AirPods are widely loved for their sleek design, great audio quality, and high durability. For such small devices, they are capable of some pretty amazing things – noise cancelation, hands-free phone calls, and a large Bluetooth connectivity range.
But there are some problems with the AirPods and AirPods Pro, and they mainly surface when users are making phone calls. The main complaint in this regard is to do with background noise.
There doesn’t seem to be one specific cause that underlines this issue, and what is causing it for you may be tricky to pin down. But it seems to stem from a mixture of issues relating to the gain of the inbuilt microphone and the configuration of the noise cancelation settings, and how these features can often get confusing and work at cross purposes.
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AirPods’ In-built Microphone
One of the main possible causes for an overbearing amount of background noise on phone calls conducted via AirPods may be down to the fact the microphone fitted in the headphones is exceptionally powerful.
The stem of the AirPods, where the microphone is positioned, barely extends out from the ear; certainly nowhere near the mouth of the user. As you can imagine, this could present a major problem if the headphones were to be used for hands-free calls as well as just listening to audio.
In an attempt to remedy any problems that might arise from the microphone being unable to detect speech or to only pick it up at incredibly low volumes, the AirPods are fitted with a high-gain microphone in the bottom of the stem.
Of course, this works well to amplify the speaker’s voice and transmit it over the phone call, but sometimes the microphone may pick up other background sounds too. Of course, with it being so powerful, these sounds will be amplified down the phone line and appear in the recipient’s ear as loud as the voice!
If you can imagine: a passing truck beeping its horn, or the clunk of a mug being set down on a hard surface, or a zipper being done up at close range – any of these sounds amplified by a high-gain microphone and projected into the ear of the listener would be most unwelcome!
How to Fix This
Unfortunately, there is no way to manually lower the gain of the inbuilt mic. Some users, however, have found success by switching the “Pickup Microphone Automatically” to just left to right AirPods. This significantly reduces the likelihood of the headphones accidentally picking up and amplifying the wrong sounds.
To do this, head to Settings > Bluetooth > ‘Your AirPods’ Info (i) > Microphone. Now, simply select which AirPod you want to use as the microphone.
Be warned: this is not a certified fix! You may still find that occasionally your AirPods are picking up and amplifying the wrong sounds. But by limiting their capability to switch between two microphones, this should be greatly reduced.
However, it is worth noting that the issue could actually be caused by the AirPods getting confused by the noise cancelation settings, and ‘canceling out’ your voice, and amplifying background noises, which is the reverse of what’s meant to happen!
Noise Canceling Tech in AirPods and AirPods Pro
Unfortunately, first and second-generation AirPods don’t have any noise-canceling capabilities, so this article really only relates to third-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro.
The addition of the noise cancelation technology was a wonderful design feature by Apple. It works via a secondary microphone on the external face of the AirPod, which will detect and neutralize any incoming sound with ‘anti-sound,’ which is actually a low-level sound wave of the opposing waveform to that which is incoming. It’s quite technical, but this technology is used in all noise-canceling headsets.
AirPods also have another internal microphone facing inwards, into the ear, which will detect and neutralize any sounds generated from your own head, too!
Sometimes this noise-canceling frequency can be heard as an almost inaudible buzz, somewhat like white noise. This is because noise-canceling technology does not actually completely eradicate background noises but significantly lowers the volume of them so they can’t be heard over the audio being played through the AirPods.
There are different modes of noise cancellation available: off, on, and transparency. ‘Off’ is fairly self-explanatory. It means noise canceling is not active, and background sounds will not be reduced in volume at all.
‘On’ gives the user full noise cancellation, meaning background sounds will be suppressed and limited, and the user will hear significantly less of them.
‘Transparency’ offers the user something in the middle of ‘off’ and ‘on.’ Noise cancellation will still be active, but sounds will not be reduced as much.
So, that’s how the tech works and the different modes available. But how does this relate to background noise on telephone calls?
Well, having noise cancellation enabled should reduce any background noise to the appropriate level for the mode you have selected. So, if you’ve got transparency mode on, some background noises may get through. If you’ve got noise cancellation fully on, however, there should be no background noise for the caller on the other end.
Obviously, that is not always the case. But why? It is possible that the AirPods are detecting the background noises, registering them as the main sound source, and then suppressing your voice! This is, of course, completely at odds with what the technology is supposed to do.
How to Fix This
One possible solution to this annoying problem is to try making a call with your AirPods in all three different modes of noise cancellation. Sometimes, turning the feature off all together can remedy the amplification of background noise.
Noise Cancellation Modes
Transparency mode may also work well and have the same effect, or it may just balance the discrepancy between your speech volume and the volume of background noises. This may still be preferable for the listener.
It’s also recommended to try disconnecting and pairing your AirPods again and also to try resetting them.
AirPod Ear Tip Fit Test
Another aspect of the AirPods that can greatly improve functionality across all functions is the ear tip fit test. This will check how snugly the AirPod ear tips fit in your ears. The reasoning behind this test is that the tighter the seal that is created in your ears by the rubber tip of the headphones, the better the noise cancellation aspects will work.
This can help with background noise reduction on calls by eliminating any possible misdetection of background noise by the AirPods.
To perform a fit test, follow these simple steps. Before you start, you need to have your AirPods in your ears and connected to your phone. Go to Settings > Bluetooth > ‘Your AirPods’ Info (i) > Ear Tip Fit Test. Hit Continue and press the play arrow.
Depending on the results of the test, you may need to use different-sized ear tips. It’s also worth noting that you may need different-sized ear tips for each ear.
The fix that most users report success with is a simple firmware update to version 4A400. This update is available with iOS 15.
It should go without saying at this point, but always make sure you have the latest iOS version installed on your iPhone/iPad anyway, as this can mitigate any issues like this cropping up in the future.
If you’re still having trouble after this, you may need to take your AirPods to a registered Apple repair shop.
One Final Fix – Use a Different Microphone Source
As an absolute last resort, if none of these other fixes have worked, is to try a different microphone source. If you can use the microphone in your iPhone, Mac, or possibly even a third-party external microphone, this will eliminate this problem altogether.
Obviously, this isn’t ideal at all and is not really a true fix. It’s rather more of a way around the problem. This solution can only work if you’re calling from home, in front of your laptop or external mic, or if you don’t mind using your iPhone and AirPods at the same time.
It’s not great, but it’s a short-term solution you can use in the meantime while Apple works on an official fix or while you wait for your AirPods to be repaired/replaced!
The AirPods and AirPods Pro are great pieces of technology and design, but occasionally even the best tech has its problems. Hopefully, one of the solutions listed in this article can help you, but if not, remember that any gadget you buy should come with a warranty, and your consumer rights protect you in the instance you do end up with a faulty product.
It’s also worth noting that this issue mainly seems to affect AirPods Pro users, with very few reports concerning this problem of intrusive background noise on phone calls out there for AirPods of the first, second, and third generations.
Whatever AirPods you have, if this issue is affecting you, as I know there are many of you, don’t despair. Update all your devices, clean your headphones, and run through the fixes until you find one that works. Good luck!