June 4, 2023

Brighton Journal

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Apple’s hidden sound isolation setting makes audio and video calls sound better

Apple's hidden sound isolation setting makes audio and video calls sound better

Whenever possible, I like to use FaceTime Audio or WhatsApp instead of making regular phone calls. The people I call see it as a normal phone call, but the sound quality is better than an old fashioned phone call.

But! Turns out I wasn’t even making my internet calls the right way. Today, I learned that there’s a new feature buried in Control Center that improves microphone quality during calls, whether you’re using audio only or via video.

It is called sound insulation, and it works on most of them IphoneAnd IPAD And Mac From the past few years as long as you are using iOS 15 or macOS Monterey. (Apparently anything that supports spatial audio also supports sound isolation.) It’s very hard to find, and you can only access the setting when you’re already on a call: you swipe down from the top-right corner (or click the button in the top-right corner of a device Mac) to access Control Center, then click the “Mic Mode” button. By default, it is set to Standard, but there are two more options: sound insulation and broad spectrum. The broad spectrum will allow other people in your call to listen more Background noise, which I think is useful if you’re holding your phone at a concert but mostly sounds like a horrible thing to do to others on the line. But the sound insulation? Sound insulation is where the magic happens.

Essentially, when you enable sound isolation, your device begins to aggressively process the sound coming into your microphone in order to remove background noise. When I turned on the setup on my iPhone 12, my dog ​​barking 20 feet away completely disappeared – and so were almost all traffic sounds. When I turned it on on my MacBook, the laptop fan sounds and my keyboard typing completely stopped.

In the process of soundproofing, it seems that Apple is also rounding it; There’s less echo and a lot less tone, so it feels like you’re holding your phone to your face even when you’re not. The trade-off is that your voice definitely sounds more processed, but it always seems to be processed through apps like FaceTime or Zoom.

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In my testing, there was one moment when two cars revved their engines at the same time just a few feet from where I was standing when the AI ​​seemed to overwhelm me and produce half a second of complete silence. But it’s not like you heard me above roar anyway, right? Generally speaking, doing more processing to reduce background noise is an easy trade-off for most calls.

To turn on sound isolation, open Control Center while on a call.
Photo: Apple/David Pierce

There are only two problems with sound insulation. First, it’s not a global setting, so you’ll have to enable it in every app you use to make calls. Second, it doesn’t work everywhere. Apple provides sound isolation through an API on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, but not every app supports it. On mobile devices, the history is very good: Snapchat, WhatsApp, Slack, Signal and Instagram all support it, although TikTok does not. Zoom was working on iOS but not on a Mac, and there’s no way to get it to work for any in-browser apps as far as I can, so it rules out Google Meet and a few others.

But the glaring absence? Regular phone calls. There are absolutely no mic modes for phone calls although that’s where you’ll likely use a bit of optimization. Apple asked why, but the company has not commented.

To be fair, even in normal modes, Apple does some noise canceling work. If you ever want to test it, hold a fan on your phone and listen to it because the device takes a few seconds to identify and suppress, but it doesn’t go far enough. I’ve now heard sound insulation, which means I’ve heard what could sound better. And I want it everywhere, and I want it all the time—for my own good and for everyone I talk to.