Headphones That Let You Hear Your Surroundings: What You Need to Know

Man walking outside while listening to music (From: Pexels)
Man walking outside while listening to music (From: Pexels)

Here’s an in-depth guide to everything you need to know about headphones that let you hear your surroundings.

Let’s admit it, as much as we want to block out all the noise from the world, we still need to hear our surroundings for specific reasons. If you’re a jogger or a commuter, you need to know the people and cars coming from behind you. If you’re in the office, you still need to hear your teammates and your boss’ orders.

To hear your surroundings, you need to either interrupt your music or take off your headphones. Everybody knows how much of a hassle this is, especially if you’re really into what you’re listening to already.

Fortunately, there are a lot of headphones that let you hear your surroundings while listening to your favorite tunes. Some of these rely on their unique design, while others rely on advanced tech. Either way, let’s get up close and personal with this characteristic to know how exactly it can help you.

Man walking outside while listening to music (From: Pexels)
Man walking outside while listening to music (From: Pexels)

What Is Ambient Sound?

Ambient sound or ambient noise is the background sound you hear aside from the music you’re listening to. It includes all types of environmental or external sounds that you can hear every day such as cars revving, dogs barking, and people talking.

Ambient sound and white noise have the same intensity and amplitude which is why noise-cancelling headphones can block them both off. However, the two terms aren’t interchangeable. Ambient sound is recognizable while the opposite can be said about white noise. Ambient sound includes taps and clicks while examples of white noise include continuous gushing and static sounds.

Most headphones today are developed to block out ambient noise and other forms of noise. This allows users to fully immerse themselves into the music by preventing any form of distraction.

But as bothersome as ambient sound can be, it is still not recommended to totally block them off, especially when you’re outdoors. Ambient sounds may usually be ‘unwanted noise’ but they are important in giving you spatial awareness for your safety. This is the reason why the market for headphones that let you hear your surroundings is still huge.

Hearing Your Surroundings While Wearing Headphones: Pros and Cons

Having the ability to hear your surroundings while wearing your headphones has its own perks and drawbacks. At the end of the day, it really is up to you whether you could make use of headphones that let you hear your surroundings or not.

To help you with this, let’s talk about some of the actual advantages and disadvantages of using this feature.

Disadvantages of hearing ambient sound in headphones

There are two main disadvantages of hearing the background noise while using headphones. Whether these are deal-breakers or not is up to you.

Potential for noise-related stress

Background noise can put people out of focus. Exposure to background noise reduces the cognitive workload of the brain resulting in the loss of concentration.

Apart from that, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also attributes ambient noise to increased stress levels. Ambient noise such as the sounds of traffic can increase the level of stress hormones known as cortisol.

Unclear audio

This disadvantage is something that you may have experienced already. Ambient sounds, like people talking to each other, can easily be heard if you’re not using headphones that are meant to block them. You won’t be able to focus on your audio, thus, your listening experience would end up getting compromised, especially when you’re outside.

Outside noise can also overpower your music and you would end up not hearing a single thing from what you’re listening to. This can be very frustrating especially when you’re on a call. It can force you to go to a more secluded place to continue your conversation.

Boy getting distracted while listening to music outside (From: Pexels)
Boy getting distracted while listening to music outside (From: Pexels)

Advantages of hearing ambient sound in headphones

Of course, as much as the disadvantages, there are also two main advantages of hearing ambient sound in headphones. These are mostly focused on safety and communication. Let’s discuss both of them:

Situational Awareness

This is perhaps the most vital advantage of using headphones that let you hear your surroundings. Having situational awareness can protect you from certain dangers and can spell the difference between life or death.

When you’re jogging outside, using noise-cancelling headphones could block out warning sounds like horns and bells which can lead to accidents. Being able to hear your surroundings can help you step aside on time to let faster runners, or vehicles go. 

Headphone use and pedestrian injury are strongly linked. If you cannot hear your surroundings, you won’t be able to hear bicycles or even cars coming from behind you.

Conversations

The advantages of hearing your surroundings do not stop outside. If you’re in the office, you would also need to hear your surroundings every chance that you could get. This is especially if you’re in a working environment that does a lot of collaborations. But that doesn’t mean that you need to stop listening to music anymore.

Using headphones that don’t block ambient sound will let you hear the questions of your colleagues and bosses. With this, you would not miss any important orders or conversations while you’re working and listening to music at the same time.

Types of Headphones That Let You Hear Your Surroundings

Much to the delight of the public, a lot of brands have been accommodating the need for headphones that let you hear your surroundings. Manufacturers now let in ambient sound easier through design or form changes, and technological upgrades.

As a result, a lot of different types of headphones with this trait are available in the market already.

Let’s discuss each one and find out which is the best for you.

