What is transparency mode? Well, in short, it’s a feature found in many of the best wireless headphones with ANC (active noise cancellation) — like Apple’s AirPods Pro, or Sony’s WH-1000XM5.
Whether it’s called transparency mode, ambient awareness, hear-through mode, social mode, or something else along those lines, the basic idea is the same — a feature that enables you to hear the outside world, without having to remove your headphones or earbuds.
The reason why it’s a feature found in ANC headphones and earbuds is due to the microphone technology involved in making it all work. That’s why we’re first going to quickly look at how ANC works.
What is ANC and how does it work?
Active noise cancellation, or ANC, is a feature that’s designed to reduce or eliminate external environmental noise when you’re wearing your headphones. From the ear-piercing screeching of tube brakes, to the hum of an engine, office chatter, and more, It’s a highly sought-after feature for those looking to travel, concentrate, and enjoy their music and media in peace.
ANC works by using microphones embedded in the headphones themselves. These microphones are constantly actively monitoring all of the sounds coming in from your surroundings. This sound data is then processed in real-time, so that inverted soundwaves are created and played back through your headphones to cancel them out.
While the effectiveness of this noise cancelling will vary depending from headphone to headphone, the end result is a reduction in pesky environmental noises, creating a quiet auditory bubble for you to relax in. Most designs are particularly best suited to sounds on the lower end of the spectrum, such as engine drones, the humming of AC units, building work, and more.
What is transparency mode and how does it work?
Isolating yourself from the troubles of the world is all well and good. Unless you miss an announcement about a platform change for your train. Or fail to recognise the roar of an oncoming bus. You get the picture.
Of course, the traditional solution for this is to simply remove your headphones, but who has time for that? Enter transparency mode — a feature which also harnesses the power of built-in microphones to actively let in sounds from the outside world, while allowing your headphones and earphones to remain on or in your ears.
The degree to how much outside noise is let in differs from model to model. Some headphones actually improve your hearing by amplifying external noises, while with others, the effect is more subtle. Either way, you can carry on listening to your music if you wish, while letting external sounds in to make sure you don’t miss anything important.
Transparency mode isn’t restricted to models with ANC, either. Some earphones and headphones have such good seals, usually through the use of silicone ear tips or thick padded ear cups, that they majorly reduce the amount of incoming sound. A transparency mode here can be just as useful, and is usually activated the same way.
Typically, transparency mode can be toggled on or off via shortcut gestures such as swipes or taps on the headphones themselves (in addition to being controlled via an app). Some headphones automatically pause the music when transparency mode is on, to ensure that you don’t miss any important announcements. Others let you tweak what happens when it’s activated, so if it’s an important function for you, it’s best to double-check the details before making your choice.
On that note, the best headphones also let you tweak the intensity of transparency mode, letting you control just how much sound is allowed in. This level of customisation, unsurprisingly, tends to be reserved for the more premium end of the headphone spectrum.
As with ANC, transparency mode will, naturally, drain your batteries faster, given that it makes use of actively-powered microphones to work its magic. But if you’re constantly commuting or chatting to people in between listening to music, the extra convenience offered by headphones with ANC and transparency mode is hard to beat.