5 Best Headphones With Transparency Mode and Pass Through Audio

June 23, 2023
Blake Cadwell
Written by
Blake Cadwell
Blake Cadwell

Blake Cadwell is a hearing aid wearer and co-founder at Soundly. He regularly tests and reviews hearing technology to share his experience with Soundly’s readers. Blake's research and perspectives have been featured in the The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, AARP and FastCompany.

Soundly Staff
Reviewed by
Soundly Staff
Soundly Staff

Soundly conducts in-depth research to guide prospective hearing aid wearers. Our work is funded through reader support. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.

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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. 

Safety

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. 

Amplification

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.

Apple Airpods Max Transparency Mode
Apple AirPods Max
Best Transparency Features

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max

$499
Listen to a demo
pause
Transparency Mode
Personalized Sound
20-Hour Battery
Button Controls

Apple's AirPods Max are unapologetically luxurious. Only Sony the stage on overall build-quality and features. In usual Apple fashion, Max is really best for iPhone users and can switch between devices seamlessly. Like Airpods Pro 2 (earbuds) AirPods Max integrate with Apple Health where you can upload an audiogram or take a hearing test. The personalized sound is applied to both streamed audio and Transparency Mode audio. Speaking of transparency mode, this is where AirPods Max are the uncontested leader. If you turn on transparency mode you'll almost forget you are wearing headphones. The spatial awareness and natural sound is kind of amazing. You can even boost your Transparency Mode volume beyond your natural hearing to unlock hearing-aid-style amplification.

Important Features 

  • Personalized Sound: Apple lets you upload a hearing test to your Apple Health app or take one through a partner app like Mimi.
  • Comfort: AirPods Max sits over ear and is very breathable. The devices are quite heavy compared to competitors.
  • Battery life: Up to 20 hours of listening time, talk time, or movie playback when you have Active Noise Cancellation and spatial audio turned on. If you charge your AirPods Max for 5 minutes, you get around 1.5 hours of listening time.
  • Phone call quality: Apple is the best in the game regarding phone call quality. Their new voice isolation feature (compatible with AirPods) just increases Apple's lead.
Soundly Scorecard
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Pros
  • Industry leading transparency mode
  • Incredible sound and low-distortion at all frequencies
  • Knob instead of touch-control makes controls more stable

Cons
  • AirPods max are metal and quite heavy compared to Sony and Bose
  • Not water-resistant (stay out of the rain)
  • AirPods Max is the most expensive consumer-grade headphone on the market

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Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro Hearing Loss
Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro 2
Best for Android Users

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro 2

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro 2

229.99
Listen to a demo
pause
Ambient Sound
Personalized Sound
8-Hours Battery
Tap Controls

Galaxy Buds Pro is Samsung's response to Apple's AirPods Pro. The earbuds have great sound quality, a comfortable fit, and seamless connection with a wide range of devices. The Galaxy Wearable app gives you lots of control over your listening experience, starting with an onboard hearing test.

You can apply the results of that hearing test to streamed sound or pick from presets. Like Apple, Samsung Earbuds are sometimes customized and used as entry-level hearing aids (our how-to here). 

Important Features

  • Personalized Sound: Samsung offers an onboard hearing test, EQ presets, and a customizable equalizer through the Galaxy Wearable app (not available on iPhone).  
  • Battery life: up to 8 hours of listening time without ANC activated
  • Comfort: Galaxy Buds Pro 2 aren't a perfect fit for every ear but come with multiple ear tips and a compact size. 
  • Phone call quality: Samsung uses beam-forming technology to isolate your voice and clean up phone audio. These devices are up there with the best.  
Soundly Scorecard
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Pros
  • Integrates seamlessly with Samsung devices.
  • More compact than AirPods Pro 2.
  • Offers lots of fine-tuning via the Galaxy Wearable app.
  • IPX7 rating (can be submerged for up to 30 minutes).
  • Long-lasting battery and great overall sound quality.
Cons
  • Touch controls can be overly sensitive.
  • The Galaxy Wearable app is not available for iPhone users.

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Apple AirPods Pro 2 Review
Apple AirPods Pro 2
Best for Apple Users

Apple AirPods Pro 2

Apple AirPods Pro 2

249.95
Listen to a demo
pause
Transparency Mode
Personalized Sound
4.5-Hour Battery
Pinch/Button Controls

Airpods Pro 2 makes this list for their truly personalized audio experience. 