Open-back headphones

Philips SHP9600 Open Back Ear cup (From: Amazon)
Philips SHP9600 Open Back Ear cup (From: Amazon)

These headphones are defined by their uncovered earcups. Due to the lack of a solid barrier outside the earcups, open-back headphones are open to airflow and ambient sound. These headphones will naturally let you hear your surroundings without needing any advanced form of technology.

Sennheiser’s HD 414 is the world’s first open-back headphones. This was made back in 1965 in an attempt to lessen ear fatigue and embrace a more natural sound.

Apart from letting users hear ambient sound, open-back headphones also ensure better ear ventilation or breathability compared to their closed-back counterparts. In fact, open-back headphones aren’t originally made just to let people hear their surroundings. Its open-back design is meant to give the effect of a wider soundstage, ultimately leading to an increase in sound quality. That’s why this type of headphones is preferred more by audiophiles and audio engineers. 

Open-ear headphones

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These are headphones that do not block or cover your ears at all. Open-ear headphones are often attributed to bone conduction technology. However, other forms of technology have enabled users to enjoy open-ear listening as well.

Bone conduction technology sends vibrations directly to the inner ear in order to create sound. This technology is mostly used by hearing aid manufacturers for people with conductive hearing loss.

One of the latest developments for open-ear headphones is from Bose and they call it Openaudio. This advanced type of wireless headphones draws inspiration from bone conduction by bringing the headphones close to the ears but not in nor over them. Instead of sending vibrations through the bone, Openaudio headphones send sound waves through the air while minimizing what others nearby could hear.

Ambient Sound Technology

Lastly, we have headphones that make use of ambient sound technology. This technology makes use of the headphones’ microphones to amplify external sounds and allow the users to hear their surroundings better. It’s an additional feature that usually comes with noise-cancelling headphones.

Simply turning off noise-cancellation and turning on ambient sound mode are two different things. Turning off noise cancellation won’t guarantee that you would hear your surroundings since these headphones are still covered with noise-isolating materials. Ambient sound mode, on the other hand, uses the microphones to actively feed outside noise to your headphones’ speakers so you can hear them.

For many people, having the ability to easily switch from hearing your surroundings to shutting out the world is a big deal. True enough, these two features balance out each other so it makes sense to have them in a single pair of headphones.

Open-back headphones are great for those who are looking for audiophile-grade headphones that let you hear your surroundings as well. If you’re thinking of getting this type of headphones, we have some recommendations for you below.

Sennheiser HD 600

Sennheiser HD 600 (From: Amazon)
Sennheiser HD 600 (From: Amazon)

First launched in 1997, the Sennheiser HD 600 is a favorite among fans of open-back headphones. The 2019 version is its latest incarnation and it features an open circumaural design which results in hi-fi sound. It has lightweight aluminium voice coils and neodymium ferrous magnets that work together to produce crisp and clean sound output.

Other design features include detachable Kevlar reinforced copper cables and metal mesh grills to deliver that transparent sound and classic open-back look.

Sound-wise, the HD 600 excels in mids and has deep bass and treble. They are great for music that is not too guitar-heavy. However, the large and thick ear cups can be challenging for those with glasses and they are very bulky as well.

Apart from that, the HD 600 remains to be the golden standard of open-back headphones.

Feel free to check out our full review of Sennheiser HD 660.

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Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO

Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO (From: Amazon)
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO (From: Amazon)

The Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO are circumaural headphones with an open-back design. Compared to the HD 600, the DT 990 PRO’s bass is milder with a more powerful treble. Its mids and highs offer great detail that matches well with the usual airy sound of open-back headphones.

Due to its detailed sound, this is something that is recommended for producers. If you’re very particular with sound details but are still looking for headphones that let you hear your surroundings, then this one is definitely a product to keep in mind.

Much like the HD 600, the DT 990 PRO is also quite hefty and bulky. It is, however, relatively affordable and can rival Sennheiser’s bet in terms of sound quality.

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Open-ear headphones are both portable and stylish. Its blend of ambient sound and lightweight design makes it the go-to option for commuters and those who are always on the go. It also bodes well as activewear so if you’re an athlete, you should be looking into this type.

Below are some recommendations we have for open-ear headphones.

Bose Sport Open Earbuds

Bose Sport Open Earbuds (From: Amazon)
Bose Sport Open Earbuds (From: Amazon)

The Bose Sport Open Earbuds is a pair of wireless open-ear headphones that feature Bose’s Openaudio technology.

These headphones are IPX4 rated which makes them just good enough to resist sweat and very quick runs in the rain. They are extremely stable and well-fitted to survive your most active workouts. They can also last up to 8 hours when fully charged and 3 hours after a quick 30-minute charge.

