There’s nothing quite like losing yourself in a world of music, whether you’re relaxing at home, out exercising or just going about your daily life. But beware: if you are out and about, shutting yourself off aurally from the outside world does have its negative side.
Not only can it be dangerous – you won’t hear approaching cars – it can also prove a pain in the neck, having to constantly take your headphones off to hear announcements or for every interaction with shop assistants, colleagues and bus drivers.
But help is at hand. The new breed of headphones recognise that not everyone wants to be isolated from the outside world all the time, and employ various tech tricks to let in outside sound in varying amounts. That way, you can stay aware of your surroundings without compromising on sound quality.
Let’s see your options.
This is the most basic type of headphone. While they aim to block out outside sound, they do so in a rather crude way – with ear tips that fill up your ear canal. They can prove quite effective at dulling background noise, but they’re nowhere near as effective as a noise-cancelling pair. So you’ll probably still hear the louder, higher-frequency sounds when you’re out and about.
Examples of noise-isolating headphones include the Google Pixel Buds A-Series, Sony WF-C500 and Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus.
Noise-cancelling headphones with ambient modes
Active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology uses beamforming microphones to detect external sound, and then neutralises it by creating a mirror image of its peaks and troughs. This can sound a bit like a hiss, or white noise, but it’s actually quite different – white noise just seeks to mask unwanted sound with a blanket approach, whereas noise cancellation detects and neutralises each individual sound as they occur.
This lets you hear the music clearer without cranking up the volume, which is better for your hearing. The more advanced pairs of noise-cancelling headphones (like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700) have multiple levels of noise cancellation, rather than just on or off.
But ANC doesn’t have to completely shut you off from the world around you. Various features can allow in outside sound to keep you present with the fewest interruptions to your listening.
The most common is a feature known as ambient aware, pass-through or transparency mode. Press a button, and outside sound comes flooding in – handy if you need to hear an announcement at a train station or airport.
More advanced options take this on a step. Speak-to-Chat – as seen on the Sony WF-1000XM4 – detects when you’re speaking, and pauses your music while letting in ambient sound. That way, you don’t need to press anything, just start talking and the headphones do the rest.
But then the next category of headphones have this feature by default…
Open-backed headphones / ring-style earbuds
Open-backed headphones are a long-standing fixture of the hi-fi world. As the name suggests, instead of a closed ear cup, these are over-ear headphones with an open back, letting in outside sound. Some audiophiles prefer the sound, as it has a wider, more open soundstage. The downside? Everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to, so they’re more suited to home listening.
But Sony’s LinkBuds use the same principle in a pair of wireless earbuds. Instead of an ear tip that protrudes into your shell-like, they have a ring driver that is round with a hole in the middle like a donut. This fires music into your ear, letting you hear the music without cutting you off from the outside world. There are no features to activate in order to hear what’s going on around you, and – as we found in our review – the sound quality is still very good indeed.
So as you can see, there are plenty of options if you want to enjoy music on the go while staying aware of your surroundings. Whichever you choose, stay safe out there, and happy listening!