8 min read

Apple AirPods Pro thoughts

Thoughts on AirPods Pro for sensory issues.
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Apple AirPods Pro. Some thoughts.

After I was diagnosed as being autistic in 2018 I bought noise cancelling headphones. At the time the best ones to get were the Sony WH-1000XM2s and the Bose QC25. Being autistic I researched the hell out of them before trying and buying. I decided on the Sonys as their noise cancellation was close to the Bose but they had vastly superior sound quality. I chose great noise cancellation and wonderful sound over excellent noise cancellation and fine sound. Over the years I’ve come to understand that music is a form of stimming for me so having wonderful sound was important.

I chose wisely. The tiny details I could hear in the music that I had never heard before were a joy. Everything old was new again. I love a well crafted sound.

  • Radiohead - OK Computer
  • Hans Zimmer - Interstellar
  • Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor - The Social Network

Amazing albums to name a few. When I listen to music I listen to the sound not so much the music. The lyrics are just another level of the music to me. I’m not really paying attention to what they are saying. I can happily put a single song on repeat all day and not get bored, completely upending my yearly music stats.

Sound is very important to me. I almost have to curate it. Noise cancelling headphones help immensely in this as they can block out a wide range of sounds from people chatting, to the wind, to neighbours bass heavy music. Removing these sounds allow me to be creative. I can think and connect with the work I am doing. Imagine trying to work while someone was tapping you on your shoulder. Now add in someone kicking you in the leg and later someone saying your name over and over and over and over and over for no apparent reason. You would probably not want that to happen. So you would try and remove these annoyances. I get this while working, shopping, deciding on whether to have 1 espresso or two. I cannot function with bad noise.

Good noise cancelling headphones are essential for me. They offer wonderful sound to stim to and remove annoying noise so I can think. This is why I bought the Sony WH-1000XM2 over-ear headphones. On my first day wearing them I went to a bar where loud music was playing and enjoyed the quiet. I could happily listen to a podcast in a noisy bar. Amazing.

My Sonys are nearly 4 years old now and mostly ok. Unfortunately they have developed an odd issue where there’s a random popping sound in the left can every few seconds. It isn’t regular so I can’t prepare for it. It’s totally random and incredibly annoying. Imagine someone tapping on the outside of the headphones every few seconds. The other issue is the battery life is not what it once was. I’m finding that I’m having to charge it more and more. Of course I do use them a lot so it’s sort of understandable. Day and night. I can happily sleep in them. At least I could before there was the random popping sound.

I’ve been keeping an eye on Apple AirPods Pro prices and the other day they dropped to their lowest price since launch, £170. Not cheap but I paid £250 for my Sonys and the AirPods Pro were also £250 when they launched. This was a good deal at a good time, ignoring money issues due to a pandemic. So I bought them to replace my Sonys. I consider headphones, just like sunglasses, a necessity for me to live a happy life. Expensive but they are essential.

While I've only had the AirPods Pro for a few days they are incredible. The entire package fits into the soft foam part of the headphone on my Sonys and some how provides just as good sound and almost as good noise cancellation. Over the ear will probably always have better noise cancellation than in ear. I’m still very impressed by these tiny headphones though. The size of the case means I can carry them more than I used to carry the Sonys. I took them almost everywhere but sometimes I’d leave them at home if I knew I had nowhere to put them when I took them off. Now I can carry these tiny little headphones in a pocket… except half the skirts I own don’t have pockets. Ugh.

The other main feature I was eager to try was the ‘Headphone Accommodations’. A feature I mentioned when the feature launched back in 2020.

Headphone Accommodations also supports Transparency mode on AirPods Pro, making quiet voices more audible and tuning the sounds of your environment to your hearing needs.

Transparency Mode on the AirPods Pro requires you to squeeze either the left or right stalk on the headphone. It will switch from ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) mode to Transparency. You can then hear everything around you as if you weren’t wearing headphones. This is great if you want to walk around a city while listening to music/podcast and also hear if a Range Rover is about to mount the curb and smash into you. Headphone Accommodations takes this a step further and merges ANC with Transparency dulling certain sounds and by enabling ‘Conversation Boost’ it enhances the voice of the person stood in front of you.

