Noise-canceling headphones cancel a little too much noise
Transparency mode is a useful feature found on many new noise-canceling headphones, like the Apple AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. Each manufacturer might call it something slightly different, but at its core transparency mode is a clever way to help keep you aware of the surroundings. It's designed for the moments when being fully absorbed in music, podcasts or a phone call isn't ideal.
Transparency mode might be useful for letting you hear the traffic around you, ordering a coffee from a barista, or just wanting to check if you really did hear someone knocking on your door (how dare they!).
It lets you hear as if you don't have earbuds in or headphones on, without actually taking them off. Read more: Best Black Friday deals on headphones and wireless earbuds How it's implemented varies a bit depending on the headphone, but how it works is basically the same regardless of brand.
And how does it work and how should you use it? Glad you asked.
What is transparency mode?Bose
There's more to this mode than meets the, uh, ear. Most earbuds are designed to have a certain amount of passive noise isolation.
Some are better at this than others. At one end of the range is the standard AirPods design, which hangs off your ear but doesn't go into your ear canal. At the other end of the range are most noise-canceling earbuds, which are designed to have a secure fit to block out as much ambient noise as possible.
This is great for concentrating on your music or phone call, but there are countless situations where some ambient awareness is important.
Noise-canceling headphones work by using microphones on the outside of the headphone to listen to the noise around you, then creating an inverse wave to reduce the volume of the incoming sound. Transparency mode does half that. It uses the same microphones to monitor the sound, but that sound is then just passed through the headphone, just like any other audio.
The AirPods Max (left) next to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4.David Carnoy/CNET
So why not just remove an earbud? That's certainly an option, but often isn't necessary. Say you're walking around an unfamiliar city.
You still want to listen to your music, but being able to better hear traffic, train announcements and bike bells is invaluable. Maybe some rando starts talking to you and you want to see if it's a worthwhile conversation before you take out your earbuds. Or maybe you want to have your hands free for the short conversation, to use your phone for instance, without having to dig out your headphone case to store an earbud for a few seconds.
How to use transparency mode on AirPods, Bose, Sony headphones and moreApple
How the mode works varies a bit depending on the headphones.
On the AirPods Pro, for instance, you can toggle between no processing, noise canceling or transparency. On the Bose, if you remove one earbud, the other automatically goes into full transparency. Or you can enable it manually by cycling through the noise-canceling settings.Sennheiser
Sennheiser's Transparent Hearing mode is adjustable in its app so you can choose if the mode, when activated, keeps the music playing and mixes in ambient sound, or pauses the music and just has the sounds of the world around you.Sony
Sony's Quick Attention mode drops the volume and ramps up the ambient sound when you touch an earbud. There's also an Ambient Sound Control slider in the app that lets you dial in exactly how much transparency or noise cancellation you want. As a long-time fan of noise-canceling headphones, and as someone who regularly wanders through unfamiliar places, transparency mode can be super helpful.
It's worth checking if your noise-canceling headphones have it, or if you're considering a pair, check the reviews to see how well it works. For more info in general, check out best noise-canceling headphones, best noise-canceling headphones under £100 and best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds.
CNET TVs, Streaming and Audio
Get CNET's comprehensive coverage of home entertainment tech delivered to your inbox.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more. You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube.