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Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Safe? Exploring the Safety Concerns of ANC

Last updated: 11 months ago
6 min read

Nowadays, it is hard to find headphones without active noise cancelling. While it provides many benefits, people are concerned about its safety.

In this article, we address concerns regarding ANC and explain the science behind it. Spoiler alert: ANC has both positive and negative sides.

ANC headphones dizzy
CONTENTS (show more)

    Are Noise Cancelling Headphones and Earbuds Safe?

    In short, noise-cancelling technology in headphones and earbuds is safe as far as the technology is concerned.

    Studies show that enabling ANC indirectly helps prevent noise-induced hearing loss, helps with sleeping disorders, and even relieves stress.

    On the flip side, we mustn’t avoid the potential negatives of using noise cancellation, like ear pressure sensation and unawareness of your surroundings.

    We’ll talk about all of these things in detail below.


    KEY TAKEAWAY

    • Active noise cancelling eliminates noise, making the listening experience more silent. This doesn’t cause hearing loss but instead protects hearing.
    • The pressure you feel when using ANC occurs because your brain confuses the lack of low frequencies with a drop in air pressure.
    • ANC doesn’t cause tinnitus; it only makes you more aware of the ringing in your ears.
    • Using ANC outdoors and in the streets makes you less aware of your surroundings and potential dangers.

    How Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?

    Theoretically, noise-cancelling headphones work in 2 ways: passive cancellation and active cancellation.

    • Passive cancellation (passive isolation) is the headphones’ ability to block ambient noise solely with an airtight fit and build materials that deflect/absorb surrounding frequencies.
    • Active cancellation uses external mics to record ambient noise, inverts the recording’s phase, and plays it back into your ears. This cancels the ambient noise that sneaked in.
    ANC vs PASSIVE isolation
    The graph represents passive (red) and ANC (green) cancellation of the Edifier WH950NB headphones.

    As you can see from the graph above, passive and ANC normally work hand in hand. Passive noise cancellation takes care of the high, whereas ANC reduces low-frequency sound waves.

    You can learn more about how active noise cancelling works in general and in ANC headphones in our in-depth articles.

    Why Does Noise Cancelling Feel Like Pressure?

    The noise cancellation can feel like pressure because it tricks your brain into believing the air pressure dropped. Then the brains react as if you suddenly gained altitude. It creates a pressure sensation (as if you want to “pop” your eardrums).

    The reason why this happens is due to the lack of lower frequencies, which ANC successfully reduces.

    Lack of lower frequencies is also associated with low air pressure. For example, when you gain altitude and feel the need to equalize the pressure in your ears.

    As a result, ANC can make you feel like you need to equalize the pressure, even though it never changed.

    man wearing headphones on plane
    Early ANC headphones produced annoying pressure in your ears. Today, it’s less common in newer models.

    Thankfully, this effect was common in the past. Nowadays, many ANC headphones use internal mics to analyze what’s happening in the cups to prevent excess pressure.

    Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Cause Headaches?

    In short, yes. ANC can cause headaches.

    Just like active noise-cancelling headphones can cause a pressure sensation, your confused brain can create a headache.

    Thinking that the air pressure is low, the sensation bothers you, which can result in a headache.

    Among headaches, people also experience other things after using ANC, like:

    • Dizziness
    • Feeling of vertigo

    Pressure is only one thing that can cause headaches and other unpleasant sensations. Some ANC headphones:

    • Emit constant low-frequency sound that can become distracting to humans.
    • Emit a faint white noise (even Sony admits you can hear it in their headphones). But so far, the studies haven’t found a direct correlation between white noise and headaches. Although some say it can.

    How to prevent headaches when using ANC headphones?

    The best cure to prevent headaches when using ANC headphones is to limit the time spent using ANC and to gradually use the tech until you grow accustomed to its effect.

    But most importantly, buy premium ANC headphones that use an internal mic to help cancel out noise and offer more control over ANC intensity.

    Is Active Noise Cancelling Bad for Your Ears?

    This fear originates from the idea that by playing the opposite audio signal into your ears to cancel out the other, your ears are exposed to loud noises without you knowing.

    Don’t worry; it isn’t like that. Active noise cancelling cancels out noise by creating counter noise with an equal amount of energy. As a result, the energy dissipates, leaving you with silence.

    Sleeping with headphones
    Active noise cancellation won’t hurt your hearing, even if you use it during sleep.

    That said, you can boost the signal by +3dB by adding more of the identical signal. This is how balanced cables work. However, that is not how ANC in headphones works, so you don’t have to worry.

