Will AirPods’ adaptive transparency let my friend go to parties?
October 1, 2022 5:26 AM   Subscribe

I have a friend who loves conversation but can’t handle crowded, noisy spaces. When he goes to a party, he gets overwhelmed by the ambient noise and can’t focus on the people he’s trying to talk with. Will adaptive transparency help?

He doesn’t go to parties much anymore. When he does go, he often ends up leaving after a short time, overwhelmed and upset. (He has not been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder, but that comes to mind when I think of his struggles in this area.)

The issue goes beyond “he doesn’t like parties”. The noise is deeply unsettling and it takes time for him to recover after one of these experiences.

Adaptive transparency is billed as a way to remove ambient noise while letting important sounds through. Does that work for conversation, and ambient conversational nose?

On AirPods, is it possible to turn on adaptive transparency without having any music playing, just as a way to make things quieter?
posted by Winnie the Proust to Technology (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
AirPods Pro 2, (also known as AirPods Pro (2nd generation)), which is the version with Active Transparency, have only been on the market since September 9, so you may not get a lot of input from direct experience. The "original" AirPods Pro do not have this particular mode.

I have a pair of the original AirPods Pro, which I have used quite a bit over the past several months in Noise Cancellation mode. I use this without any music. While voices are muffled in this mode, "background noise" (like traffic and machinery) is muffled more. I have used them during a dental appointment and regularly use them when out with my spouse on a busy street. I can still hold close-range conversations with my spouse and other people under those conditions (more so than with straight-up earplugs). In fact my spouse finds that under those conditions I'll sometimes speak too quietly for him to hear over the traffic noise, presumably because of the differential noise cancellation that I'm getting.

I have not tested the Noise Cancellation feature in a situation in which the "background noise" is itself a bunch of overlapping conversations.

It's also ok to not go to parties, and instead set up peaceful one-on-one coffee dates with the people one wants to talk to.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:25 AM on October 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

I've had one person (I work in hearing research) tell me that they find their airpods very helpful for "cocktail party" type situations. However, this person has hearing loss (specifically in the high frequencies, so speech had a normal volume to them, but lacked clarity, and background noise made it worse). My memory is fuzzy, because this was last winter, but they may have adjusted the settings to bump up pitches important for speech (can't remember if they've done this manually or if there's a special setting they could activate). They wound up getting hearing aids, which was generally better for them: once they had better access to sound, background noise didn't bother them as much and didn't need to restrict themselves to close in conversations.

So it's definitely possible it could be helpful, and if money is no object it's probably worth a shot. If you're friend has normal hearing sensitivity but can't handle background noise, the shrinking of his auditory bubble will probably be helpful in a party situation. He may still find boosting speech frequencies helpful still.

But is this a change for your friend, or has he always been like this? You say he hasn't been diagnosed, but I'm not sure if that's after being evaluated or not. If it's something that has changed for your friend, getting a hearing evaluation is probably a good idea, even if they're dead set against hearings aids. Usually hearing loss is just something that happens with age, but sometimes something wonky is going on and catching it sooner rather than later is helpful. There can also be auditory processing disorders.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:25 AM on October 1, 2022

I am going to recommend musician's earplugs.

These cut 12-20db off all sound without any loss in clarity. I keep a pair on me at all times, and they are perfect for just this situation: a noisy party where the ambient sound level would be overwhelming and exhausting at full volume, but is very tolerable when reduced significantly in volume.

A pair of Etymotic "Ety-Plugs" (search for this) will run you about $10-$15 and they come in a variety of colours including clear, which are essentially invisible to others, much more invisible than any earphone.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:30 AM on October 1, 2022 [15 favorites]

Winnie the Proust: are you open to non-AirPods suggestions/solutions?
posted by brainwane at 7:52 AM on October 1, 2022

Response by poster: Yes, I am open to non-AirPod suggestions. In fact, contra this metatalk posting I would be happy to pass along any suggestions to my friend. The Ety-Plugs are a good example.

To answer ghost phoneme, my understanding is that this isn't a new phenomenon, and that friend doesn't have any hearing deficits.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:18 AM on October 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

I don't know about adaptive transparency, but Conversation Boost sounds as if it's meant for exactly this situation: it reduces background noise and amplifies the voice of the person in front of you. Looks as if it's a feature of both models of AirPods Pro.

Here's how to turn it on (scroll down - it's the last paragraph of the article), if anyone's in a position to try it out.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:45 AM on October 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Have gifted Loop Earplugs to numerous people with auditory processing problems or noise overstimulation and they've found them very useful. They're like twenty bucks.
posted by Iteki at 10:59 AM on October 1, 2022 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I use Loops for my sensory processing bullshit and they're pretty great.

They do have the disadvantage that if you can't hear what the other person is saying and can't get them to speak up, you have to take one earplug out, which ... idk, if you're hanging out with sufficiently weird people or just don't give a shit then it's fine, but I wouldn't want to do it in front of someone I was trying to impress.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:18 PM on October 1, 2022

A friend of mine likes Bose Hearphones.
posted by brainwane at 4:06 PM on October 1, 2022

Another Autie for Loop earplugs!
posted by matildaben at 10:15 PM on October 1, 2022

my understanding is that this isn't a new phenomenon, and that friend doesn't have any hearing deficits.

Just to check on this... Does your friend believe he doesn't have hearing deficits because he has had his hearing tested by a professional? Or is it because he can generally hear just fine in non-noisy situations?

For as long as I can remember, I struggled to understand people at parties, and as a result found them stressful and unpleasant. But it didn't occur to me I had a hearing problem, because I had no problem conversing in non-party situations. I thought it was just a personality thing. Relatively late in life, I discovered that I have cookie bite hearing loss. That is, I can hear high and low frequencies well, but I struggle to hear sounds in the middle. It turns out this makes separating conversation from ambient noise particularly challenging. Getting a good pair of hearing aids has revealed to me how much I was missing.

If your friend hasn't had a professional hearing test as an adult, I highly recommend it.
posted by yankeefog at 6:00 AM on October 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

FWIW, Apple is bringing Adaptive Transparency to older AirPods Pro with a software update.

Turns out this was just a bug in the interface of a beta version of iOS, and it's not coming to older versions.
posted by fabius at 12:03 AM on October 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

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