Adaptive Audio and Conversation Awareness don’t click for me

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

I’ve been using Apple’s new AirPods features for the past week, and I’m sad to say that I don’t really understand either of them. I’m using AirPods Pro (2nd generation) with iOS 17 RC on an iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Adaptive Audio

I’ve seen people on social media as well as reviews of the new AirPods saying that Adaptive Audio is “magical” but I must not be in the right environments to see what’s so cool about it. I’ve tried it while working from my desk as well as when walking and running outside. After a week, I’ve determined that either:

  1. This feature is literally Transparency mode with a new icon
  2. My AirPods or iPhone are broken

I say that because hand to my heart I can not tell the difference between Transparency and Adaptive modes on my AirPods. I’ve switched between them hundreds of times and if you told me this was a prank where the same mode got two icons in the UI, I’d believe you.

With the Adaptive mode enabled, I hear everything in the world around me, just like Transparency mode. I hear every leaf crunching underfoot, every step I take, every car and truck driving by, every plane flying overhead, and every rustle of the trees around me. That’s also exactly what I hear with Adaptive Audio.

Now one thing that people have suggested is that if I was walking by a jackhammer or some other unusually loud noise, it would lower that sound in a way that Transparency mode wouldn’t. Now, setting aside the fact Apple advertised exactly this use case for Transparency mode last year, I actually had a chance to test this yesterday as a wood chipper was going full tilt on my walk. In both Adaptive and Transparency modes, the wood chipper was equally loud.

So yeah, I truly don’t get it. I spend most of my time in noice cancellation mode, but I do toggle to Transparency sometimes as well (especially when running and awareness of traffic is more important). For my part, I wouldn’t say Adaptive Audio is worse than Transparency mode, I just can’t tell them apart at all, and I kinda wish Apple just replaced Transparency Mode with Adaptive Audio.

Conversation Awareness

This one’s pretty cool, although I sadly had to turn it off because the implementation isn’t quite right for me. The short version of this feature is that it will temporarily lower the volume of whatever you’re listening to whenever you talk or someone else talks around you. That’s pretty rad, although it does have a few quirks that make it not something I see myself using.

The big issue for me is that the number one situation I’m using AirPods is when I’m walking my dog. When we’re out and about, I’m constantly telling him things like:

  • “c’mon bud”
  • “let’s go”
  • “heel”
  • “sit”

You know, the classics 🐶

What Conversational Awareness hears these as is me talking to someone, so it dips the audio of what I’m listening to for a few seconds, which quickly made me realize how often I’m muttering little things to the dog. And listen, I’d love it if he replied back to me and Conversational Awareness was letting me hear what he had to say in response, but no disrespect to Sherman, he’s a terrible conversationalist.

Beyond the dog walking use case, the office use case doesn’t quite click for me either. For example, if I’m listening to music and someone tries to say something to me, it lowers the music for a few seconds as they say their thing, it stays lowered as I reply, but as soon as there’s more than a second or two of silence, it blasts the music again. Not the end of the world, but I have found the few times this week when Conversation Awareness has kicked in, I’ve really just wanted it to pause my music so I can have a full conversation.

Hopes for the future

These are of course very personal use cases, but hey, I’m a user not an Apple product manager, so I’m going to advocate for myself. Here’s what I’d love to see from these features in the future.

  1. Remove Transparency as a mode entirely and just leave Adaptive Audio. They seem like the same thing already, and if there are any differences I can’t notice, it seems like Adaptive is the better one, so kill the older, worse mode.
  2. Use some ML tools or whatever to detect when I’m talking to a pet, and don’t dip the audio when I’m doing that. The more low-fi way to do this could be to add a new workout type to the Apple Watch for “dog walking” and whenever I’m in that mode, don’t dip my audio when I give brief commands.
  3. Give me a setting for conversational awareness where if it needs to dip the audio for more than a few seconds, it should pause my music and let me resume it manually once I’m done having the conversation.

Again, these are just my hopes and if these features work great for you, that’s awesome. As a pundit, I have a responsibility to try and understand why Apple does things that are good for other people not just myself, but as a user I also find it important to share my experiences as well.