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What is Ambient Sound Mode?

Last updated: 3 months ago
6 min read
Man with headphones walking on the street.

Learn about the ambient sound mode and whether or not you need it.

Modern headphones come packed with various features. While there’s a feature to actively reduce ambient sound, there’s another one that can boost it.

The feature is called Ambient sound mode, but headphone manufacturers tend to use their own names such as “Transparency mode”, “Transparent Hearing”, “Ambient Sound mode”, “HearThru”, and so on.

Table of Contents

    What is Ambient Sound Mode?

    The ambient sound mode uses microphones to record ambient sounds and then play them back into your ears.

    It essentially makes you more aware of your surroundings without taking off your headphones.

    Why is Ambient Sound Mode Useful?

    Taking your headphones off every time you want to hear ambient sound is annoying. Whether that’s a person speaking to you, passing cars, or an alert for your next bus stop.

    Man passing the streets
    With good ambient sound mode, you never have to take off your headphones.

    The main use of ambient modes is to enable you to talk to the person next to you. Press a button and you can already have a conversation and eliminate the need to take off your headphones.

    Of course, sometimes you can’t beat taking them down. That’s because microphones can’t pick up sounds the same way as your ears, especially those coming from far away.

    Ambient Sound Mode vs. Active Noise Cancelling on Headphones

    The difference between ambient sound mode and noise cancelling is that the first amplifies ambient noise, whereas the second cancel ambient noise.

    You use noise cancelling mode when you want to reduce unwanted background noise and focus on your music or your work.

    And when you want to talk to people and hear what’s going on around you, you turn on the ambient sound mode and hear your surroundings through headphones.

    Sony WF-1000XM3 ambient sound control
    Sony’s Headphones Connect app lets you regulate the ambient sound volume or let the Adaptive Sound adjust ambient sound mode accordingly.

    Active noise cancellation is important in aviation, where the first active noise-canceling headphones were massively used.

    ANC headphones record background noise with microphones and invert its phase using built-in electronics. Then they play the inverted/opposite sound back into your ears, which cancels out the background noises.

    Don’t confuse noise cancellation with passive isolation. The latter reduces ambient sounds passively, without the use of electronics. Here are some of the best noise isolating headphones.

    What is an Adaptive Noise Cancellation?

    • This is a fancy term for ambient noise cancellation that changes automatically depending on the situation you’re in.

    The idea is that you don’t want to use full noise cancelling all the time. Sometimes you want to let some of the ambient sounds through, like in a public place (you want to hear the announcement when your airplane is departing).

    The headphones have their own “AI” or internal programming that determines which noise cancelling mode is the most suitable for the noise levels that they are currently recording.

    Usually, you can control what sound mode you want to use or if you want to leave it to adaptive programming. It’s a feature most common in premium, higher-end noise cancelling headphones.

    Best Headphones with Ambient Sound Mode

    You can find Ambient sound modes even in budget headphones. However, they don’t work nearly as well as in premium models.

    Apple AirPods Max transparency mode
    Apple AirPods Max’s Transparency mode is the best performing Ambient sound mode we’ve tested so far.

    Headphones with good Ambient mode can cost around $100 and more.

    What are the leading headphone models with an ambient sound mode?

    What are the leading headphone models with passive noise isolation?

    To get effective noise isolation, look for closed-back headphones with over-ear earcups. Those are much better at blocking unwanted sound.

    What are the leading headphone models that allow people to hear ambient noise?

    Headphones that let through the ambient sound by design are open-back and open-air headphones.

    Open-back means the ear cups are open and don’t enclose the drivers, so there is a direct path for air to travel from outside to your ears.

    Person listening to headphones
    Open-back headphones are great to listen to music, but they’re only suitable for home use.

    Usually, open-back headphones create better spatial sound, better soundstage, and give a superior sense of space the music is coming from.

    And if you’re looking for small earbuds, you can check the classic earphones that don’t go in-ear but stay on the outside of the ear canal.

    What is Ambient Sound?

    Ambient noise is all the environmental sounds you hear around you. In headphones, ambient noise is everything that you hear but it isn’t in the original song.

    Ambient sound examples include the noise of traffic, weather, animals (birds), waves, alarms, people chatter, and noise from devices such as air conditioning, fans, refrigerators, etc.

    Ambient noise in NYC Times Square
    Popular locations like the NYC Times Square create a lot of ambient noise.

