Ever since I've first used Apple AirPods Pro, I've had one consistent major gripe with them: the Transparency Mode is too transparent. It lets in (and actively boosts) so much noise that it easily overwhelms anything you have playing, which is not such a problem if you're using it quickly to let in conversation with someone for a moment in a coffee shop, but isn't great if you want to use it when walking around so that you're more aware of road noise, since it means you might as well not use the earbuds at all.
Lots of the best noise-cancelling earbuds, including the Sony WF-1000XM4, include multiple modes so you can adjust how much sound is let through the noise cancelling system when needed, but with AirPods Pro, there's no adjustment for the Transparency Mode… or is there?
I recently discovered the hidden setting, tucked away deep into the iPhone 'Accessibility' options, that lets you customize pretty strongly how the Transparency Mode works. I hope that in the future – perhaps with AirPods Pro 2 – Apple will include more easy pre-set modes for this that you can access quickly, but for those who have the current model, here's how you can alter Transparency Mode more to your liking.
(These will also work on AirPods Max, but I already find that the Transparency Mode there is better balanced with the music than on AirPods Pro.)
Find the Audio/Visual settings
On your iPhone, head to the Settings app, then tap Accessibility > Audio/Visual > Headphone Accommodations > Transparency Mode (this is hidden at the bottom of the Headphones Accommodations page).
Tap this and you'll a whole screen flush with options for tweaking how the Transparency Mode sounds. Turn on 'Custom Transparency Mode' at the top, and then you can tweak to your ears' contentment.
To better suit my tastes, I ramped up the 'Ambient Noise Reduction' setting, which immediately cut of a lot of the cacophony of noise that Transparency Mode allows in – including the air con in the TechRadar office, which is the thing that annoys me most about using it while working. I want to hear when people speak to me, but I really don't need to hear the vents – finally, I can do that.
But I found that using this suppressed some other noises a little more than I want, so also boosted the Amplification slider a little. This has resulted in some sounds hitting slightly harder if I use Transparency Mode in a quiet room, but the balance is better for me overall.
The other features here include a Transparency Balance mode (for shifting the noise that's allowed in all to one ear, if that's useful for you), and a Conversation Boost mode that's supposed to focus on conversations near you rather than further away, though I didn't hear much of a change from the latter in the office, and when out and about, I noticed some additional wind noise with this on, so I didn't use it.
The last setting is one you should play with, though: 'Tone'. Moving the slider from lighter to darker can shift the timbre of what you're hearing through the system. I actually decided it was fine on the default setting for my taste, but once you've played with the Ambient Noise Reduction and Amplification settings, you might well find that you want to tweak this too.
So that's it; after years and years of using AirPods Pro, I finally found the improvement to my problem – I just wish that, as with many of our tips for improving AirPods' audio quality, the option wasn't hidden among settings that most people wouldn't even think to check.