Sometimes, nothing can ruin your day more than a constant irritating noise coming from some inescapable source. You could be traveling abroad on a long-haul flight, and there’s an infant that won’t stop crying, or someone may be snoring up a storm from the row behind you, or you could be on a window seat next to the jet engines. You are helpless and stuck in a situation where you can’t get any sleep, and you’re left counting the minutes until your long ordeal ends.
That’s where noise-canceling headphones have become an indispensable gadget to have with you not only during your travels but in any situation where you need some peace and quiet. You could use them on the train or your commute to work, or they can help you concentrate on your job in a noisy office environment or construction site.
Other times you want to enjoy some music or to fully immerse yourself in a movie or game without any additional sounds interfering with your enjoyment of them. But even with the sound turned up high on regular headphones, they fail to drown out the other sounds, and that lessens or ruins the quality of your listening experience.
If you’ve tried shopping around for a pair of good headphones before, you might have heard about the ones with noise-canceling features. You may also have wondered if they crack up to be as advertised. Are they worth it, and do they live up to the hype?
A few years ago, they might have been more of a hype than reality, but with the advancements in processing speed and anti-phase algorithms, current ANC tech is proving very efficient. The technology isn’t perfect, and they don’t eliminate noise entirely, as their name suggests. Well, not yet anyway, but they do manage to help reduce annoying sounds significantly.
Best Budget Noise Canceling Headphones
TaoTronics TT BH060
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The Absolute Best
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Best for Voice Chats
Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700
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The Absolute Best
“The WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ear headphone from Sony is expensive but will keep you satisfied and leave you no regrets.”
Excellent and refined active noise-cancelation
Excellent sound reproduction
Punchy bass sound
Slim ergonomic design
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The WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ear headphone from Sony is expensive but will keep you satisfied and leave you no regrets. The active digital noise-canceling tech works well in filtering out noises in a variety of frequencies and a wide decibel range. The passive noise-isolating earpads also do a great job sealing the ears from external sound interference.
Better yet, Sony allows you to customize the extent to which it does noise-canceling. That means you can decrease the cancelation when you’re in an area where you need to be more aware of your surroundings. Or you could increase it and block out as much of the noise as possible when you need some alone time.
It has useful features like a “quick attention mode” that quickly turns the volume down when you cover the right earcup with your hand, allowing you to talk to someone at a moment’s notice. Aside from the multimicrophone array that monitors noise, there’s also a dedicated mic for the user to improve the clarity of voice calls. For a closed-back headphone, the sound produced by the driver is top-notch. The bass sound is also punchy.
The earcups and the headband had a recent redesign making them slimmer and more ergonomic while maintaining their durability. They reduced the overall weight and the pressure on the ears for more comfort during extended use. The entire build is sturdy and of high quality. The touch controls on the earcups that allow you to adjust the basic functions are very intuitive to use.
The amount of flexibility the WH-1000XM3 allows with the ANC adjustments is remarkable. It is made possible via Sony’s Headphone Connect app that Apple users can download from the App Store or Google Play if you have an Android device. It also has Alexa voice control support.
The rechargeable batteries can last up to 30 hours on a full charge. It also has a quick charge feature that gives you 5 hours of playback with only a 10-minute recharge time. You can also use this as a wired headphone with the included cable.
Not only is the design ergonomic, but the headphone is also foldable for better portability and effortless storage when traveling. Yes, it’s expensive but has superior value for the price compared to its high-end counterparts.
Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700
Best for Voice Chats
“Bose paid close attention to the communication features making this headphone an outstanding one for making calls.”
Weaker bass when unplugged
Excellent sound quality
The smart device app is mediocre
Great for communications
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Besides their quality, people know Bose headphones for their comfort. Their QuietComfort series has been around for almost two decades. Their successor, the Noise-Cancelling Headphone 700, has a tough act to follow, and it doesn’t disappoint. Well, except for its hefty price tag.
When it comes to sound and build quality, this wireless over-ear headphone is better than its predecessor. Firstly, it dropped the plastic headband and opted for a more durable single piece of stainless steel. That also makes it a little heavier. One negative about their new headband design is a lack of a hinge so you can’t fold them. It’s also a little stiffer and presses down on your head a little tighter. For cushioning, it has an inflated rubberized band lining the inside of the headband.
Bose paid close attention to the communication features making this headphone an outstanding one for making calls. The new microphones reduce external noise so that people at the other end of the line can hear you crystal clear. It’s also easy to give assistants like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant commands in noisier environments. You can designate one of those assistants to work with the accompanying Music app, which is somewhat lacking, to be honest.
You can set up to 11 noise-canceling levels for a more personalized experience, and it does a great job of filtering out background noise. A toggle makes it easy to switch between three of those levels. There’s a cluster of eight reference microphones that actively sample ambient sound. It’s Bose’s first attempt at touch controls, which they placed on the right earcup. It also has a wired mode and oddly has a stronger bass sound when it’s plugged in. The overall sound quality is excellent and very detailed.
