An increasing emphasis on hearing your surroundings while wearing earphones has led to new technologies, like AirPods Pro’s Transparency Mode and modern bone conduction earphones. But which is better for your scenario, whether it’s for sport or a busy day at the office? Let’s put Transparency Mode and bone conduction to the test.
AirPods Pro’s Transparency Mode works by recreating ambient noise but becomes less effective as you set your volume higher. AirPods Pro also tend to fall out of your ears during sports. Bone conduction earphones fit comfortably and don’t block ambient noise at all, but the sound quality is far from perfect.
Transparency Mode and bone conduction both have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s impossible to give a recommendation that will suit everyone’s needs. But here are the good and bad sides of AirPods Pro’s Transparency Mode and bone conduction earphones so you can decide for yourself.
Are Bone Conduction Earphones Better Than AirPods Pro Transparency Mode?
To determine which is better, we must test both on multiple criteria.
Wear Comfortability And Stability
Most people don’t wear earphones for just a few minutes, so when you decide to wear earphones, you want to ensure that they can sit comfortably for a long commute or exercise session.
In the AirPods Pro, Apple created perhaps the most comfortable AirPods yet. You can choose the perfect ear tip size to sit comfortably, and Apple recommends that they fit perfectly for Transparency Mode to work correctly.
However, AirPods Pro’s ear tips do not cater to every ear type. People with tiny ear canals or cauliflower ears may find the AirPods uncomfortable no matter which ear tips they use. Similarly, people with larger ear canals may find the AirPods fall out even using the largest ear tips.
Bone conduction earphones are a different matter. Comfort and stability depend on the brand and model, but for the most part, they sit comfortably. They work on a one-size-fits-all basis, which is great because it’s not just the strap at the back that keeps the earphones in position, and the pressure against your temples does far more to add stability.
Unfortunately, that’s also the main complaint. Though the pressure isn’t terrible, and most people forget they’re wearing earphones just a few minutes into their workout, people with sensitive skin may feel some discomfort and irritation from wearing bone conduction earphones.
Overall, Bone conduction offers far more comfort and stability than AirPods. The exceptions to the rule are few and far between. Bone conduction earphones take some getting used to, but not nearly as much as most people suppose.
Transparency Mode on the AirPods Pro and earphones using bone conduction technology are both great for environmental awareness, though they handle it differently.
Transparency Mode uses the same technology as active noise cancelation, namely outward-facing microphones that detect background noise. But unlike noise cancelation, the AirPods don’t try to eliminate the noise but rather play it over the earphones so you can hear what’s happening in your environment.
The newer AirPods Pro 2 adds Adaptive Transparency Mode, which will detect unexpectedly loud noises and tone them down a bit to protect your ears. You will still hear the noise, just not as loudly.
Environmental awareness through bone conduction works by not blocking your ears at all. You can listen to whatever’s playing over your earphones without missing any sound from your environment.
AirPods’ Transparency Mode is excellent and highly effective, improving with every new generation of AirPods, but it’s not perfect. Because the microphones detect and amplify specific frequencies, they can miss some sounds you could hear if you didn’t wear the AirPods.
In this case, bone conduction earphones are the best option, though they aren’t perfect, either. If you increase the volume too much (which tends to happen a lot), they can still overwhelm the ambient sound, leading to reduced environmental awareness.
Fit For Sports (Running, Hiking, And Biking)
Sports require high-comfort earphones that won’t fall out quickly and allow for great environmental awareness. We’ve already seen that Apple’s AirPods Pro and bone conduction earphones handle these matters exceptionally well, but that bone conduction is slightly better in each case.
But we should also consider water resistance and battery life.
AirPods Pro has an IPX4 water resistance rating to handle sweat, rain, and water splashes. It also offers up to 4.5 hours of listening time.
Different brands and models of bone conduction earphones have different ratings. But if we compare the AirPods Pro with the Shokz OpenRun, a popular model for use in sports, it is IP67 waterproof (excellent for anything except swimming) and offers up to 8 hours of battery life. The similar Philips A6606 can play music for 9 hours and has a waterproof rating of IP67.
The freedom of choice that comes with bone conduction sets them apart. In terms of sports, bone conduction offers the following advantages over the AirPods Pro:
- They don’t fall off as quickly as AirPods because of the extra pressure they apply to your temples.
- They offer better environmental awareness than Transparency Mode in many cases.
- More road marathons and other sporting events allow bone conduction headphones than AirPods.
- Some models are more water-resistant than AirPods.
- Some models have longer battery life than AirPods.
AirPods, like any other in-ear earphones or buds, are magnets for earwax, dust, grime, and other forms of dirt. You can use your AirPods for a day and already notice traces of grime and grease. To make matters worse, we stick those dirty objects in our ears where bacteria can more easily access our bodies. We are supposed to clean our AirPods regularly, but we don’t always take the time.
Bone conduction earphones are not particularly hygienic, as they are exposed to skin grease and sweat, not to mention environmental factors. But they have a few advantages over in-ear options like AirPods:
- They are not exposed to earwax, so they don’t have that build-up to attract more bacteria.
- They don’t go in your ears, so bacteria can’t get free access to your body.
- They are easier to clean than AirPods, as bone conduction headphones don’t have holes and mesh that are painful to clean. The unit is much smoother, so a moist cloth is often enough to eliminate sweat and dirt after a gym session.
Most earphones improve their sound quality by getting the sound as close as possible to your ears and eliminating other noises that can interfere with the sound. AirPods Pro does this perfectly when you don’t use Transparency Mode, which removes noise elimination. You will get the best possible sound quality from AirPods Pro by turning on noise canceling.
Bone conduction earphones are still some distance away from achieving the same level of sound quality, though the technology has already evolved since it started.
Right now, bone conduction is at the point where most people will notice the sound isn’t quite as loud as with AirPods on a similar volume setting, but few will notice reduced quality. Hardcore audiophiles, however, observe the difference. The sound isn’t quite as full or well-rounded as that from other earphones, like the AirPods. Of course, sub-par models will have even worse sound.
In terms of quality, bone conduction is perfect in the following scenarios:
- Someone who’s listening to an audiobook or podcast
- Someone who wants some background music while having a run or going about day-to-day tasks
- Someone who has hearing problems related to the outer ear
- Someone who doesn’t care much about the quality of the sound
For anyone else, the AirPods Pro still offers better quality sound.
AirPods Pro can leak sound. It usually indicates that your AirPods don’t fit as snugly as they should, which you can often resolve by using a better ear tip. But even then, if your volume is too high, especially in a quiet place, your sound will still leak.
Contrary to popular belief, noise cancelation does not directly stop your sound from leaking. But it does help you to listen to your music at a lower volume, reducing the sound leakage.
People often believe that bone conduction earphones should not leak sound, but that’s not the case in real life. Sound is vibration, and bone conduction works the same way, except that it sends the vibrations into your facial bones rather than through the air.
The Philips A6606 has minimal noticeable sound leakage when the earphones are in place as they should be. The little bit you notice seems to be coming from the frame rather than the earphone section, as the frame can vibrate along at high volumes. You will also notice the sound when you take the earphones off and hold them close to your ears.
With this in mind, it is possible for bone conduction earphones to leak sound, though it’s less noticeable than with AirPods. You have to be very close to the earphones to notice it.
Bone conduction earphones offer better value for people who need environmental awareness while running, especially if they are only listening to podcasts or audiobooks or don’t care too much about sound quality. Audiophiles will get a far better experience from the AirPods Pro on Transparency Mode, but they should also remember that the technology is not perfect.
Dive into more details about these scenarios in my article on When Bone Conduction is Worse Than Air