Transparency Mode Lets You Hear the World Around You When Using Noise-Canceling Headphones
Here's how it works on headphones and earbuds, including Apple AirPods Pro and the new Google Pixel Buds Pro.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Sarah Lord covers TVs and home entertainment. Prior to joining CNET, Sarah served as the tech and electronic reviews fellow at Insider, where she wrote about everything from smart watches and wearables to tablets and e-readers. She began her career by writing laptop reviews as an intern and subsequent freelancer at Tom's Hardware. She is also a professional actor with many credits in theater, film and television.
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Noise-canceling headphones are great on planes or in a crowded office, but sometimes it's necessary to hear the world around you for a few minutes. For example, it might be useful for letting you hear the traffic around you, ordering a coffee or just wanting to check if you really did hear someone knocking on your door. (How dare they!) It lets you hear as if you don't have earbuds in or headphones on, without actually taking them off.
How it's implemented varies a bit depending on the headphone, but how it works is basically the same regardless of brand. And how does it work and how should you use it? Glad you asked.
What is transparency mode?
There's more to this mode than meets the, uh, ear. Most earbuds are designed to have a certain amount of passive noise isolation. Some are better at this than others. At one end of the range is the standard AirPods design, which hangs off your ear but doesn't go into your ear canal. At the other end of the range are most noise-canceling earbuds, which are designed to have a secure fit to block out as much ambient noise as possible. This is great for concentrating on your music or phone call, but there are countless situations where some ambient awareness is important.
Noise-canceling headphones work by using microphones on the outside of the headphone to listen to the noise around you, then creating an inverse wave to reduce the volume of the incoming sound. Transparency mode does half that. It uses the same microphones to monitor the sound, but that sound is then just passed through the headphone, just like any other audio.
So why not just remove an earbud? That's certainly an option, but often isn't necessary. Say you're walking around an unfamiliar city. You still want to listen to your music, but being able to better hear traffic, train announcements and bike bells is invaluable. Maybe some rando starts talking to you and you want to see if it's a worthwhile conversation before you take out your earbuds. Or maybe you want to have your hands free for the short conversation, to use your phone for instance, without having to dig out your headphone case to store an earbud for a few seconds.
How to use transparency mode on Apple, Bose, Sony headphones and more
How the mode works varies a bit depending on the headphones. On the AirPods Pro, for instance, you can toggle between no processing, noise canceling or transparency. On the Bose, if you remove one earbud, the other automatically goes into full transparency. Or you can enable it manually by cycling through the noise-canceling settings.
Transparent Hearing mode is adjustable in its app so you can choose if the mode, when activated, keeps the music playing and mixes in ambient sound, or pauses the music and just has the sounds of the world around you.
Sony's Quick Attention mode drops the volume and ramps up the ambient sound when you touch an earbud. There's also an Ambient Sound Control slider in the app that lets you dial in exactly how much transparency or noise cancellation you want.
As a long-time fan of noise-canceling headphones, and as someone who regularly wanders through unfamiliar places, transparency mode can be super helpful. It's worth checking if your noise-canceling headphones have it, or if you're considering a pair, check the reviews to see how well it works.