Many new noise canceling headphones, such as theand the new , the and , the and the , have a feature called transparency mode. Each manufacturer may call it slightly different, but essentially it’s a smart way to keep yourself aware of the world around you, because the moments when fully immersed in your music are not ideal.
Whether you hear the traffic around you, order a coffee from a barista, or just want to check if you’ve actually heard someone knocking on your door (how dare they), transparency mode lets you hear like you don’t have earplugs or headphones on without actually taking them off.
How it is implemented differs a bit depending on the headphones, but how it works is basically the same regardless of the brand. And how does it work? Glad you asked.
There’s more to this mode than the, uh, ear. Most earplugs are designed to have some degree of passive noise isolation. Some are better at this than others. At one end of the range is the standard AirPods design, which hangs from your ear but does not enter your ear canal. At the other end of the range are most of the noise canceling earplugs, which are designed to fit tightly to keep out as much ambient noise as possible. This is great, and of course the point. However, there are numerous situations where situational awareness is important.
If you know how noise canceling headphones work (and if not, read my article about it), you know that microphones on the outside of the headphones listen to the sound around you and then create a reverse wave to reduce the volume of the incoming sound. Transparency mode does half of that. It uses the same microphones to monitor the sound, but that sound is then passed through the headphones like any other sound.
So why not just remove an earbud? That is certainly an option, but is often not necessary. Suppose you are walking through an unfamiliar city. You still want to listen to your music, but it is invaluable to better hear traffic, train announcements and bicycle bells. Maybe a rando will start talking to you and you want to see if it is a meaningful conversation before taking your earplugs off. Or maybe you want to have your hands free for the short conversation, such as using your phone, without having to dig out your headphone case to store an earbud for a few seconds.
Variations on a theme called transparency
How the mode works varies slightly depending on the headphones. For example, on the AirPods Pro you can switch between no processing, noise reduction or transparency. When you remove one earbud on the Bose, the other one automatically becomes completely transparent. Or you can turn it on manually by scrolling through the noise canceling settings.
Sennheiser’s transparent hearing mode is adjustable in the app, so you can choose whether the mode, when activated, keeps the music playing and mixes in ambient noise, or pauses the music and only has the sounds of the world around you. Sony’s Quick Attention mode lowers the volume and increases the ambient noise when you touch an earbud.
As a longtime fan of noise canceling headphones and as someone who regularly wanders through unfamiliar places, the transparency mode can be super useful. It’s worth checking if the noise-canceling headphones have it, or if you’re considering a pair, check out the reviews to see how well it works.
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In addition to TV and other display technology, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, huge aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane cemeteries and more.
You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel.