AirPods Pro Adaptive Audio preview: Automatically adjusting to your day

Testing the new feature, as well as Personalized Volume and Conversation Awareness.

Billy Steele/Engadget

When Apple previews the upcoming version of iOS at WWDC, we expect to see all of the new features that will improve the iPhone. However, it’s not guaranteed that the company will take that opportunity to also update its popular wireless earbuds. But, alongside the arrival of iOS 17, a firmware update adds a few new features to the second-gen AirPods Pro, most of which will automatically adjust to your environment or activity so you don’t have to touch the earbuds or reach for your phone.

The headline addition is Adaptive Audio, a tool that automatically and “dynamically” blends transparency mode and active noise cancellation (ANC) based on your surroundings. Apple says it will change the noise control settings continuously throughout the day, making the proper adjustments as you move to different settings. Thanks to the H2 chip in the AirPods Pro, the earbuds use a combination of computational audio and machine learning algorithms that can discern between consistent and transitory noise. The technology inside of the earbuds also accounts for whether you're stationary or in motion, and if you’re listening to music or taking a call when making its automatic adjustments.

The whole idea is for this to happen without you really noticing. When there’s a change in your surroundings, Adaptive Audio gradually starts tweaking the blend of ANC and transparency. So if you enter a loud coffee shop or sit near a noisy A/C unit, AirPods Pro gently increases the level of noise cancellation to combat the clamor. The point is to smooth the transition, so the change in cancellation level doesn’t become a distraction itself.

Indeed, unless you’re really listening for the fluctuations or you encounter loud noise, you won’t notice them. It gradually increased ANC when I was washing dishes at the sink or grinding coffee to keep the audio where I could hear it clearly. But it also swung back to the transparency mode I previously had active when I ventured into a quieter spot. It works very well and it’s not jarring at all thanks to the gentle, but still quick, transition.

AirPods Pro Adaptive Audio
AirPods Pro Adaptive Audio (Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget)

Before, you could switch between transparency mode and ANC by pressing and holding the AirPods Pro stem. You could also reconfigure one of those to just turn noise control completely off. Apple will allow you to swap one of the options that are accessible on the earbuds with Adaptive Audio, but the company is keeping it to only two settings via the on-board controls. As you might expect, Adaptive Audio is accessible through the Control Center where the AirPods options have been re-organized. There’s a noise control section that expands to give you access to transparency, Adaptive Audio, ANC and off just below the volume slider.

The next new feature is Personalized Volume. This “​​uses machine learning to understand environmental conditions and listening preferences over time to automatically fine-tune the media experience,” according to Apple. It’s another layer of hands-off adjustment that AirPods Pro will do when you move from one place to the next. However, the “over time” part means I haven’t used it long enough to really notice a difference. After only a few days of testing, I can’t say I’ve encountered a time where the adjustment was obvious. Maybe the feature needs more time to learn my preferences or maybe Apple’s claims that you’ll barely notice the difference are true. Either way, I’m not comfortable weighing the merits just yet. Personalized Volume is enabled via the AirPods Pro settings menu, just above the option for Loud Sound Reduction.

A handy new tool that I can see quickly becoming popular is Conversation Awareness. When you start talking, this feature automatically lowers the volume or pauses, focuses on voices in front of you and reduces background noise. It’s similar to Sony’s Speak-to-Chat, only that it completely pauses media when it detects your voice. Here, Apple reduces volume when you're listening to music and pauses things like podcasts and audiobooks. The main issue with Sony’s version is it’s easily triggered by light coughs or clearing your throat. After a few days of testing, Conversation Awareness is less susceptible to false positives, unless you’re really hacking. And if you find you don’t like it, you can disable it entirely in the AirPod Pro settings.

I was skeptical at first, but I quickly got on board with Apple’s decision to reduce volume rather than stop a song completely. It’s certainly less jarring, and the feature returns to your previous volume about three seconds after it no longer senses your voice or the person you’re speaking to. I’m sure there are some users who’d prefer a complete pause for all media, those who don’t want to talk over something in the background. But this is meant for quick convos rather than extended chats, and for that reason I’m OK with Apple’s implementation.

The only issue currently with Conversation Awareness is volume reduces on podcasts first when you start talking and pauses a few seconds after. It’s a bit clunky, and I think it would be smoother to just gently decrease the volume to zero. Thankfully, it works outside of Apple Podcasts with apps like Pocket Casts so you don’t have to worry if you’re not 100 percent in Apple’s ecosystem.

All of the features so far are exclusive to the second-generation AirPods Pro with the H2 chip. However, Apple is making improvements to other models too. For both versions of the AirPods Pro, third-gen AirPods and the AirPods Max, Apple improved automatic switching between the company’s various devices. This means faster and more reliable changeover between listening to music on your Mac and taking a call on your iPhone, for example. This update also requires iPadOS 17 and/or macOS Sonoma, depending on your stable of devices, for you to notice the difference. I do not have an iPad or Mac running those yet, so I was unable to test Apple’s claims here.

AirPods Mute
AirPods Mute (Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget)

Apple also added a mute function to the most recent AirPods, both models of AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Simply press the stem or the Digital Crown on AirPods Max to mute or unmute yourself during calls. It’s straightforward, but it’s also a welcome update. You’ll see a banner and hear a chime every time you change the microphone state, so Apple will make it clear which setting you're on via two cues on your iPhone, iPad or Mac. Developers working on video- and voice-calling apps will be able to implement this functionality as well through CallKit on iOS. So in addition to being able to press to mute with Phone and FaceTime, you will be able to do so on other popular apps like Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat. Apple says a Mute API will be available for macOS apps as well.

Apple doesn’t typically offer such a robust update to AirPods alongside the annual iOS refresh. However, the additions of Adaptive Audio, Personalized Volume and Conversation Awareness expand the toolset of the most recent AirPods Pro so that you spend even less time physically pressing buttons to interact with them. And you can decide whether or not you even want to use them at all. I’ll bet you will though, especially at times when your hands are full or you might’ve stepped away from your phone.

The new AirPods Pro features are now available alongside iOS 17. Once you download the new software, your AirPods Pro firmware should automatically update when they're in close proximity to your iPhone.

Update, September 18 2023, 5:11PM ET: This post was updated to reflect the new features are now live.