Every morning on my way to work, I stutter step before arriving at my usual coffee truck to quickly press my AirPods Pro 2 once to pause my favorite podcast and again to turn off the active noise cancellation. But not today. This is the morning when I let Adaptive Audio take care of business.
Apple's been hyping the technology since it unveiled it as part of iOS 17, which lands on most of the best iPhones this week. Unlike the AirPods Pro 2's excellent noise cancellation, Adaptive Audio is a mid-point noise-management technology that combines some level of ambient noise with a degree of noise cancellation you need to enjoy your favorite music or podcast. However, Apple's implementation is more than that. It has a level of intelligence that, in essence, makes it a hands-free audio-management system.
As I approached the food truck, (really more of a large, enclosed cart where my friendly coffee guy makes up my cup of joe and helps me select my breakfast bagel) I kept my hands at my sides. Podcaster Marc Maron was still playing in my ears, as were muted ambient New York City street noises.
I greeted my coffee guy perhaps a little too enthusiastically. I was concerned that the new AirPods Pro 2 (with the USB-C case) and Adaptive Audio would not work and I'd be yelling over the sound in my ears. As soon as I spoke, though, the podcast volume lowered dramatically then stopped playing and I found I could hear the coffee guy perfectly.
We chatted about the miserable weather as he made my coffee and then helped me find a substitute for the sesame bagel I wanted.
I paid, we told each other to "stay dry" and then I walked away. I wasn't two steps from the truck when the podcast resumed playing, while city noises were partially muted.
Tech gets out of the way
I felt good not only because the technology worked, but because I wasn't fumbling with my AirPods as the coffee guy greeted me and apologized because I couldn't hear him. He's busy and doesn't have time for my nonsensical gestures toward my ears, "Sorry, I'm wearing AirPods and didn't think this was important enough to pause them earlier."
Instead of reminding myself to pause my pod and turn on Transparency mode (which turns on the mics to pick up environmental sounds) I could, in the future at least, forget about them and let AirPods Pro and Adaptive Audio do their thing.
I had a similar experience at my office where I usually greet and kibbutz a bit with the security guy.
When I arrive at the front door, I always try to remember to pause and turn off ANC. This morning, though, I just walked in and said, "Hello!" The podcast paused Marc Maron mid-sentence and I could hear my friend return my greeting and grumble a bit about the crummy weather. By the time I got on the elevator, the audio was back as was my partial Transparency mode.
Using those sensors
The system is so precise because Apple is using all the AirPods Pro sensors (mics and accelerometer to name two) to identify when you start speaking. It's notable that the system won't go into Adaptive Mode if someone speaks near you, but not to you.
In addition, Adaptive Audio is not on by default. In iOS 17, I had to enable it by swiping down in the upper left corner of my iPhone to access to Control Center and then long-pressing on the volume slider. Now there are three options at the bottom, Spatialized Stereo, Conversation Awareness, and Noise Control Adaptive. A tap on that option brings up four controls, including the ability to turn off the noise control, ANC, which will do its best to cut out all external noise, Transparency Mode, which pulls in all outside noise, and the new Adaptive.
In the main settings, my AirPods Pro 2 only recognized me talking because I have "Conversation Awareness" on. As soon as I turn it off, all the talking in the world will not stop the music or podcast playback.
What's great about this new technology is that no one knows I'm using it. Coffee Truck Guy and Security Guy didn't know. What they do know is that I was polite and focused on them and maybe not fumbling with my AirPods Pro while they greeted and interacted with me.
It's an instance where innovation lets me be just a little more considerate and human, and I'm here for it.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.