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What is transparency mode?

Take a break from ANC to hear the world around you.

Published onMay 16, 2023

A hand holds the AirPods (3rd generation) in the right ear while touching the force sensor stem.

So you’ve bought some new active noise canceling (ANC) AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro (2nd Generation), or AirPods Max and you’re wondering just what the heck this “Transparency mode” feature is. It’s a fairly straightforward feature, but there’s a good bit happening under the hood to make the magic happen. Let’s explore!

What is Transparency mode?

At its most basic level, Transparency mode is Apple’s branded version of a feature you’ll find in many other headphones that mixes outside sounds with your audio. It also goes by other names like ambient mode, or “hear-through,” among others.  Essentially it allows you to hear the world around you without taking out your earbuds or removing your headphones. Of course, that can seem a little odd—especially if you got your AirPods specifically to not hear people around you. Additionally, if you wanted to hear people, why wouldn’t you just take the headphones off or remove an earbud? Transparency mode appeals to the sloth in all of us and removes this need.

Transparency mode is first and foremost a convenience feature that allows you to leave the earphones in your ears in situations where it would be inconvenient to remove them. That's it.

Some people just want to hear the world around them, or at least have some sort of heads-up when a car is headed their direction. It’s a good tool if you like to use your headset while working with others, or at least avoid the worst issues with active noise canceling in an environment where you need to be able to hear people and things around you.

How do you enable Transparency mode?

If you’d like to toggle Transparency mode with your AirPods Pro, all you have to do is hold the force sensor (the little indent on the stem) until the earbud indicates you’ve swapped between ANC mode and Transparency mode. That’s it.

A hand holds the left earbud of the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) to show off the stem.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
See that little indent there? That’s the force sensor. Long-holding that will toggle between ANC and Transparency mode.

You can, of course, customize this action for just one earbud if you often find yourself with one ear free while using your AirPods Pro. You simply have to toggle this in settings.

  1. Navigate to: Settings > Accessibility > AirPods.
  2. Toggle the “Noise Cancellation with One AirPod” option.

Easy peasy.

How does Transparency mode work?

A person wears the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) in profile view.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
Transparency mode shines in an office, not so much at a concert.

If you’re wondering how all this works, the answer is slightly more complicated than you might think, but the general principle is straightforward. When you toggle Transparency mode, your AirPods swap from using the microphones on the outside of the earbuds for removing noise using ANC to using the same microphones to pipe in sound from around you. Before the captured audio is fed into your ears, it’s processed to make it sound correct.

What is Adaptive Transparency mode?

Adaptive Transparency mode is slightly different than normal Transparency mode in that instead of just piping in sound, instead sounds over 85dB are reduced in level when it reaches your ears. That’s not a bad thing to want (especially as it pertains to noise-induced hearing loss), but it is an extra step.

Of course, this won’t work in the same way all the time, but the feature does a decent job at keeping the peaks of sound down to a somewhat manageable level. This is not a replacement for hearing protection, though—loud sounds can make their way to your ears with even slight changes in fit. If you are in a situation where you think you’ll come across sounds over 85dBSPL often: you might need actual hearing protection instead.

Should you use Transparency mode?

When the situation calls for it, sure, you should absolutely give Transparency mode a go. However, this won’t do a bunch of things that people seem to want. For example, this will not act as a pseudo-hearing aid unless you set it like that. Nor is a set of AirPods Pro a viable alternative to hearing protection at a concert. We totally get why people would want earbuds with Transparency mode, but don’t rely on consumer audio products for protecting your hearing in the face of damaging levels of sound—especially not for kids.

Transparency mode is first and foremost a convenience feature. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all function to stand in for all high-noise situations, so be sure to pay heed to when hearing protection might be a better fit for situational use. It allows you to leave the earphones in your ears in situations where it would be inconvenient for them to be taken out. That’s it.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation)Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation)
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation)
Impressive ANC • Comfortable fit • Wireless charging
MSRP: $249.00
One of the best true wireless earbuds for iOS users.
The Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) modestly improve upon the first-generation AirPods Pro and feature the same iconic look. Apple's upgraded H2 chip begets better noise canceling and battery life, while the case's U1 chip and integrated speaker let you precisely locate the case. If you own an iPhone, the AirPods Pro 2 are an obvious choice.

Frequently Asked Questions

No, the base model AirPods do not have transparency mode. Only ANC models of AirPods have this feature.

No, the base model AirPods do not have transparency mode. Only ANC models of AirPods have this feature.

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