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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.

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Transparency mode is an important feature found on many new headphones and earbuds with active noise cancellation.

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.

Each manufacturer might call the technology something slightly different, but at its core transparency mode is a clever way to help keep you aware of the surroundings.  The feature is offered on many popular headphones and earbuds including the Apple AirPods ProAirPods MaxBose QuietComfort EarbudsBose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 , the newly released Sony WH-1000XM5 and the recently announced Google Pixel Buds Pro, among others. 

Read More: Best Noise-Canceling Headphones Under $100 for 2022

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?

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Bose

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.

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The AirPods Max (left) next to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4.

David Carnoy/CNET

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

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Apple

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. 

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Sennheiser

Sennheiser's 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. 

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Sony

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.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel