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The Difference Between Noise Cancelling vs. Noise Isolating Headphones

Last updated: 2 months ago
4 min read

What is the difference between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones?

woman plugging ears to reduce noise

Many times the terms are confused with each other. In truth, there is a fundamental difference in how they remove ambient noise.

CONTENTS (show more)

    Noise Cancelling or Active Noise Cancelling Headphones (ANC)

    Use a dedicated microphone for picking up the ambient noise. After, the electronics circuitry receives the noise signal and creates a 180 degree (opposite) noise and sends it to the headphones. Once both signals reach your ears they “cancel each other out”. For you, the ambient noise magically disappears.

    The effectiveness of noise-cancelling headphones is quite considerable especially for the constant noise from lower ranges. Noises like airplane engine noise, traffic, any constant humming, and even some human chatter.

    The effectiveness depends on the headphone brand as not all are made the same. Additionally, the NC circuitry needs a power source, like a battery to power it.

    Here’s a guide on the best noise cancelling earbuds and for those wanting bigger over-ear noise-cancelling headphones.

    Noise Isolating or Passive Noise Isolating Headphones

    Don’t use any fancy technology but are simply built in the way that maximizes physical isolation from the ambient sounds. Good sound isolating headphones always have closed-backs and tight-fitting earpads or eartips. Above all these are built from sound blocking materials.

    Passive noise isolation works for all ranges of noise. Compared to ANC headphones, they are generally more effective at isolation of higher pitched sounds but less effective at lower humming, sounds. Moreover, passive noise isolation needs no energy or power source to work hence the name “passive”. Additionally, all noise cancelling headphones are also noise isolating (to a degree) but not vice versa.

    What are the best noise-isolating headphones you should consider?

    Which Ones Should I Pick? Noise-Cancelling or Noise Isolating?

    The one question you should ask yourself is, what do I need the headphones for?

    If you do a lot of travelling or commuting and want some peace and quiet on the way, noise cancellation might be the better option. Because it’s very effective at cancelling traffic noise.

    But keep in mind, the ANC technology demands energy and usually comes in a heavier and more expensive package (most are wireless headphones so they need a battery anyway).

    Additionally, with cheaper models, it does have a slight impact on the sound quality (in a bad way). This is especially noticeable with high-resolution audio.

    Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

    • Great at cancelling traffic noise and other lower-range sounds
    • Not as effective for higher pitch sounds
    • Needs a battery and charging up
    • Usually more expensive because of the ANC circuitry
    • Noise-canceling sometimes changes the audio

    Regular noise isolating headphones come in all shapes and sizes. In-ear monitors or earbuds are known for great noise isolation as are most closed-back headphones (over-ear and on-ear).

    You can get them for an affordable price but also splash a fortune if that’s what you want (Bose QC models are among the best but also pricey).

    The good thing is passive noise reduction doesn’t change the audio quality. In fact, it is many times necessary to get the best sound a headphone is able to reproduce. If you value sound quality over convenient technology these are a perfect choice.

    Passive Noise Isolation Headphones

    • Generally cheaper than noise-cancelling alternatives
    • No need for a battery works because of the physics of sound
    • Blocks out all ranges of noise equally
    • Doesn’t change the sound quality

    Can Sound Cancel Sound? (how does it work)

    If the sound of the same amplitude and the opposite phase (antiphase) collides with the original sound they cancel each other out. In layman’s terms, by combining two sound waves they create a new, third wave. But when they are diametrically opposite they effectively destroy each other (cancel out). This is also called destructive interference.

    This phenomenon is called active noise cancellation or active noise control and is used in headphones with great effect.

    How Does Sound Isolation Work?

    This is passive noise isolation so it doesn’t need any energy. It all comes down to design and build-quality and how effective it is at physically blocking sound.

    As long as the headphones keep a good seal around your ear canal, the background noise will be much more silent. The moment the seal breaks, sound isolation becomes less effective and you’ll hear more noise. It’s a straightforward and simple method that has been effectively used in loud workplaces for decades.

    With over-ear and on-ear headphones, the material of the earpads is crucial. It needs to make a good seal that doesn’t leak any sound out or in. The air tightness of the design also plays a role.

    Closed-back headphones are much better at blocking out noise than open-back headphones. The open-back models basically let in background noise and leak out music for everyone to hear.

    The in-ear headphones (in-ear monitors, IEMs) rely on the fit and seal of the eartips. There are a lot of sizes and shapes to fit all ears. You can even choose from different materials. Regular ones are made of silicone/rubber but the better ones (better also for noise isolation) are made out of formable foam. Foam eartips cost a bit more money but significantly improve the comfort, blocking of noise and thus also the audio quality.

    Can Noise-Cancelling Headphones Cause Hearing Loss or Other Injury?

    No, because ANC technology does not pose any threat to hearing and is perfectly safe. The most common way headphones harm hearing is with loud music. Since the purpose of NC headphones is to lower noise (helps keep the general volume levels lower as well) there are no harmful effects on hearing. Moreover, the headphones don’t emit any kind of radiation or harmful wireless signals.

    Keep in mind, noise-cancelling headphones can still cause hearing loss if you listen to them at acute high volume for longer periods of time.

    Can I Get Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones?

    Yes, in fact, most modern noise-canceling headphones are also wireless. They usually feature Bluetooth connectivity which makes them compatible with all the modern music devices (iPhone, Android smartphones, tablets, laptops, Bluetooth audio players). At the same time pretty much all Bluetooth headphones also have the 3.5mm plug-in.

    What Noise-Canceling or Sound Isolating Headphones Should I Pick?

    Here are the guides where you can find the best headphones with active noise cancellation and great noise isolation.