On a full charge, the headphone can last for as long as 20 hours, which is not the longest in its class. There’s a quick charge feature that gives you 3.5 hours of playback from a 15-minute recharge time.
Jabra Elite 85h
Great Noise Canceling Headphones
“It’s another excellent wireless over-ear noise-canceling headphone that has superb sound quality.”
A bit heavy
Excellent sound quality
Bass is just okay
Excellent battery life
A little smallish for larger heads
It’s water and dust resistant
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It’s another excellent wireless over-ear noise-canceling headphone that has superb sound quality. The manufacturer designed it to compare with top of the line Sony and Bose products, but it’s a bit less comfortable to wear and slightly heavier. It may be a tight fit for bigger heads.
For an easy ANC set up, there are four sound modes you can cycle through, namely, no noise-canceling, in private, in public, and commute. Jabra SmartSound is what it calls its impressive noise-canceling tech. It has eight reference mics to monitor unwanted sounds and advanced AI that does a terrific job of analyzing and adapting to current surroundings by automatically selecting the appropriate ANC mode for you. For example, if you’re on a train, the AI will change the ANC mode to “Commute.” When you’re in a quieter environment, it will set it to “In Private.”
For a more personal touch, you can tweak the ANC and set other features through its Jabra Sound+ app that you have to download into your device first. With the app, you can also fine-tune the sound quality and set the equalizer options like “bass boost” or “treble boost” to your taste. It has presets for “speech,” for example, which enhances voices, or various music presets like “smooth” or “energize,” among others. However, the bass isn’t the punchiest in this class.
It has a distinct feature that we liked called auto-pause where the music stops when you take the headphone off and resumes playing when you put it back on. Powering the headphone on and off is done by folding the earcups. It also has a voice assistant support built-in that lets you use Siri, Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa.
On a full charge, the Elite 85h can last up to 36 hours with SmartSound active. With noise-canceling turned off, it can last up to 41 hours. A fast charge feature lets you recharge it for 15 minutes and gives you 5 hours of battery life. Jabra offers a 2-year warranty against dust and water damage.
TaoTronics TT BH060
Best Budget Noise Canceling Headphones
“It comes highly recommended as a no-frills ANC headphone if you’re on a tight budget.”
Build quality isn’t up to high-end standards
Terrific active noise reduction
Great value for the low price
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You can see this on sale on Amazon for as low as US$50, and it might make you wonder why we included it in this list. The truth is this Bluetooth 5.0 active noise-canceling headphone offers the highest value for money we could find and has features comparable to high-end brand models costing up to five times more.
First off, let’s start with the battery life, which lasts a good 30 hours of playback with active noise-canceling running. It comes with a cable if you want to use it as a wired headphone. That’s comparable to Sony’s US$250 WH-1000XM3, so the next thing you’ll look for are compromises is with sound quality. We’re glad to tell you that this headphone has rich sound across the spectrum, including significant bass and sounds crisp at the mid and upper ranges, with no distortion. It really overperforms at this low price point.
Even better, the ANC does its job admirably to filter out ambient noise. The passive over-ear design isn’t a slouch either when isolating you from external sounds. True, it doesn’t match Sony’s offering, but at any price point, especially above the 100 dollar range, it can still be considered high-quality output. However, we’re talking just 50 bucks here, which is downright amazing.
Where it does skimp on is build quality, so you’d be wise to take good care of it to extend its life. Not that it has poor product quality. It simply doesn’t compare with the materials used in higher-end equivalents. It has its own carrying case, and it’s a good idea to store it in there when you’re not using it. It also lacks any smart device connectivity and a useful utility found in high-end products.
The bottom line is that if you don’t have more than a couple of hundred bucks to blow on a good pair of wireless ANC headphones, this one allows you to enjoy almost the same features and performance without breaking the bank. It comes highly recommended as a no-frills ANC headphone if you’re on a tight budget.
Best Traveling Noise Canceling Headphones
“If you want something very portable and discrete compared to the bulky over-ears, this would be a good alternative.”
Has a better fit than regular AirPods
Sound quality is still terrific but not as good as top over-ear models
Terrific sound quality
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If you’re looking for the most discrete wireless headphones, then the AirPods Pro might fit the bill. This in-ear headphone has an ultracompact design, is very light, and doesn’t make you sweat. Even if it’s Apple’s first attempt at active noise-cancellation in their headphones, they do a stellar job at blocking unwanted external sounds.
The soft silicone tips fit snugly into your ear canal without much discomfort and ensure a tight seal that surrounding noise can’t penetrate. They’re great at isolating the sound that you want to hear, such as music or a voice call. That, coupled with the ANC, ensure some of the best noise reduction available for in-ear solutions, especially in noisy urban environments.
