Apple Adaptive Audio explained and tested: AirPods Pro latest ANC feature

Apple AirPods Pro 2 with Adaptive Audio ANC
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple's new Adaptive Audo feature for AirPods Pro 2 is now officially available. Thanks to the latest iOS 17 software update (which went live on 18th September 2023), the AirPods Pro 2nd generation earbuds (both Lightning and new USB-C case versions) now benefit from this new ANC mode.

We first heard about the technology at Apple WWDC 2023, before receiving confirmation of its arrival at the recent September iPhone 15 launch event. 

What is Apple Adaptive Audio?

As the name suggests, Adaptive Audio is a sort of hybrid listening experience that gives you a mix of Transparency Mode and full ANC to provide the best of both listening technologies in one place. It was one of the most interesting features announced at Apple's September 2023 event and is now available for the AirPods Pro 2 wireless earbuds, once users update to the latest iOS 17 software.

When turned on, Adaptive Audio will "dynamically blend" both noise technologies to take into account external factors. According to Apple, the new mode "seamlessly tailors the noise control experience while users move between environments and interactions that are constantly changing throughout the day". 

This feels somewhat similar to what we've experienced with Sony WF-1000XM5's Adaptive Sound Control and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II's Aware Mode with ActiveSense, both of which dynamically adjust the level of ANC according to the noise in your surrounding environment.

Apple Adaptive Audio first impressions

Apple AirPods Pro 2 with Adaptive Audio ANC

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Apple's version doesn't let you manually change the settings of Adaptive Audio or let you tell it which location you're currently in, but it is nice to finally get an option that isn't just ANC on or off. 

For AirPods Pro 2 users that regularly use the noise-cancelling feature, this new mode does offer a greater degree of flexibility and, in our brief time since the new feature was activated, it worked well for us. 

It responded and adjusted to our surroundings – high street traffic noise, the rumble of a train, a quiet home office – and damped down enough noise (or didn't reduce noise at all in quiet moments) to cater to your surroundings. 

It'll be interesting to see (well, hear) how well this feature works over time and over different noise environments.

Testing Apple's Conversation Awareness

Apple AirPods Pro 2 with new iOS 17 features

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Another feature that was teased and is now official is "Conversation Awareness", which lowers the volume of your music and background noise automatically when you start talking to someone while having the AirPods Pro 2 still in your ears. 

Again, this was a much-requested feature similar to Sony's Speak-To-Chat. In practice, we found this works pretty well, with the AirPods Pro detecting when we were speaking and gradually fading music out (and then back) during a short conversation. 

Crucially, compared with Sony's version, it didn't immediately kick into gear when we coughed or started singing along to a song. That's a bonus in our minds.

Also available via the iOS 17 update is personalised volume mode, which harnesses machine learning to 'learn' what volume you normally listen to depending on your environment and automatically fine-tunes the sound to these preferences. We'll need more time with this new feature to see how well it works, but it could be useful for those who transition between various noisy environments during their day while wearing the AirPods, negating the need to adjust the volume manually. That's the theory, at least. 

Thanks to iOS 17 you can also use the AirPods' updated touch controls to mute or unmute yourself quickly on any AirPods Pro, AirPods (3rd Gen) or AirPods Max model while on a call. Just press the stem on AirPods or press the Digital Crown dial on the AirPods Max for this new muting feature.

All told, Apple Adaptive Audio is a smart addition to the AirPods Pro 2 (whichever version you have), giving Apple some much-needed ammo when it comes to competing with its Bose and Sony rivals when it comes to noise-cancelling. We'll be updating our AirPods Pro 2 review to take the new updates into account once we’ve spent more time testing them out.


Read our full AirPods Pro 2 review

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Harry McKerrell
Staff writer

Harry McKerrell is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. During his time at the publication, he has written countless news stories alongside features, advice and reviews of products ranging from floorstanding speakers and music streamers to over-ear headphones, wireless earbuds and portable DACs. He has covered launches from hi-fi and consumer tech brands, and major industry events including IFA, High End Munich and, of course, the Bristol Hi-Fi Show. When not at work he can be found playing hockey, practising the piano or trying to pet strangers' dogs. 

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