Lately I’ve been using my AirPods to hear nothing.
My use of Apple’s AirPods Pro and other wireless noise-canceling earbuds has changed since I first started wearing them about half a decade ago. Back then, I plugged in earbuds to listen to music, stream a podcast, or watch videos on my phone or tablet while in a public place. I took meetings and calls with them or put them in when I was working in the yard for some motivational metal. On walks around the neighborhood, my earbuds accompanied me with audio to keep me entertained and moving.
Now I usually don’t listen to anything when I wear them. I put the AirPods or another noise-canceling earbud in my ears when I’m in a coffee shop where the music and chatter is too loud; I wear them in my home office to muffle the sound of my fan or purifier. I even use them when I’m reading a book in my favorite chair so I don’t get distracted by kids trashing a room. I don’t play music or a podcast or anything in those cases; I just wear the AirPods with their noise canceling features turned on.
There is no denying that modern life has become very noisy. Urban environments are noisy, coffee shops and restaurants routinely turn the music up to club levels, and open office plans are widely criticized for being much noisier than cubicle farms. Anyone who lives in a home with an open floor plan and more than one other person can attest to how noisy the space gets when you can’t close the doors to separate rooms.
That noise makes it especially difficult for me and many other easily distracted people to relax or concentrate, but it can also damage your hearing over time. Noise pollution has become such a concern that the Apple Watch even gives you a warning if you are exposed to high decibels for a long time.
Now noise canceling earplugs are not effective enough fully mute the world. (In my experience, Samsung’s first-generation Galaxy Buds Pro are the most comfortable and effective at canceling noise, such as conversation, but since they don’t integrate as well as the AirPods Pro with my everyday devices, AirPods are for me.) They’re also not my choice for long journeys on a plane – over-ear headphones are much more effective for that.
But wireless earbuds are good at that Reduce the amount of sound reaching my eardrums. It’s like turning the world back from an 11 to a more reasonable four or five. If someone is talking directly to me, I can generally hear them, but if they’re talking to someone else nearby, I’m not distracted by what they’re talking about. I can still hear enough of my kids’ play to know they’re alive (or that someone’s been hurt and needs an adult), but I’m not annoyed by every little shriek and squeal that emanates from wherever they go are. (Any parent can tell you, little kids scream and yell a lot.) They’re also more convenient to carry around with me than over-ear headphones.
Wireless earbuds are also easy to remove if I need to hear someone better or listen in on traffic or any other safety issue. Taking an AirPod out of my ear is usually so much faster and easier than trying to switch between noise canceling and transparency that I hardly ever use the latter.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m using expensive technology that needs to be charged and cared for to do something that a cheap foam earplug can do just as well. And to that I say, honestly. You have me. But I already have the AirPods and when they’re in my ears I can choose to listen to something or not, which isn’t an option with foam earplugs.
It’s also interesting that my use of AirPods ties in with their recently acquired ability to strengthen the sound around you as a replacement for hearing aids. That’s certainly helpful for people with hearing loss, but for me, I appreciate their cancellation options more for now.
So instead of shaking my fist and yelling at everyone to turn it down, I pop in my earbuds and get on with my day. After all, silence is bliss.