Being sweat-proof, they’re great for working out and other physical activities like running or biking. They come with three different sized silicone tips, and you can choose the one that fits your ears best. You can be sure that they’ll attach securely and won’t fall out of your ears. There’s even an app that helps you pick the right one.
As for sound, they’re an improvement on the ordinary AirPods, especially with the bass performance. Top over-ear models from Bose and Sony still sound better, but the sound generated by the Pro is still of very high quality. Controls are made possible by a force sensor in the stem of both buds that you pinch to operate them. There are no volume controls, however. The wireless connectivity is very reliable and didn’t have any noticeable lags or hiccups. The audio also synced well with the videos.
Battery life lasts up to 4.5-5 hours of listening, with the active noise-canceling mode switched on. It’s a bit short but shouldn’t be a problem because you can charge them quickly inside their case. Wireless charging is also possible. There’s also a quick charge feature that gives you an hour of battery life from a 5-minute charge.
If you want something very portable and discrete compared to the bulky over-ears, this would be a good alternative.
Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2
Best Bluetooth Noise Canceling Headphones
“If you’re looking for high-quality Bluetooth ANC headphones at a discount, then this would make a great choice.”
More affordable than others in its class
The design isn’t for everyone
ANC is good
Maybe a bit too bass-heavy to some
Sound is also good
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The Backbeat Pro 2 is much lighter and less bulky than its predecessor. The design is different from most headphones. The first thing you’ll notice is the fake wood grain accents, which may look a bit dated to some but pleasing to others.
There’s a mesh ring around the flat surface of the earcups that houses the mics, and there’s also a bright metal ring accent around it. Cushioned leather lines the sides of the earcups and the bottom of the headband, adding some comfort.
You’ll find the controls for the playback and volume, as well as the ANC toggle switch, on the left earcup. There’s also a wired mode in case the battery dies out. On a full charge, it can last for a day with the ANC running, but you’ll get a little extra power if you turn it off.
The same toggle also features a mode that pauses the music and lets you hear your surroundings without taking off the headphones. It’s a nice feature to have when you want to talk to someone or when you see something that needs your full attention. Playback also automatically pauses when you take off the headphones and resumes when you wear them back on again.
The bass sound of the Backbeat Pro 2 is a little heavy, which tends to overpower the pleasant mids and light sounding highs. When nothing is playing, there’s a barely perceptible hiss caused by the active noise-canceling, but it didn’t degrade the sound quality when it was playing something. It also does a remarkable job of filtering out unwanted noise. Passive noise-isolation also helps in preventing sound from leaking in and out of the earcup.
It would be a great traveling headphone and even comes with a protective sleeve. Audiophiles might be turned off by the weighty bass while others like that kind of sound. At around 200 bucks, it’s more affordable than most high-end products in its class that offer similar features. If you’re looking for high-quality Bluetooth ANC headphones at a discount, then this would make a great choice.
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0
Best Luxury Noise Canceling Headphones
“If you’re looking for a no-frills product, but with a very high-quality build and luxurious design.”
Luxurious looking and timeless design
Badly needs an upgrade in features
Excellent sound quality
Excellent build quality
Solid noise-canceling works well
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The Momentum Wireless 2.0 comes with Bluetooth connectivity and an active noise-canceling tech. It also can be folded for added portability and comes with a softshell case making it an ideal travel companion. An inflight adapter and a charging cable come with the package.
The design is very stylish, and the materials used ooze quality and attention to detail. The headband is of brushed metal with genuine leather sewn in. The stitching at the edge of the leather adds to its appeal. The inside of the earcups is also lined with leather. Comfortable foam padding is thicker where they touch your head and you can wear it for hours without feeling any discomfort.
Even with the active noise-canceling turned on, you’ll get around 22 hours of playback time. They also included a cable should your batteries drain out. The earcups were made larger for a better over-ear fit and passive noise-isolation. The power button and basic controls via a multifunction button are on the right earcup. For active noise-canceling, they have what they call NoiseGard that does a terrific job of blocking noise from your surroundings.
Sennheiser is a company known for its sound quality, and the Momentum 2.0 doesn’t disappoint with its performance. Separate microphones handle calls so that voices always come through clearly. The strong bass is never overbearing but punchy and never drowns out the upper ranges. The mids sound even better with a high level of detail and fidelity. The highs complete a well-balanced sound across the spectrum.
Even if these headphones have been around for a few years, they’re still sought-after today because of their timeless design and dependable performance. However, newer products have been offering more modern control methods, connectivity with smart devices, and other innovative features. Maybe it’s time for Sennheiser to upgrade this well-designed headphone. They still have an outdated micro-USB cable for recharging the batteries.