    Any other dangers of using noise-cancelling headphones?

    The most significant danger that ANC headphones pose is how you use them.

    If you use them while walking near a busy street or even when driving, you’re blocking sounds that could alert you of nearby dangers.

    Another situation where ANC headphones can be problematic is for sleeping. While they help reduce bothersome ambient noise that prevents you from falling asleep, they can also:

    • Clog your ear canal with earwax and cause infections (if you use earbuds).
    • Prevent you from hearing alarms, sirens, or yelling/knocking on the door.

    Learn more about how to safely sleep with headphones in our detailed article.

    Does Noise Cancelling Protect Hearing?

    The entire reason why noise-cancellation headphones were patented in the 1950s was to protect the hearing of aircraft pilots.

    noise cancelling headphones in an airplane
    Active noise-canceling headphones are very popular for air travel.

    Remember that despite that, ANC headphones aren’t classified as hearing protection.

    Nevertheless, the most crucial way ANC headphones protect your hearing is by reducing the surrounding noise.

    ANC protects in 2 ways:

    • Reduces the loudness of environmental noise.
    • So, you reduce the loudness of your music.

    When you listen to headphones someplace loud, the ambient noise can sometimes overpower your music. Instinctively, you raise the volume to mask the noise, which hurts your hearing in the long run.

    However, by using active noise cancellation, external noise doesn’t bother you as much, so you don’t feel like raising the volume anymore.

    Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Cause Tinnitus?

    No, noise-cancelling headphones don’t cause tinnitus.

    In fact, they help prevent it since you lower the loudness of the music.

    Tinnitus is a phantom ringing in your ears that only you can hear. It mainly occurs due to exposure to loud sounds (musicians and headphone users tend to have it), indicating permanent hearing damage.

    It can also originate from medical conditions when inflammation or tumors press against the parts of your hearing organ.

    Loud headphones for the party
    Most people have tinnitus due to long exposure to extremely loud music or working conditions.

    Ringing typically varies in intensity and can get louder if you play the same ringing frequency through speakers.

    Some people think noise cancelling gave them tinnitus. However, because ANC reduces the sounds around them, they’re suddenly more aware of the ringing. But the ringing was there before.

    Remember that brains are excellent at filtering unnecessary or annoying noise. That’s why you can hear a person talking in a noisy environment full of other people.

    How to use noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds to prevent tinnitus?

    • Use ANC headphones in the strongest ANC setting and a lower volume to prevent the risk of tinnitus.

    A lower volume helps prevent or at least postpone any hearing damage, including tinnitus you might inflict on yourself.

    Remember that using headphones themselves doesn’t harm your hearing. But the way you use them can.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Are noise cancelling headphones and earbuds safe?

    Yes, noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds are perfectly safe. It’s the way you use them by cranking up the volume that causes harm. Generally, ANC headphones are safer for listening to music because you can listen at a lower volume.

    What are the side effects of noise cancelling headphones?

    Possible side effects of noise-cancelling headphones are headaches, dizziness, and vertigo. All of that is caused by reducing low frequencies, which can confuse your brain into thinking the air pressure dropped. That sensation then becomes irritating and can cause the side effects mentioned above.

    Can noise cancelling headphones cause tinnitus?

    No, noise-cancelling headphones don’t cause tinnitus. How you use your ANC headphones (by cranking up the loudness) causes hearing damage and potentially tinnitus. Also, ANC headphones and earbuds remove background noise, making existing ringing in the ears more prominent.

    Is noise cancelling on AirPods bad for your ears?

    Noise cancelling on AirPods can actually be good for you since it reduces noise around you. As a result, you can listen to music at a lower volume, which protects your hearing.

    Does ANC create pressure?

    ANC or active noise cancellation doesn’t create pressure. However, it removes all the noise, including low frequencies, which your brain understands as a drop in air pressure. That’s why you might start feeling the pressure sensation. Fortunately, most new ANC headphones don’t give this kind of sensation.

    Conclusion

    Hopefully, you now understand that noise cancelling alone doesn’t pose any physical harm. Instead, it’s based on individual sensitivity and how well you cope with the ANC effect.

    Furthermore, ANC doesn’t cause hearing damage. If anything, it can indirectly prevent it. Most people saying ANC caused their tinnitus also report listening to music for extended periods, which is the likeliest cause of tinnitus.

    The only time noise-cancelling headphones can be a safety hazard is when you use them outdoors near a busy road, while driving, or even while sleeping since you can’t hear sirens or yelling.

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