Picture this. It’s new music Friday, Willie Jones is flowing through your noise-canceling headphones, and suddenly a stranger waves you down. Did you drop something? Are they asking for directions? Are they talking to someone else?
Until a few years ago, the only way to find out would be to pause your music and turn off your headphones.
Today, several leading headphone makers build in passive noise options labeled with names like Transparency Mode, Hear Through, and Ambient Sound. You can tune into the outside world with a tap, pinch, or swipe without removing your headphones.
Why This Matters
Sure, keeping your headphones on during a brief exchange is convenient, but it has some more meaningful benefits as well:
On Phone Calls
Talking on the phone without hearing your voice is something of a mind game. I find it very distracting and sometimes even lose my train of thought. Ambient Sound settings give you a more natural call experience.
While active noise cancelation can give you some zen in the middle of the urban jungle, it’s not that safe. ANC blocks the sound of oncoming traffic, people entering your space, and even important PSAs at train stations and in airports. Ambient sound modes are a great option when you are in an unfamiliar spot.
If you are one of the more than 40 million people in the U.S. with hearing loss, you might even consider a feature like transparency mode as a bootleg hearing aid. Some advanced products like AirPods let you adjust the volume of the outside world beyond the levels of your natural hearing (see our tutorial here).
How Transparency Mode Works
Pass-through audio uses similar technology to active-noise cancellation. Microphones on your headphones pick up outside sounds, then process and re-create them before pushing them through the speakers in your ears.
The best pass-through devices can blend ambient sound with the sound of your music or phone call in a natural way. Most headphone makers build transparency controls into their apps.
Important Features to Consider
Before we get into the best pass-through headphones on the market, let’s talk about some of the key features to look out for.
- Ease of use: Look for a device that makes switching between ANC and pass-through audio simple through taps, buttons, or swipes.
- Sound quality: The best pass-through headphones work hard to amplify the outside world in a realistic way without overwhelming you with too much background noise or giving you a muffled sound.
- Customization: Look for a device that lets you customize the volume of the outside world to match your preferences. Some devices even let you customize the outside-world volume to your personal hearing profile (great for anyone with hearing loss).
Our 5 Favorite Headphones with Transparency Mode 👇
We reviewed dozens of candidates for this list and ultimately landed on the products below for their quality, features, price, and processing power.
Older-style earbuds like Apple’s early generation Airpods used to let lots of ambient sound into your ears. Over time, it’s become clear that active noise cancelation is more zen and healthier. Noise cancellation allows wearers to keep their volume at a reasonable level instead of blasting the music to overcome background noise.
Most premium headphones now offer a combination of ANC and transparent audio, and we don’t see that trend going anywhere.
The bottom line
- If you are an iPhone user, beating Airpods Pro 2 or Airpods Max will be tough.
- If you are an Android user, you’ll likely want Samsung Galaxy Buds or Sony’s iconic WH-1000XM5.
- If you want an earbud that can double as a situational hearing aid you might like Jabra Enhance Plus.