If you’re looking for a no-frills product, but with a very high-quality build and luxurious design, then the Momentum Wireless 2.0 might be the one for you. It will do its job admirably while looking classy even if it lacks newer features.
Anker Soundcore Space NC
Best Cheap Noise Canceling Headphones
“With features that work just fine and are comparable to those found on high-end products, it’s hard to resist its value if you have little money to spare.”
Not a high-end product
Active noise-canceling is good enough
Sound quality is above average
Touch controls make it convenient to adjust settings
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If you’re looking for a budget-friendly Bluetooth ANC headphones, this one by Anker might fit the bill. At just a shade under 100 dollars, the Soundcore Space NC comes packed with features that you usually find in high-end products that cost three times as much.
It has a foldable design that lets it fit into a shockproof oval-shaped case. The design looks generic and is what to expect from the over-ear type of headphones. The earcups are large enough to fit around your ears and provide a soundproof seal. They muffle out the ambient noise in your current surroundings for a good passive noise-isolating solution. The padding has memory foam that follows the contours of your head for a comfier fit and soundproof seal.
For basic media controls, it has touch controls on the right earcup that make it easy with simple swiping motions to play, pause, and adjust the volume of whatever sound you’re playing. There’s a switch that toggles the ANC on and off on the left earcup. The ANC works by studying the ambient sounds around you. Anker claims that it’s able to reduce low-frequency noises by as much as 93%. The built-in microphone has civic noise-cancellation for better sounding voice calls from both ends. 40mm diameter drivers deliver respectable quality sounds that are terrific when the ANC is active.
On a full charge, the batteries would be enough for 20 hrs of playback, which is reasonable at this price point. There’s also a cable with a built-in microphone just in case the batteries run out of juice. It takes three hours to have them fully charged.
Yes, they don’t work at the same level as a Sony or Bose product, but those are more than twice as expensive, and you can only get that kind of performance if you’re willing to shell out more money. With features that work just fine and are comparable to those found on high-end products, it’s hard to resist its value if you have little money to spare.
Beats Studio 3 Wireless
Best Over-ear Noise Canceling headphones
“A low bassy sound signature seems to be the forte of this over-ear wireless headphone.”
Top-notch ANC tech
Batteries are still needed when using the headphone cable
A little less comfy compared to other similar products
Excellent build quality
Android devices get poor support
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A low bassy sound signature seems to be the forte of this over-ear wireless headphone. There’s a distinct woofing added to tracks. The bassy lows don’t distort the mids and highs, though.
Aside from what it calls Pure Adaptive Noise-Canceling or Pure ANC, it does real-time audio calibration to preserve the original sound as much as possible. The results are great clarity and a more authentic listening experience that’s more faithful to what the artists created in the studio.
These aren’t just marketing blurbs, though, especially with their ANC implementation, which genuinely impressed us. There is no distortion to the sound or any faint hissing caused by their adaptive noise-canceling as you see in other products. It does a remarkable job of keeping the space inside the earcups quiet so that it’s mostly the relevant sounds that reach your eardrums.
The build is of high-quality and designed for durability. The soft over-ear padding has venting and allows pivoting for a somewhat comfy fit for any head shape and size. You can fold them into their hard shell carrying case for more portability. Pairing it with an IOS device is going to be a cinch because of the built-in W1 chip from Apple, and the Bluetooth connection is pretty strong.
It isn’t the most feature-filled product, and comfort could be improved. Battery life with ANC running lasts up to 20 hours and even less if you have an Android device. It’s also disappointing that you still need a charged battery when using the supplied 3.5mm cable, which doesn’t make sense from a user’s standpoint. Luckily, they have a quick charge feature that will give you a few hours of playback with only a 10-minute charge time.
If you have a Mac or an IOS device, these wireless ANC headphones are going to be one of your best bets for their excellent noise-canceling capabilities and impressive sound. Checking their prices on Amazon, they’re still expensive but continue to be popular and have a high buyer satisfaction rating.
Beats Solo Pro
Best Adaptive Noise Canceling Headphones
“Beats incorporated its top-notch Pure Adaptive Noise-Cancelling tech into the Solo Pro for remarkable noise reduction results.”
Top-notch ANC tech
ANC and Transparency mode drain batteries quickly
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Beats has finally come up with a new addition to its Solo line with the Pro. It isn’t just an upgraded version but a totally redesigned product that’s superior to its predecessors. Beats incorporated its top-notch Pure Adaptive Noise-Cancelling tech into the Solo Pro for remarkable noise reduction results.
It has an eye-catching design and an impressive build that puts previous models to shame. It’s available in a wide variety of striking colors that would suit any personality and style.
