Apple AirPods Pro in a woman's ear
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Apple markets its AirPods Pro and AirPods Max in-ear and over-ear headphones as having a feature called “Adaptive EQ,” but what exactly does this mean? How does it affect audio quality, and can you disable it?

Adaptive EQ Is a Marketing Term

Apple attaches the “Adaptive EQ” marketing term to its premium noise-canceling wireless headphones. The company has been tight-lipped about exactly what is happening, but it has disclosed that the technology effectively tailors the sound coming out of the AirPods to the shape of your ear.

The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max have microphones that sit inside the ear that perform this task. These microphones primarily aid the company active noise cancelation (ANC) implementation but also adjust the way sound is “scattered” inside your ear.

Promotional art for AirPods Pro Adaptive EQ
Apple

The inside of your ears may be very different from someone else’s. The shape, the size, the presence or lack of hair, and even ear wax buildup can affect the way sound makes it into our eardrum. Adaptive EQ is designed to produce a more consistent listening experience.

Apple claims that it uses Adaptive EQ to “adjust the frequencies of your music to deliver a rich, consistent experience that faithfully reproduces every note” and doesn’t provide an option to disable the feature.

Which AirPods Support Adaptive EQ?

Only the premium AirPods Pro and AirPods Max offer Adaptive EQ, with the feature missing on the base level AirPods. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Apple attempt to adapt music playback to the immediate surroundings.

Black AirPods Max and iPhone flat against a table surface.
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The original HomePod uses a similar technique of analyzing the acoustics of the room and adjusting its output to produce “best” results. Much like Adaptive EQ, Apple never gives away its secrets as to what’s happening behind the scenes, but a patent that surfaced shortly after the HomePod announcement in 2017 describes a similar technique on a room scale.

Can You Turn Off Adaptive EQ?

Adaptive EQ appears to be running all of the time, with no menu options to disable it in iOS. Some AirPods users have speculated that the feature is only enabled while ANC or transparency mode is enabled.

Our testing on a pair of AirPods Pro demonstrates a slight difference in sound when switching ANC on or off, but whether this is down to Adaptive EQ being enabled or disabled, or simply a knock-on effect of disabling ANC, we can’t say.

Pick the Best Wireless Earbuds for Your Budget

AirPods Pro are great-sounding wireless earbuds, but you don’t need to spend that much to get active noise canceling or even Transparency mode. Check out our roundup of the best wireless in-ear headphones for iPhone and iPad users for our top recommendations.

RELATED: The Best Wireless Earbuds for iPhone and iPad in 2021

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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