It’s a familiar problem for the headphone set: You love bringing your own personal soundtrack with you, but hate the prospect of being injured or worse due to headphone-induced obliviousness. Essency Awareness, a $2 app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, solves that problem by listening to what’s going on around you and mixing that sound into your music based on your precise specifications.
It’s sort of like the Inception app we reviewed last year, except it’s designed with awareness instead of disorientation in mind.
This app is no gimmick. You set a decibel threshold, and anything above that gets mixed into your music at whatever volume you prefer. Its design is reminiscent of that of a decibel meter, and like those, it’s quite sensitive and registers lots of sound if you put your iPhone on a desk and move it around. While I walked through the city, it picked up nearby sounds such as cars honking their horns, and a construction crew working nearby. Listening to those songs mixed into my music felt pretty extraordinary.
Speaking of which, we recommend rocking this app with headphones that include an inline microphone. Not only does this allow you to talk while not exposing your brain to potentially high levels of microwave radiation, but it means that your headset’s mic can pick up the ambient noise while your iPhone remains in your pocket or purse.
That said, we found this app useful even in non-mobile settings. For instance, when we had the headphones on at the office, the app let us know when people were talking to us. Basically, it lets you listen to music without missing out on the world outside your headphones, whether it includes a crying baby or a coworker who is trying to get your attention.
Another winning use case: You can listen to station alerts while riding the train, without pausing your music. Whatever.
Overall, we found this app to be extremely intuitive, and it does just what it says it does. In addition to the above scenarios, we’d also recommend it for biking and jogging. Just remember: It works best with headphones that include an inline microphone — especially a set from Etymotic, because then all of the in-app purchases are free.
Here’s the full feature list, courtesy of Essency, including in-app purchases:
PRO PACK for In-App purchases
Unlocks all Awareness features for $1.99
(All functions are included in Awareness! For Etymotic earphone app)
AutoPause – (59p/99c In App Purchase)
Pauses and resumes music when the outside noise exceeds the set microphone level so you never miss a thing! Great for audio books too. Only works with the iPod Player.
AutoSet – included
AutoSet listens to the sounds around you and automatically sets a microphone level to make sure you hear anything above normal background noise. AutoSet comes on each time Awareness is started or when the button on the main screen is tapped.
AutoSet Plus – (59p/99c In App Purchase)
Advanced version of AutoSet, checks and adjusts the mic levels at a set interval of your choice, ranging from every 30 secs to every 5 minutes (displayed on screen). Great on the move.
Bypass/Mic – included
Switches the mic on or off whatever the mic setting, useful for when you just want to have a quick listen to what’s going on around you.
ClearVoice – (59p/99c In App Purchase)
Makes any speech picked up by the microphone clearer and easier to hear.
dB Noise Meter – (59p/99c In App Purchase)
Upgrades the app meter to a Noise Meter which measures environmental noise and displays it as a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) measured in decibels. Featuring average dB and dBA scales.
Ducking – included
Lowers the music when the mic is triggered and turns it back up when outside noise drops to normal levels. Note: although functional there’s a bug in iOS at the moment that stops this function from working as smoothly as it should, we’re hoping Apple will fix it soon.
Vibrate / Noise Alarm – included
Makes an ‘i’device vibrate when the mic level is exceeded. This turns Awareness into a useful noise alarm that could warn you when you are exposed to dangerous environmental noise levels. Can be used in conjunction with the dB Noise Meter. Note: Will not work with iPod player but works with all other audio apps.
VoiceOver UI – included
Awareness has been rebuilt from the ground up to incorporate a simplified UI that’s optimised for VoiceOver.