Sound leaks are to be expected at higher volumes since they are open-ear. Also, the absence of a charging case is also one big drawback for the Bose Sport Open Earbuds.

Despite that, ambient sound for these headphones is as clear as it can get due to the product’s open-ear design.

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Amazon Echo Frames (2nd Gen)

Amazon Echo Frames (2nd Gen) (From: Amazon)
Amazon Echo Frames (2nd Gen) (From: Amazon)

Amazon’s Echo Frames marries audio and vision unlike anything else. The Echo Frames are prescription-ready glasses with an open-ear audio mechanism that directly sends sounds to your ears.

These eyeglasses are Alexa-enabled which allows you to access everything from your audiobooks to your music hands-free. Apart from the spatial awareness that the open-ear design gives you, the hands-free operation also gives you the liberty to stop using your phone when you’re outside for added safety.

The Echo Frames can stay on for 14 hours with Alexa on and 4 hours with non-stop music. The product is also IPX4 rated, making it splash resistant and quite usable as activewear.

This one is recommended for people looking to upgrade their frames into something that would incorporate Alexa more into their lives. There aren’t a lot of frame designs yet which can be a dealbreaker for some. The audio is also subpar compared to regular headphones.

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Aftershokz Aeropex

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One of the biggest names in the open-ear category of headphones is Aftershokz. They specialize in bone conduction headphones and Aeropex is one of their marquee products. These Bluetooth 5.0 headphones feature a combination of great sound quality and functionality.

The Aeropex can run for 8 hours of continuous playtime directly from a 2-hour charge. These lightweight headphones are also IP 67 rated which makes them the most waterproof option here. The matte and sweatproof finish also makes it extra attractive to joggers and other athletes because they can stay on.

The Aeropex has a forward mid-range that works well with Pop, R&B, and Rap music. The bass is not too strong and you would need to increase the vibration strength of the headphones to compensate. Doing so might result in an uncomfortable experience that includes itching around the ear area.

If you’re interested in this type of headphones, check out this in-depth review of the 10 best bone conduction headphones you can buy today.

If you’re curious about these bone conduction headphones, check out our in-depth review of Aftershokz Aeropex.

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Ambient Sound Technology is a great complement for headphones with noise cancellation. These two advanced features go hand in hand in giving users the seamless experience of switching from hearing the world to quieting it down.

If you’re interested in headphones that can do these, below are some recommendations.

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4 (From: Amazon)
Sony WH-1000XM4 (From: Amazon)

The Sony WH-1000XM4 is recognized as one of the industry leaders in noise cancellation. Its blend of smart controls, long battery life, clean design, and more makes it a tough competition to beat. In fact, we rated it as the top pick in our review of the best noise-cancelling headphones in the market today.

Outside of its famed noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM4 also features Ambient Sound Mode. It also has multipoint connection, wearing detection, touch control, and hands-free calling to round up its features.

These headphones can run for 30 hours on standby. For a 10-minute charge, you would already get 5 hours of playback from this. They are also compatible with the Sony Headphones Connect App where users could easily customize ambient sound settings.

Admittedly, you would take some time adjusting to the small touch buttons on the headphones. Other than that, the Sony WH-1000XM4 has everything you can ask for from your headphones.

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Galaxy Buds Pro

Galaxy Buds Pro (From: Amazon)
Galaxy Buds Pro (From: Amazon)

The Galaxy Buds Pro is the apex of Samsung mobile audio technology as of today. Each one of the earbuds is not even an inch long yet it packs a plethora of features. This includes Ambient Sound mode which turns on automatically once you speak.

These wireless earbuds are perfect for workouts and day-to-day use. It has an IPX7 rating that protects it from a 30-minute immersion up to one meter deep. It supports wireless charging and can run for 5 hours outside of its case with noise-cancellation turned on.

Other notable features of the Galaxy Buds Pro include crystal-clear calls and superb audio. It makes use of 11mm woofers and 6.5 tweets for deeper bass and accurate mids, respectively.

Some people still find the Galaxy Buds pro lacking due to the absence of Google Assistant or Siri support, although it has Bixby. The round design of these earbuds is also something that some people are not in favor of since it bulges out of their ears.

Nonetheless, for those who are looking for earbuds that can support ambient sound, the Galaxy Buds Pro is what you’re looking for.

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Conclusion

With a good pair of headphones that let you hear your surroundings, you should be able to walk safely and confidently outside — all while listening to your favorite music. With headphones like these, you wouldn’t need to fumble your phone or anxiously take off your headphones when you’re talking to someone.

There are a lot of headphones to choose from and there will surely be one that would fit you the best.

Which of the recommendations do you find interesting? Do you have any experience with any of them? Tell us more through the comments!

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