As far as comfort goes, Beats has gone to great lengths to improve the comfort level of the Solo Pro. The padding on the earcups they opted for ar 35% denser for a more comfy fit and tighter passive noise-isolation around the ears. It also prevents sound from leaking out for more privacy. It has a transparency mode that uses built-in mics to let you hear external sounds if you want to listen to someone talking or when you become aware of something that needs your attention.
Parent company Apple has noted the criticisms directed at Beat headphones for being too bassy. They have redesigned the Solo Pro’s acoustics from scratch to achieve a more well-balanced audio signature. The bass is still meaty, but the mids and highs have been improved and cleaned up. It means that every element of the sound now pops out, whether it be the vocals or accompaniment, and nothing is muted down or distorted by the heavy bass sound.
Built into the Solo Pro is Apple’s H1 chip for a natural pairing with IOS devices. For Android users, Apple went out of its way to provide an app for Solo Pro’s integration with Android devices. It won’t be as seamless as with IOS pairings, but it still lets you tweak the ANC, transparency mode, and other vital settings.
Both ANC and the transparency mode still reduce battery life by half to about 20 hours or so. With them turned off, the battery would last up to 40 hours. As in other high-end models, you get a quick recharge feature giving you up to 3 hours with a 10-minute charge time.
Parts of a Noise-Canceling Headphone
First, let’s get you up to speed about the different components that make up a noise-canceling headphone.
Specialized noise-canceling parts
These parts are what qualifies it as a noise-canceling headphone and differentiate it from regular headphones.
ANC processor – Also known as the Active Noise-Cancelation controller, it performs the necessary DSP or Digital Signal Processing with an adaptive algorithm that analyzes the sound wave pattern of the ambient noise. Inside the ANC processor, an inversion circuit creates an anti-phase sound wave that’s a mirror image of the noise. The processor then amplifies this inverted sound wave, and when played concurrently over the actual ambient noise will cancel both sounds. What remains is only a trace that the wearer can barely hear.
Reference microphone – When unwanted noise hits the headphone, one or more tiny external reference microphones will pick up and sample the sound and send it to the ANC processor to undergo Digital Signal Processing. You can find these mics in feed-forward ANC solutions.
Error microphone – It’s an additional internal microphone in either feedback or hybrid ANC solution that manufacturers sometimes put in a headphone. This internal mic monitors traces of the unwanted noise that the user hears with the audio playback. A good algorithm would filter both the sounds sampled by the internal error mic and the external reference mic for a more effective way of canceling out unwanted ambient noise.
Batteries – These are usually removable and rechargeable and used to power the ANC system. Some headphones with a power adaptor can be plugged directly into a wall outlet or USB.
These parts are similar to those you will find in regular headphones as well.
Housing – It ‘is where you’ll find the speakers, batteries, reference and error mics, and the ANC components and other electronics of noise-canceling headphones. It serves as the cover of the earcup or earpad.
Drivers – It’s the electronic device that transforms the electrical signals into an audible sound with a voice coil and speakers and drives it straight down into your ear canal. To a great extent, the sound quality depends on the quality of the driver and the size of its diaphragm. Some headphones have multiple drivers taking care of different frequency ranges for an even better sound.
Earpads – Some pads in cheap headphones are added just for user comfort, but the better ones provide a good seal for noise isolation in both over-ear and on-ear type of headphones. People sometimes refer to them as earcups because they create space in the center of the padded ring over your ear.
Cable – It’s the long wire where the signal travels from the sound source straight to your headphones. It’s insulated with durable material but is usually one of the parts that get damaged and worn out quickly, resulting in a bad or dead signal. Some headphones have removable cables that you can replace with new ones if needed.
Jack – The jack is a tiny plug that connects the wires to the sound source. The standard size used is 3.5mm. There are adapters available that allow you to fit the jack into any headphone audio out port of any size.
Volume controls – You can usually find them on a small housing along the cable near the headphones. You can spin a small wheel that adjusts the volume to the desired level.
Power switch – It could be integral to the volume dial by letting it click on the lowest setting or come as a separate switch.
Headband – The headband connects both left and right housings and is flexible enough to rest on top of your head. Some have padded cushions for added comfort. While they can bend, they should be sturdy enough to support a tight seal by pressing the padding on or around your ears in noise-isolating headphones. You have to make sure they’re robust and durable enough, but not so much that they give you discomfort.
In-ear and earbud types don’t have this part because they plug directly into your ears.
Sliders – Their usual location is near the ends of the headband connecting to the left and right housing. These sliders let you adjust the length of the band so the headphone can fit more snugly on any sized head. Their most important function is to enable you to position the speakers directly in front of your ears.
Noise-canceling vs. noise-isolating
There are two noise reduction methods used in headphones to weaken external ambient noise. One is passive and is also known as noise-isolating, while the other is active or noise-canceling. Most people get this mixed up, but these terms aren’t interchangeable.
