing to Control Center

While built into the system, Live Listen isn't usable until you unlock its control. To do so, open Settings, then tap "Control Center." If you're using iOS 14 or later, you should see lists of included and not included controls right away. On iOS 12 and iOS 13, you'll need to tap "Customize Controls" to see the lists.

Under the More Controls list, find "Hearing" and tap its plus (+) icon to add it to the Included Controls list. If you have a lot of active controls, you can drag each one by its three-lined icon to move it up or down in the Control Center. You can see a control's updated position by opening your Control Center, then tweak it accordingly. Tap "Back" to save.

Setting the Hearing control in iOS 13 (left) and iOS 14 (right).

Step 2: Connect Your Bluetooth Headphones

Before proceeding, make sure your Bluetooth headphones are connected to your iPhone. If they've already been paired with your iPhone, you can use the Bluetooth control in the Control Center to connect to them. Just long-press it, then long-press it again, and choose your headphones from the list. If you're listening to music or other audio on the iPhone, you can also use the AirPlay icon in the media control.

You can also go into Settings –> Bluetooth (you can get there from the Control Center if you want) to find and connect to your wireless AirPods or other headphones. This is also where you'd pair the headphones if you haven't already.

The main ways to connect to your Bluetooth headphones.

Step 3: See if Your Headphones Work with Live Listen

Now, swipe open your Control Center and tap the new Hearing control.

If you don't have any compatible Bluetooth headphones connected, it should say "Unavailable for current route" for Live Listen. But that's if you're on iOS 12 or iOS 13. In the newer iOS 14, it may say, "Connect a compatible audio device to use Live Listen," which is much more useful.

However, your headphones may be compatible even though it doesn't look like it. Try turning off your Bluetooth headphones, then power them back on so that they auto-connect to your iPhone right away. If that doesn't work after a few tries, try unpairing and repairing your headphones. Still a no-go? Try restarting or force-restarting your iPhone.

Below, you can see that I could not get my old QY7 headphones working on iOS 12 (left) or even a set of AirPods on iOS 14 (right). But after turning the headphones off and back on or disconnecting and reconnecting them, Live Listen would work.

If your headphones still don't work after trying the above troubleshooting steps, they likely aren't compatible with the iOS version you're running.

QY7 on iOS 12 (left) and AirPods on iOS 14 (right) not working — even though they do work.

Step 4: Activate Live Listen for Improved Hearing

When you see "Off" for the Live Listen feature after opening the Hearing control, your headphones work! Congrats. Now, to actually use Live Listen, tap "Off," and it will turn into "On" when working. Next to "On," you'll see five dots, which will light up as the sounds around you get softer or louder. On iOS 14 and later, you also get a decibels (dB) reader, so you know exactly how noisy the world around you is. It will even tell you if it's too loud for safe hearing.

Activating Live Listen on iOS 13 (left) and iOS 14 (right).

When you exit the Hearing control and go back to the main Control Center screen, what will appear depends on the iOS version you're running. On iOS 12 and iOS 13, the Hearing control won't look any different than before. However, on iOS 14, the Hearing control will show a green checkmark when Live Listen is active, along with a miniature bar of the current decibel readings.

Hearing's control in iOS 13 (left) and iOS 14 (right).

When you leave the Control Center altogether, you'll either see a red pill-shaped background around the time in the status bar (for Face ID models) or that the whole status bar up top is red (for Touch ID models). This lets you know that Live Listen is still active and working.

If you want to view the five-dots sound level indicator really quick, you can tap the red pill or status bar, which will open the Live Listen view. Tapping outside of the Live Listen window will take you back to where you were, with Live Listen still on.

To turn off Live Listen, you can do so from the Hearing control in Control Center or the Live Listen shortcut via the red pill or status bar. Just tap "On," and it'll switch to "Off." It's that easy.

Using the shortcut to view the current readings (left) and turning off Live Listen (right).

It's important to note that Live Listen does not record anything, so there's no record of what you've heard when the feature was active. The audio is transmitted, and that's it. There are ways to record it, but then what's the point of using your headphones for improved live listening?

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Cover photo and GIFs by Justin Meyers/Gadget Hacks

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