    Background noise (or noise pollution) is generally an unwanted part of listening to music.

    It takes away from the listening experience of your favorite song, makes details harder to hear, and causes miscommunication during a phone call.

    Also, it encourages listening to higher volumes, which might lead to hearing damage.

    Why You Want to Hear Ambient Noise While Wearing Headphones?

    The only time you want to hear ambient sound while wearing a pair of headphones is when you want to interact with other people and be aware of your surroundings.

    It’s useful for runners (and cyclists) who are jogging on the streets where they need to pay attention to the traffic to avoid accidents (because lack of awareness can be deadly).

    Bicycle accident with car
    To avoid accidents, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears on the road.

    Also, it’s useful in business environments where you need to talk with people next to you and make many phone calls.

    For everyday situations, you want to hear important sounds when you want to communicate with people, like talking with a store clerk or other service people.

    Of course, turn Ambient sound mode to talk to people only when making quick replies. For longer conversations, it’s probably rude to keep your headphones on.

    What Effect Does Ambient Noise Have on People?

    Depends on whether you talk about headphones or real life.

    In headphones, there are no health hazards caused by amplifying background noise. However, if it’s loud, it can veil fine details in music, forcing you to crank up the volume and damage your hearing.

    In other words, it makes the listening experience worse by covering and blocking your music.

    Apple AirPods Max in the city
    Traffic in the city can be very loud, which can worsen your listening experience.

    On the other hand, ambient sound helps some people relax and fall asleep more easily. When the noise mimics a different, more relaxing surrounding environment, it gives you a sense of being in touch with your surroundings.

    Of course, there’s a limit. Too much ambient noise in your living area can negatively affect your quality of life.

    Ambient Noise vs. White Noise

    What is White Noise?

    White noise is a combination of all sound frequencies that humans can hear with equal intensity and volume.

    It’s constant and repeating, a dense signal that sounds like static in some broken electronics.

    White Noise Black Screen | Sleep, Study, Focus | 10 Hours

    As an example, when you’re manually searching for a radio channel or TV channel (back on analog TVs), you often encounter an in-between point that produces white noise.

    Just like ambient sounds, white noise is also considered an audio polluter and is generally unwanted.

    The reason is that it scrambles your hearing perception because it creates all sounds. It makes it impossible for the brain to determine which sound is the “right” one (the one you want to hear).

    This makes it useful for drowning out voices and other audio pollution when you want to relax or have a good night’s sleep.

    A lot of wireless and active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones produce tiny white noise as the result of their flawed technology.

    Some suffer from it worse than others and it depends on the model and version.

    Commuting with Bose noise cancelling headphones
    Note that in recent years, Bluetooth headphones and earbuds started sounding noise-free, without any static hum in the background.

    Interestingly, while grown-ups hate the sound of white noise, it’s apparently quite calming to little kids and it can even help them fall asleep. Of course, by using a noise machine at healthy volumes.

    Why is it called white noise?

    Just like white light is a combination of all colors, white noise is a combination of all (audible) sounds. It’s a combination of all different sound frequencies.

    How Does White Noise Differ from Ambient Noise?

    • White noise is a collection of multiple frequency bands playing at equal volume
    • Ambient noise varies in both frequency and volume and sounds more pleasant. Of course, both are still unwanted when listening to music.

    Ambient (or background) noise is anything that isn’t the original audio. It can be a regular or one-time occurrence. It’s often random with different intensity, volume, and frequency (it depends where you are).

    It’s disruptive and annoying but doesn’t mask music as efficiently.

    White noise is different in its constant intensity and repetition of all sound frequencies, which makes it impossible to overhear. Thus, it makes your music inaudible.

    Also, humans can generally identify the origin of ambient noise (a sound of a car, a bird, construction site), whereas they can’t identify a white noise.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Should Ambient Sound Be ON or OFF?

    If you sit at home or you don’t have to be aware of your surroundings in general, there’s no need for you to active Ambient sound mode.

    On the other hand, if you walk down the road and want to hear a passing car to avoid an accident, it’s wise to activate the feature.

    Is Ambient Sound Noise Cancelling?

    No, the two features do the exact opposite. Ambient sound mode amplifies the surrounding noise and plays it back into your ears, where active noise cancellation reduces surrounding noise, so you hear less of it.