I tried it. It was amazing. My wife and I were in a busy train station at lunch time. I enabled the feature and all the noise was turned down by about 50% while her voice was crisp and clear. I often have trouble processing what she has said in situations like this. I’m aware she is speaking to me but the chaos of the environment means I can’t make out the words. This is going to be really useful when we start traveling again. I’ll be stressed trying to work out something but at least I won’t be sensory overloaded and unable to her the one person I need to hear.

I’m already looking forward to busy restaurants where it will feel like it’s just the two of us. Dealing with shops, banks, the Post Office, all those sort of places will hopefully be a little easier. The feature is a total game changer.

Annoyingly the feature is buried deep inside the Accessibility settings and I’ve found it turns itself off now and then. Having to set the whole thing up every time you need it is not great for a disabled person minutes away from a stressful situation.

To access the feature go to;

Settings -> Accessibility -> Audio/Visual (in Hearing section) -> Headphone Accommodations

Turn it on. You can tune the audio for a few different scenarios or even add in your own Audiogram. This is basically a hearing test you can do on your phone with the headphones in. I used the free app Mimi Hearing Test. Once it finished it added the Audiogram to Apple Health and was available in the settings. This meant the headphones could be setup for my specific hearing issues. Amazing.

To customise the Transparency Mode features including ‘Conversation Boost’ it seems you need to have the AirPods Pro in your ears with Transparency Mode enabled. The option appears at the bottom of the ‘Headphone Accommodations’ settings page. ‘Apply with… Transparency Mode’. Tap that and you should see a screen like the one below. Here you can adjust the amplification (which gives you super hearing), balance, tone, ambient noise reduction (set to full), and enable Conversation Boost.

Screenshot of Transparency Mode settings in iOS

This feature is so important it should be something you can setup and never have to touch again. I shouldn’t be setting it up each time I need it. Imagine how frustrating this will be while travelling. Setup at the train station, then when off the train, then when in a cafe, then when in a taxi… Nope.

Another useful feature is ‘Announce Messages’ which will announce any Messages app messages. If you get one you can ask the phone to re-read it or reply. Quite often while cycling I don’t notice my watch tapping me when I get a message from my wife. Now I should hear it and be able to safely reply.

The last key feature is the AirPods Pro connect to all your Apple devices seamlessly. I set them up on my phone and I can easily access them from my 2017 iMac, 2020 M1 MacBook Air, Apple Watch (Series 4) or Apple TV 4K. Last night I enjoyed watching Marvel’s Eternals with cinema style sound without annoying the neighbours at 1am. Wonderful. My Sony WH-1000XM2s can also connect to these devices via Bluetooth but you have to pair and unpair every time. I think new headphones allow to pair with 2 devices maybe more but not to the degree that Apple offers.

I haven’t tried it yet but I am curious as to whether I can run the AirPods Pro in Transparency Mode while connected to the TV and also output the TV audio via the speakers. Why? Well if there’s any external noise from a festival over the water from us, which happens from time to time, I could potentially have the TV audio in my AirPods and also coming out the speakers so my wife could hear it. Transparency Mode would mean we could still talk while I was blocking out the noise from the music festival. These things are quite amazing if that works.

You could argue that AirPods Pro are Apple’s first Augmented Reality (AR) device. The way I’m using them is certainly to augment, to adjust my reality. They remove unwanted noise and allow me to stim while listening to sound I enjoy. They can help bring clarity in chaotic situations by reducing background noise and enhancing the voices of those important to me. If you are autistic or suffer from sensory issues, are in the Apple ecosystem (they do work with Android via Bluetooth but you won’t get all the great features), can afford them and also don’t suffer from ear pain while using in-ear headphones then I would highly recommend them.

Annoyingly… I’m finding my left ear hurts while wearing them. Such life changing features that I can’t take advantage of because my left ear is slightly different shape to my right. Arg!

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