Last week, we took a look at iOS apps that keep you aware of your surroundings as you listen to music through headphones, and found a fairly healthy selection to choose from on Apple's mobile platform. These apps either allow you to hear surrounding noises while listening to music through your phone's or headphone's microphone, or paused the music when a sudden noise was detected.
Not only is this a useful safety feature, a good way to listen to music while attending to a sleeping baby, and probably applicable to more situations than we can imagine, but it can also turn your music into a real soundtrack for your life.
Yes, listening to music mixed with sounds from the outside world makes you feel like you're in a movie with a soundtrack - and not the cheesy montage, the actual movie part.
Now, we turn our focus to Android, with the same quest. We found plenty of Android apps that can measure the decibel level of outside noise, and others to customize and improve your Android's sound quality, but only two apps that let you hear surrounding sounds while listening to your music, and one of them was no good.
Unfortunately, a few minutes of testing revealed a large disparity in quality between these two apps, so we can only recommend one of these at this time. So without further ado, we give you the winner: Around Sound (free) - or its sibling, Around Sound Pro ($2), which adds expert-level niceties such as a pause mode and a noise floor for the trigger.
If you're potentially in the market for an app like this, which lets you hear what's going around you without sacrificing your musical soundtrack, it's still worth reading to the bottom of this story though, because we show you how to use Around Sound Around Sound and why you don't want Hear Voice. (Also, from a legal perspective, we should point out that using any of these apps will not 100 percent prevent you from being hit by a car.)
To use Around Sound, plug in your headphones, launch the app, and press Start to measure the ambient noise level of your current surroundings with the app's Sound Meter. At this point, you'll need to determine the appropriate trigger level to stop your music. We recommend choosing a trigger level somewhere above your ambient noise level so that constant sounds, like typing on your keyboard or traffic, don't set off the app, although you might want to play around with this a bit.
Once all of that's done, throw on some music using almost any Android music player app (check compatibility here) and go about your business. When the app registers a noise exceeding the set trigger level, a few different things might happen, depending on whether you have the free or paid version and your settings.
If you're rocking the free version, offending noises will either pause your music or lower the volume, depending on your preference, and then play back the disrupting sound for you. The music will either resume after a few seconds, or stay paused - also depending on your preference.
If you've got $2 (not a bad price in our opinion) to spare for the Pro version, you can opt to turn on Street Mode. This allows you to hear noises above your set trigger level while continuing to listen to music. In other words, it mixes the outside and inside signals, just like our $7 favorite on the iOS side. This works great for walking down a busy street (hence the name "Street Mode"), since you don't want your music to stop at every sudden noise, the way it does with the free version, but you still want to hear what's going on.
For best results, use headphones with a built-in mic, as with all apps like this. Otherwise your device will rely on its own mic, which will register noises from shuffling around in your pocket or purse.
We heartily recommend Around Sound – free or Pro – for your surrounding sound awareness needs. It's easy to use, effective, and cheap. We're also really into the Pro version's flexibility in terms of you having the choice between continuing your music, lowering the volume, or pausing your music.
You may be wondering what's wrong with Hear Voice to make us adamantly discourage you from using it. Well, after purchasing this $1.50 app, you've basically paid to add a background of constant buzzing and static to your music. Oh, no you didn't.
On top of that, you can barely hear the environmental sounds that the app registers because the static emanating from it is so loud. Turning up the app's volume raises the volume of those outside sounds - but it also raises the static volume.
Considering you have a really great alternative above, we suggest you steer clear of Hear Voice.
While Around Sound is the only Android app of its kind worth having at the moment, we'd like to note that Awareness! The Headphone App should be coming to Android any day now. We highly recommend the iOS version, and can only imagine that the Android version will be just as great, now that some of the issues with Android as an audio platform have been resolved. Keep your eyes peeled.
Note: We tested these apps using a Samsung Galaxy S II running Android Version 4.0.3.
Image: olly / Shutterstock