We have had the new AirPods Pro for a few days now. And everyone we have shown them to has had just one query: “how good is the ANC on it?” The interest is understandable. After all, ANC or active noise cancellation is a feature that is often hailed as “the feature” to have on earphones these days. It is the element that separates an ordinary pair of earphones from a truly “high-end” pair. The feature allows you to focus and hear the sound that you want to hear and blocks out ambient noise that could disturb your audio experience.

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It is a feature that, however, had been missing from the first and second generation of Apple’s highly popular true wireless earphones, the AirPods. These relied on a snug fit to keep ambient noise out, rather than generate frequencies to counter them (as happens in ANC). However, Apple recently released an upgraded version of the AirPods, the AirPods Pro and along with a new design, one of the features that it brought to the table was ANC. The world’s most famous truly wireless earphones finally got ANC (in fact, Sony is the only other major brand that offers ANC on truly wireless earphones), and you can now listen to audio on them with minimal noise leaking in from outside.

Hallelujah, right? Well, not quite.

AirPods Pro – the dark side of ANC

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For, we have been using the AirPods Pro for a while and we have realized that, while everyone wants ANC on the earphones that they are using, it can not be the gift that many assume it is. In fact, having the feature on board can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Yes, we want to be able to hear our audio files without any ambient noise interference, but you know, there are times when that very ambient noise can save you from disaster.

I mean, while we want audio on our earphones to be crystal clear, we also want to be able to hear a car speeding at us while we walk down the street or not miss out on an important announcement at the airport.

This is why while everyone is going ga-ga over ANC, we must confess that we are developing a soft corner for a feature that almost is its polar opposite. Yes, thankfully, Apple seems to have understood this love-hate relationship users could have with the ANC feature and has included the option to not only turn it off while using the AirPods Pro but also added another mode on the earphones that allows you to actually hear the sound around you – that ambient noise – better.

AirPods Pro – Using ANC to let external sound in

It’s called Transparency Mode. As its name indicates, it kind of makes the earphones “transparent” in terms of audio, letting you hear noise from outside them.

Which seems rather odd. I mean, you buy them to be able to hear the audio better. Why would anyone want to hear the ambient sound better? Well, simply because it allows you to be more aware of your surroundings. And sometimes this is necessary, such as when you are out for a run in a public area and want to know of any vehicles or people in your vicinity (so as to avoid them better).

Some would say: why not just switch off ANC altogether?

That’s what we did. And believe us, it did not help much. If anything the music we were hearing through the AirPods Pro seemed just a little louder with the ANC switched off. Yes, we could hear external sounds, but they were largely drowned out and we had to lower the volume on the AirPods to be more aware of them. We switched to Transparency Mode, and lo and behold, we could hear sounds around us a lot more clearly. And that is evidently because ANC is not totally switched off in Transparency Mode. Yes, the very feature that is expected to keep external sounds out, actually switches roles to help you hear them. This results in giving you the right amount of ambient sound and audio on your AirPods Pro.

AirPods Pro Transparency Mode: Switching ANC off…but only partly

This happens because ANC on the AirPods Pro involves two sets of microphones. One set focuses on canceling sounds from outside, and another on removing sounds that are actually inside your ear. When you switch off ANC on the AirPods Pro, both sets of microphones are switched off. So while ambient sounds from outside do come audible, so do sounds within the ear.

But in Transparency mode, only the external set of microphones is switched off. But the internal set is kept on. This results, in Apple’s words, in “a unique system of vents, and exceptionally low-latency processing to let you hear sound otherwise blocked by the silicone tips. The vents continually equalize the pressure between your ear and the outside world.”

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In essence, this means that while external sounds can be heard, they can be heard more clearly than when ANC is totally switched off. This is because the internal set of microphones eliminate disturbance within your ear, and because the external microphones have been switched off, external noise does come in but has to encounter less noise inside your ear, as ANC is still partly working via the internal microphones.

In simple terms, the AirPods Pro in Transparency mode, actually USE ANC to let you hear ambient sounds more clearly. How cool is that? We actually sometimes felt that Transparency Mode almost acted like hearing aids when seated across a table and talking to someone in a noisy cafe. We could hear the person’s voice more clearly in Transparency mode than with the AirPods Pro off our ears.

This is why while most of the world goes crazy over ANC’s role in keeping noise out, we cannot help but admire how, on the iPods Pro, it actually switches roles and helps you hear external sounds. This is why we think that while ANC is pretty awesome (stay tuned for our review to find out more), we think the Transparency mode is amazing as well.

For while shutting out the world for a while is good, you should never really forget that it exists. And is out there. A bit of Transparency mode never hurts!

(Need to find out how to turn on Transparency Mode on the AirPods Pro? Read our Tiny Tip here)

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