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What is transparency mode and how does it work?

If you’ve been shopping around for a new set of earbuds or headphones with the latest technology, like the recently announced 2nd generation of Apple’s AirPods Pro, you’ll see some of them boast about something called a “transparency mode.” It’s not immediately clear what that means or if it’s something that you want, so we’re taking a moment to go over this headphone/earphone tech, what it is, and when you would use it. Let’s get started with some answers to important questions!

A woman wearing the UE Drops custom-fit wireless earbuds.
Ultimate Ears

What is transparency mode?

To talk about transparency mode, we first have to introduce a different feature — ANC, or Active Noise Cancellation. This mode is found on an increasing number of today’s earbud and headphone models, and it works to silence external noises. ANC does this with mics that are actively picking up background noises and creating inverted soundwaves that help block those noises out. There are many ANC designs, but they all function in similar ways and excel at blocking out ongoing background noises such as the rumbling of a subway, passing cars, airplane cabins, and so on.

Transparency mode, on the other hand, is a solution when you can keep external noises at bay but still want to listen to something without completely blocking out the world. It can also be called social mode, world volume, and hear-through technology, among other names. These modes let some outside sounds filter through, so it’s no longer ANC, but you can still enjoy your music and podcasts, etc. Transparency modes can also help bypass passive noise cancellation or the natural sound-blocking seal made by in-ear earphones, for example.

How does transparency mode work?

Sometimes transparency modes simply turn off ANC, but they often go a step further. They use the ANC mics to pick up external sounds, then channel those sounds into the headphone speakers, amplifying surrounding sounds in addition to the music or other audio you’re listening to. That means you don’t have to take off your earbuds to get a crystal-clear listen to what’s happening around you and can switch back to ANC whenever you feel like it.

What’s the point of using a transparency mode?

It may sound weird at first, but we bet you can think of a few situations where you may be using your earbuds but need to pick up external sounds for safety or convenience. Common examples include:

  • Jogging alone, where you want to listen to sounds of nearby people, dogs, and vehicles that could pose safety hazards.
  • Riding a subway, bus, or train when you want to listen to announcements so you know when your stop is near.
  • Cleaning the house or cooking in the kitchen while you want to listen for sounds of a baby or toddler stirring in the next room.
  • Sitting at an airport or in a DMV, waiting for your seating or number to be called out.
  • Needing to briefly interact with someone, like a barista or clerk, with the intention of going back to your music afterward.

Can you adjust transparency modes?

It’s not always possible, but many transparency modes have an option to turn up or down the sounds that the mics are relaying, so you can control how much world noise is getting in or what volume it plays at until you find the right balance. Some transparency modes also include the option to either silence your music entirely or blend music and external sounds together.

A close-up of the new House of Marley Redemption ANC 2 True Wireless earbuds.
House of Marley

What kind of headphones have transparency modes?

As ANC has become more popular, so have transparency modes, so there are plenty of options. Among the most famous are Apple’s AirPods Pro and AirPod Max models, both of which offer ANC with a transparency mode option.

Stop by our list of the best earbuds you can buy, and you’ll see that our top pick, the Jabra Elite 7 Pro, also come with a transparency mode to complement ANC. In fact, most of our picks for that list have the option, including Sony’s excellent WF-1000XM4 earbuds, as well as the patented high- and low-frequency cancellation technology found in the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. You can also check out our list of the best headphones for running to find more examples.

Currently, we’re seeing transparency modes most on the latest true wireless earbuds (those with no wires), but you can find it in other types of headphones as well. Remember, different brands may have different terms for it, even though the purpose is the same.

Does a transparency mode cost extra?

Transparency modes tag along with ANC. Active noise cancellation is an advanced feature that requires extra hardware and does tend to cost more compared to headphones without it. However, as it’s become more common in recent years, prices are often reasonable. You can probably even find budget earbuds that have the technology.

Does transparency mode drain batteries faster?

Yes, it will drain your battery faster. Picking up and relaying outside sounds takes extra power, just as it does to cancel those sounds out. Expect your batteries to drain faster with any type of ANC turned on.

Do you really need a transparency mode on new headphones?

If you resonated with some of the cases we listed above, it’s probably a good idea to find headphones that include ANC with transparency mode. ANC itself is excellent for blocking out noise so you can really enjoy your music (especially if you’re into immersive experiences like Spatial Audio or Dolby Atmos 3D sound), which means it pairs best with the highest-quality headphones. In general, if you find yourself rapidly switching between listening to your headphones and paying attention to the outside world in certain circumstances, then a transparency mode is worth having.

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