Passive or noise-isolating
Most high-quality headphones use the passive noise reduction method by using some form of soundproof padding or by the shape of the earphones. It’s the same principle as covering your ears with your hands or using earmuffs to muffle out the noise. They rely on sound dampening materials or the shape of the speaker enclosure to act as a seal preventing most of the other sounds from penetrating them and reaching the ears of the wearer.
They do this either by engulfing the entire ear lobes like an earmuff or by following the shape of the outer ear canal snugly. Both of these methods create a tight and almost soundproof seal that isolates the sound you need to hear, such as music or movie dialogue, from external ambient noise. In essence, they manage to filter out most of the unwanted high-frequency sounds. While being less complicated, they’re also a lot cheaper solution.
This technology, known as Active Noise Canceling or ANC, is what sets these types of headphones apart from regular ones. To understand it better, you need to know about the two kinds of noise interference.
Constructive Interference – It happens when two or more sounds combine to make a bigger sound. As the number of sound sources increases, the stronger the noise gets, and so forth, and so on. Think of an empty café that just opened in the morning and is ready to take in customers. As more people get inside and fill the café, the louder the din that the bigger crowd would generate.
Destructive Interference – The reverse happens when the original noise and its opposite sound are played together at the same time. Both these noises cancel each other out, resulting in almost total silence. And it’s what a noise-canceling headphone does to keep most external sounds from being heard by the user.
There is advanced and specialized technology involved, specifically DSP or Digital Signal Processing. Sound travels in waves that have peaks and valleys. Each noise forms a unique pattern of these peaks, which are called the high phases and valleys called the low phases.
There are multiple microphones built into the headphones “listening” to ambient noises like the drone of a jet engine, for example. Special circuitry and sound processors try to analyze the external noise and generate a sound that has an inverse or mirror pattern of high and low phases in real-time. Both these noises eventually drown each other out drastically in the user’s ears so that he can barely hear them.
Manufacturers have different fancy names for their product’s particular noise-canceling feature, but they all follow the same principle. Your biggest concern is to find out how powerful their audio processors are and how good is the algorithm they use in reducing external sounds.
If it’s your first time using a headphone with this feature, it can be a surprising and even startling experience as the constant drone or din that you’re accustomed to hearing vanishes instantly at the flick of a switch. This method is more suited to counter constant low-frequency sounds such as those produced by motor vehicles and the din of a crowd. You can still hear some shrill and sudden spikes in noises like the cries from a baby, or a chatterbox with a booming voice.
If you’re on the market for headphones with noise-canceling, be sure that the manufacturer clarified the feature on the specs as an active method done with an audio processor. The best noise-reducing headphones use a combination of both passive as well as active methods that work together to reduce high and low-frequency external sounds significantly.
Headphone Form Factors
Over-ear – As implied by the name, over-ear, or technically known as “circumaural” headphones are designed to fit over and form a padded seal around the entire ear lobe like soft little pillows. It’s a superior and highly effective configuration for noise reduction, particularly as a noise-isolating solution. Not only do they help prevent external noise from penetrating and reaching your ears, but they also keep what you’re listening to private.
The materials used like leather or velvet are soft and quite comfortable but are prone to sweat buildup because the tight seal also prevents perspiration from evaporating. They are also the bulkiest, especially if coupled with a noise-canceling solution. These are the heaviest as well, and as a result, they can contribute to fatigue during prolonged use.
However, because of the quality of sound they produce, they’re the preferred form factor of audiophiles and pros.
On-ear – Again, as the name suggests, they rest on top of the ear lobes and are technically known as “supra-aural” headphones. They don’t become as sweaty as with over-ear types. However, they don’t provide as good a seal. The headband needs to be stiffer so it can squeeze on the ear lobes tighter for it to be efficient in forming a seal. That could cause some discomfort and even pain on the lobe tissue and cartilages over time. Choosing the correct padding feel is more important here because of that.
Being smaller, they are lighter and more portable, but there’s some compromise made with noise isolation and sound quality as they can’t guarantee as tight a seal as with circumaural ones. Still, many people are okay with that, but few others may not like it. They’re a bit more popular than the over-ear ones.
In-ear – Technically called interaural attenuation headphones, the in-ear or the insert variety drops the headband altogether. They rely on the contours of a tiny housing that’s partly inserted into the ear canal to form an almost soundproof seal and to keep the earphones in place. They are the smallest, lightest, most portable and most widespread form factor right now.
Because of the advancements in miniaturization, they can now compete with the over-ear and on-ear varieties in sound quality. The inserts usually have soft silicone tips for more comfort, but they do cause some irritation and pain after prolonged use. They do take some getting used to, and you have to make sure your ears are clean before you use them.
They’re very portable, and they also don’t get sweaty, which makes them ideal to use in walks, runs, or a workout in the gym while listening to music.
