APRIL 25, 2023

It’s no surprise Apple is looking to double-down on health for AirPods Pro. Features like Adaptive Transparency and Live Listen are amazing — refining these and getting official certification for their health applications is a no-brainer. But I think Apple has an opportunity in front of them, without any regulatory hurdles, to disrupt a whole product category: concert earplugs.

Adaptive Transparency is a clever feature: as the sounds of the world around you pass through it, the AirPods apply real-time audio compression to make sudden, extra-loud sounds a more reasonable volume. It’s eerie how genuinely transparent Adaptive Transparency sounds, while shielding your hearing from unexpected loud noises. But in the context of something like live music, where sound is dangerously loud for sustained periods of time, this feature doesn’t cut it.

On paper, concert earplugs are very similar to Adaptive Transparency: they allow the sounds of the world around you to pass through, but they lower all sound by an even amount. There are several reasons people use concert earplugs: to prevent searing pain from loud volumes, protect hearing from long-term damage (especially for musicians and audio professionals), and limit overstimulation for neurodivergent people. But while reducing all sounds and frequencies evenly is the goal, even good concert earplugs don’t achieve this. They sound somewhat-to-very muffled, which makes it harder to feel immersed in the music around you.

Wirecutter recently tested the AirPods Pro 2 against actual concert earplugs — the results are promising, but AirPods aren’t a viable replacement yet. Apple’s tech gives users the feeling of being there in the room better than the earplugs ever will, but they don’t lower the overall volume level enough yet. ‘Concert Mode’ would be a natural addition to AirPods Pro: take Adaptive Transparency mode, but lower all sounds by an extra 5-10dB. The realities of implementing this feature are surely more complex and would require lots of fine tuning, but the technology is clearly so close.

Concert earplugs aren’t great, but for many people they make live music possible. Apple is poised to make live music not just more accessible, but a more rich and meaningful experience for me and many others. For those of us who often feel unable to fully appreciate live music, this can’t come soon enough.