Of course, AirPods come from the darling of consumer technology - Apple. The devices work seamlessly with iPhone and Mac products. These headphones have powerful active noise canceling capabilities and customizable Transparency Mode. Many users even turn Airpods Pro 2 into bootleg hearing aids (our how-to-guide here). Importantly, the Airpods integration with Apple Health makes it easy to upload an audiogram or take a hearing test. Your results are then applied to all Airpod audio. 

One other thing we love about Airpods is their built-in volume controls. Volume management is critical if you have hearing loss and want to protect your remaining hearing. Read more about Apple's safety features here

Important Features

  • Personalized Sound: Apple lets you upload a hearing test to your Apple Health app or take one through a partner app like Mimi. 
  • Comfort: Airpods Pro 2 comes with various ear tip sizes. This is one of the most comfortable earbuds on the market.  
  • Battery life: 4.5 hours of listening time or up to 3.5 hours of talk time on a single charge.
  • Phone call quality: Apple is the best in the game regarding phone call quality. Their new voice isolation feature (compatible with AirPods) just increases Apple's lead. 
Soundly Scorecard
+
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Pros
  • Apple integrates beautifully with iPhone and Mac.
  • Intuitive pinch-controls to pause music and activate Transparency Mode.
  • Airpods Pro 2 offers fine-tuned customization to both streamed and Transparency sound.
  • Apple offers a long-lasting battery and great overall sound quality.
Cons
  • Harder to use without an iPhone
  • More expensive than other options
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Sony Headphones for hearing loss
Sony WH-1000XM5
Best All-Around Over-Ear Headphone

Sony WH-1000XM5

Sony WH-1000XM5

399.99
Listen to a demo
pause
Ambient Sound Mode
EQ Controls
30-Hour Battery
Button Controls

Sony WH-1000 series and Apple's Airpods Max have been duking it out for a few years to claim the top spot for the best-of-the-best among over-ear headphones. Sony's WH-1000XM5 is a 2022 upgrade to their hugely popular M4 device. This headphone has a lot to love, from the sleek exterior (offered in light and dark) to the comfortable and lightweight design. M5 added size to the earcup, which is great for anyone who wears hearing aids. M5 also added four new microphones to improve active noise cancelation and transparency mode.

Regarding customization, the Sony app gives you the full suite of EQ presets and five bands of customization. Sony does not offer a hearing test, so you must make EQ adjustments based on your ear or another hearing test (like ours). WH-1000XM5 is a powerhouse device with incredible audio quality and great features. The only real competition for the #1 over-ear spot is Airpods Max which isn't great for Android users.

Important Features

  • Personalized Sound: Impressive preset options or a fully customizable EQ with five bands of adjustment. 
  • Battery life: Up to 30 hours on a single charge
  • Comfort: Comfortable, lightweight option with vegan leather ear cups and a slightly larger size
  • Phone call quality: Sony can compete with the best in shutting down background noise and isolating your voice. 
Soundly Scorecard
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Pros
  • Beautiful and comfortable design
  • 30 hours of battery life
  • Customizable EQ
  • Works with all phone types
  • Easy earcup tap and swipe controls
Cons
  • Bulky for travel
  • Transparency mode is not quite as good as Airpods Max
  • Ears can become hot after a long wear-session

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Jabra Enhance Plus
Best Hearing Aid Headphone Hybrid

Jabra Enhance Plus

Jabra Enhance Plus

$499 / pair
Listen to a demo
pause
In the Ear
Rechargeable
OTC
Affordable

Jabra Enhance Plus is a new product from GN Hearing (the parent company to ReSound). The earbud-style product is self-customized to your hearing loss and can alternate between amplifying the sounds around you, playing music and podcasts or both.

You can read my full review of Jabra Enhance Plus here. It hasn’t replaced my hearing aids, but it offers a great starting point for someone who isn’t ready to take the leap and needs support in specific situations.

  • How it works:
    ✔️ Start by purchasing Jabra Enhance Plus hearing aids online.
    ✔️ Once the product arrives at your home, you'll download the app and self-program the hearing aids to match your hearing loss.
    ✔️ If you need further support you can call Jabra's customer service team.
  • Overall notes: Jabra Enhance Plus won't replace your all-day hearing aids but they can provide a boost to those with mild to moderate hearing loss that aren't ready to take the leap.
  • Price: $799 for a pair
  • Features: Self-fit, simple to get started, modern design, Bluetooth streaming and rechargeability
Soundly Scorecard
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Pros

Modern headphone appearance

Fantastic music and podcast quality

Easy to use app

Cons

Not as comfortable as traditional hearing aids for all-day use

Picks up some wind noise

Purchase Jabra Enhance Plus online or at select retailers 👉
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Final Thoughts

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.

Frequently asked questions

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