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Headphones and Earphones Audiophile 101 | Part 4: Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating (Which is Right for You)

Headphones and Earphones Audiophile 101 | Part 4: Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating (Which is Right for You)

If you are a fan of a quiet setting or you travel a lot, you’ve probably already have looked up noise-cancelling and noise isolating headphones to keep out unwanted noise from interfering with our playlists.

1. What are the Noise Cancelling and Noise Isolating Headphones? 

The short answer is this:
Noise Cancelling or Active Noise Cancelling Headphones (ANC)  
Noise cancellation blocks out external noise by using an in-built microphone in headphones to detect external noise, analyze it and generate an anti-noise signal to cancel out unwanted noise leaving only desired music audible to the listener.
Noise Isolating or Passive Noise Isolating Headphones
Noise isolation, on the other hand, does not make use of any electronics to block noise; instead, the design of a headphone is made to prevent as much noise as possible from entering the ear canal.

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

The answer is actually, very very simple. 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.

3.In Short: Summary of Noise Cancelling vs. Noise Isolation

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-cancelling sometimes changes the audio

Passive noise isolation headphones:

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

4.How Active noise cancellation works

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.
Noise cancellation also called Active Noise cancellation (ANC) is a technology that uses active circuitry in the headphone to counteract or cancel background noise which might interfere with your playlist. While noise-cancelling headphones can also isolate noise, they are specially equipped with extra technology components inside the headphone’s casing that help in noise cancellation.
Noise-cancelling headphones have three extra components: a tiny microphone, a digital signal processor (DSP), and a battery unit.
The microphone listens to ambient sounds. Those sound waves are analyzed by the DSP, which then generates opposite sound waves. The speakers in the headphones play these opposite sound waves, which clash against the ambient sounds and negate them. And, of course, the battery powers all of it to happen.
The whole process happens so quickly that you can’t tell it’s happening. However, it’s not so fast that it can handle every single sound. That’s why noise cancellation works best against consistent noise, like the hum in a plane or people talking at a constant volume. New and sudden sounds, like the loud bang of a slammed door, can still be heard.

5.How noise-isolating headphones work

Noise isolation is also known as passive noise cancellation; this is because it is based entirely on how good a headphone will physically block out noise from entering the ear. Just like earplugs or headphone earmuffs present a physical barrier that blocks unwanted sounds, noise isolating headphones work in the same way.
Noise isolation usually comes in two types of headphones: in-ear and over-ear. In-ear headphones, also known as earbuds, plug directly into your ear and completely seal the canal. Over-ear headphones use high-density foam to cover your whole ear from all sides. The more complete the seal is, the better it will be at keeping noise out. It’s simple, really — but the quality of the seal is what’s important here. The materials used, the seal’s ability to stay intact, and the overall fit of the headphones are important. These factors are what separate poor noise-isolating headphones from the ones that actually work.

6. 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-cancelling 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.
Previous article Headphones and Earphones Audiophile 101 | Part 5: What's the difference between "wired" and "wireless" headphones?
Next article Headphones and Earphones Audiophile 101 | Part 3: Headsets, Headphones & Earphones: How to Tell the Difference

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