Earbuds – These should not be confused with the in-ear variety. These are simple round-shaped earphones that latch on the outer ear. They don’t insert as deep as the in-ear ones, and instead, you press them against the opening of the ear canal. They’re not as invasive, but their sound quality is mostly mediocre and flat. They can serve their purpose as your first headphones, and Apple devices usually come with this type as standard. However, it isn’t advisable to stick with them, and you would want a proper headphone with superior sound later on.
Open Back vs. Closed-Back Headphones
You can see both of these features in over-ear and on-ear headphone form factors.
Closed-back headphones – The most significant advantage of closed-back headphones are in their noise-isolating ability that far exceeds that of open-back ones. And because of that, they’re the more popular portable option where external noises are more of a problem. They’ll block out most of the sound interference that you’ll encounter while you’re on the move, and allow you to hear only the sounds that you want to hear.
Another important plus is that they also block the sound coming out of the speakers. They prevent them from escaping from the earcup and into your surroundings. These are perfect for those who want a more private and noise-free listening experience.
Open-back headphones – These headphones, on the other hand, have openings behind the earcup where the sound is allowed to escape freely into the outside world. In the same vein, however, external noises can come into the earcup and reach your ears. The holes look like vents with grills, or meshes, or both. This type of open design allows for a more airy sound similar to those you hear on sound system speakers.
Many people feel that this is a more authentic, accurate, and superior sound than that of the trapped sound in closed-back designs. They are more sought after by purists for their sound quality than for noise reduction. According to audiophiles, they tend to reproduce the sounds that the artists created in the studio and intended for listeners to hear.
Another advantage they have is that they’re lighter for having less material. As a positive, you don’t sweat under the pads and inside the cup that much. That’s because they let air in and allow perspiration to evaporate through the grills.
However, if you want more privacy and are looking for a more isolated experience without external noise interference, this type isn’t for you. Anyway, it’s best to know about this design beforehand, so you can avoid buying it by mistake.
Going wireless allows for better portability and more convenience. These are also commonly referred to as Bluetooth Headphones because it’s the most prevalent wireless tech used by manufacturers today. Bluetooth still uses radio waves like in the old RF method but works on a dedicated channel and is more reliable. Naturally, rechargeable batteries power these headphones. Your best bet would be to get one that would let you use it for the whole day with a short recharge time.
The integrated circuit is built into the headphone and allows you to pair it to a smart device like your smartphone. You can enjoy your music and other sounds without the hassles associated with headphone wires. Just think about riding your bicycle, running, or working out in the gym without those pesky wires. The only caveat is the perceived lag in wireless devices, but for everyday use, there’s really no cause for worry. Of course, it adds to the premium, but it’s another thing to think about if you’re planning to buy an ANC headphone.
Headphone frequency response
Scientists believe that humans have a hearing range from 20Hz to 20Khz. The reason high-quality headphones go below the lower and above the higher range is to deliver the sound as accurately and completely as possible, which experts believe improves the overall sound quality in those frequencies people can still hear and will significantly improve their experience. The general rule with any type of speaker, including those found in headphones, is that the wider the range, the higher the quality of sound they will produce.
Low impedance headphones
It’s particularly vital spec to people who primarily use mobile devices such as i-pods, tablets, or smartphones as sound sources. With headphones, what experts talk about is the Load Impedance. It’s measured in ohms and indicated with the “Ω” symbol, and how they match with the Output Impedance coming from the source.
To put it simply, low impedance headphones usually lower than 50Ω are meant to be used for mobile devices and require little power to deliver high audio levels. Low impedance headphones, however, are more susceptible to speaker blowouts when paired with amplified sound.
Those of 50Ω and above can only apply to amplified sound equipment that requires higher voltages, like a complete home sound system or home theater. They will sound terrible when plugged into a weaker source like a phone.
Most headphones sold today are designed to do the job well with mobile devices because of their widespread use. And because modern smartphone amplification is stronger than the previous gens, headphones with 32Ω impedance have emerged as the standard.
You still have to make sure though that you don’t buy anything weaker than those like16Ω earbuds, which are still common. They’re bound to be overworked by these newer phones and produce distorted sounds.
Something you could consider if you want to be able to use a higher output headphone is a portable amp. An amplifier can maximize your low powered source like a smartphone or laptop to match your higher output headphones and produce stronger sounds. Keep in mind though those wireless Bluetooth headphones won’t need them since they’re powered internally and not by the source.
You’ll know if you need amplifiers with your headphones when you crank up the volume in your device, but the sound level coming out isn’t acceptable. It’s either you buy a low powered headphone, or you need an amp that could take advantage of your headphone’s potential. That would result in a more powerful sound.
Some Drawbacks of Noise-Canceling
They’re more expensive
Because of the advanced technology built into them, they typically cost a lot more than regular headphones. They tend to be marketed as a high-end offering. In some cases, they can be ten times more expensive than regular ones. You pay a premium price for premium features.
They’re bulky and heavy
The added noise-canceling parts and electronics and the need for batteries make them bulkier, and likewise heavier. Everything gets smaller and lighter with improvements in technology, and eventually, they’ll become sleeker. However, right now, they’re still the heftiest kind of headset.
They need constant recharging
Most models can’t even revert to being regular headphones without power, which makes them useless when the batteries run out of juice. You have to form the habit of recharging them along with your other portable devices.
The technology isn’t perfect
It’s not a miracle device, and a few unwanted sounds still manage to get through, particularly sudden sharp noises. They tend to work best with constant low-level frequency sounds like those coming from vehicles, crowds, air-conditioning, etc.
Reduction in awareness can pose a danger
They do such an excellent job that it can be dangerous to use them anywhere you need to be aware of what’s happening in your surroundings. For example, it’s not advisable to use them while you’re driving a car. You’ll need not only visual but also audio cues to keep you on top of any unforeseen situation that might happen on the road.
There are also things that you might miss, like alarms or something that needs your immediate attention. You might become oblivious to an emergency such as a fire, medical crisis, or even a crime happening right under your nose. Even walking down the street can expose you to danger like being run over because of the significant reduction in ambient sounds to warn you.
They affect the sound quality a bit
The biggest nitpick is that the technology may interfere with the audio. As a consequence, there’s a bit of a compromise in quality. Some users even complain of a noticeable high-frequency hissing or humming noise. For most users, this isn’t a deal-breaker, and the sound is still outstanding, especially if it does its job well of minimizing external noise interference. However, it may be enough to turn off serious audiophiles.
Benefits of noise-canceling headphones
They are configurable
You can configure some noise filtering systems so they won’t cancel out sounds that you want to hear. If, for example, you want to understand people you are talking with, you can fine-tune the filtering so you can still listen to what they’re saying. There’s usually an app available that lets you do this on your smartphone.
They have health benefits
If your ear is recovering from damage or is infected, these headphones can help speed up the healing process and ease the pain from harsh sounds. Because barely a trace of external noise interference, you don’t have to crank up the volume, and this has the added benefit of protecting your ears from damage that could accumulate with everyday use. Constant exposure to noises 85dB or more is enough to cause permanent hearing damage.
Sleep deprivation can also be detrimental to one’s health, and one of the top causes is ambient noise that keeps a person from getting a goodnight’s sleep. It could come from barking or howling dogs, a snoring partner, or one who talks a lot in his sleep. Given the ability to cancel these noises improves your sleep quality and prevents you from feeling lethargic the rest of the day or having mood swings.
They can also help relieve stress and anxiety caused by the constant noise in the background. Studies have shown that even children who live in noisy neighborhoods have a higher amount of the stress hormone cortisol compared to those who live in more serene areas. It’s especially prevalent in urban environments where children are exposed to higher levels of noise pollution everywhere they go and in many hours of the day. It might have a detrimental effect not only on their physical but also mental well-being in the long run.
Among adults, low-frequency noises have also contributed to stress leading to hypertension and even heart attacks and strokes. The more you use these headphones, the longer you’ll enjoy some stress-free moments and even offer some relief from any anxiety you might be feeling.
They help you concentrate
If you’re a student, it can help you focus more on what you’re studying or when you’re preparing for an exam, which might help improve your grades. And since there are fewer distractions, you’ll understand a subject matter a lot clearer and quicker, allowing you to do other things with your precious free time.
Professionals in an office environment can enjoy the same kind of benefit. They become more efficient and productive in their jobs. They can avoid office chatter, loud, clicky keyboards, and other work-related noise that could detract from their concentration when they need it the most. It also helps them enjoy a noise-free commute to and from their offices. They help you hear yourself think.
Aside from ordinary use by consumers, they have practical applications in aviation, the military, and many other work environments.
If you’re an audiophile, the best noise-canceling headphones won’t hold a candle to the audio quality of the best regular headphones, especially those with open back design. The best scenario might be for you to consider both options for different situations.
One could be your portable option for isolating the sound you want to listen to or to drown out other noises and have a more peaceful moment to yourself. The other could be your primary device when you want to fully appreciate what you’re listening to inside the comfort of your own home.
That doesn’t mean the audio output quality of ANC headphones is poor. In environments such as a workplace, or if you’re a frequent flyer, or when you’re island hopping on a pump boat during your southeast Asian vacation, there’s no better option than a good pair of noise-canceling headphones. They’ll do a great job when noise reduction is needed.
The best way to find out if they’re the right one is to try them out if you have the opportunity. If you are allowed to do this in a store, you can make sure it will fit comfortably, and you can verify if sound quality meets your standards.