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Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating – Which is better?

The world is a noisier place than ever, especially if you live in a city. To cope with the steadily increasing racket that surrounds us, many people turn to headphones to try and block it all out.

There are two types of headphones these days, noise isolating and noise canceling. Many people get confused between the two or assume that they are effectively the same thing. Although both aim to eliminate background noise from interfering with your listening, they use very different methods to achieve this.

We’re going to take a look at both in this article, breaking down the differences between the two and taking a look at how this affects the efficiency of both types. By the end, you’ll have worked out which design is better for you. So, let’s get started with our guide to Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating headphones.

Noise Isolating Headphones

Noise-isolating headphones, also known as passive noise cancellation, don’t use any modern tricks to reduce unwanted noise. It’s simply the act of putting a physical barrier between your ears and the outside world. Cup your hands over your ears, and you will achieve a level of passive noise isolation.

By their very nature, over-ear headphones offer a degree of noise isolation simply by covering your ears. How effective this will be is dependent on several factors.

Construction and design play a major part…

Thick padding on the ear cups goes a long way to blocking out certain frequencies, as does the material used in the driver housing. But the main factor in noise isolation has to be whether or not an effective seal has been achieved.

As long as the earcups fully encompass your ear and the clamping force is strong enough to keep them in place, up to 15-20dB of passive noise reduction can be achieved. If the headphones don’t fit well, then they won’t be nearly as effective. The important thing to remember is that you are essentially just muffling the noise rather than canceling it completely.

Earphones also naturally offer noise isolation thanks to their design. How much again depends on how effective a seal the earbuds create. Fortunately, most companies provide different-sized ear tips these days, made from silicone or memory foam. Once you’ve found the right size, they generally do as good a job of isolating outside noise as over-the-ear headphones.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise Cancelling Headphones

The first noise-canceling headphones were developed for use by pilots in the aviation industry. Not only was it important for communications to cut out the background noise of jet engines, but the hearing of pilots could also become compromised after long-term exposure to such loud noise.

Twenty years ago, Bose took this technology to the mass market with the introduction of the QuietComfort range, the first commercially available noise canceling headphones.

Since then, the technology has made great strides, with every manufacturer worth their salt getting in on the act. They are known in the industry as ANC headphones (active noise cancellation).

So how do they work?

Sound travels in waves. The frequency of the wave is determined by its length. And the volume or amplitude of the wave is dependent on its height.

Noise-canceling headphones create soundwaves that match the frequency and amplitude of the ambient noise they are trying to block. By delaying this generated sound by half a wavelength, it cancels out the incoming sound completely. If the two waves were played back in sync, it would simply create a louder wave.

ANC headphones use built-in microphones…

These pick up the ambient noise. This signal is then sent to an audio processing chipset which is where the magic happens. The processor inverts the sound wave and then plays it through the headphone speaker, and voila! You hopefully have a degree of noise cancellation.

Excess noise can be quickly and efficiently canceled out using this method, but it’s not without its limitations.

Noise Cancelling Limitations

ANC technology is very good at canceling out predictable and steady noise, like that of a jet engine. However, it has a lot more difficulty making adjustments in the real world of unpredictable sounds.

Rarely does sound come in a stable wave…

Think of your average urban environment with all the variety of different sound waves coming at you. Very little of that is predictable. The microphone and circuitry have to work on the fly to try and cancel out as much of it as possible, and that is no easy task.

For example, human voices or the random noise of a building site are far harder things for noise-canceling headphones to deal with. Sounds on the upper end of the frequency scale are also harder to cancel out.

So as you can see, the art of noise cancellation has not been perfected yet. But the best ANC headphones can still cancel out an extra 20dB of unwanted noise on top of any passive noise isolation qualities that the headphones naturally have.

Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating – Which is Better?

Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating

Now we know that both function in very different ways; let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both systems to get a better idea of which will be more suited to you.

Sound Quality

The sound you get through noise-isolating headphones will always be more true to what was intended. This is because they don’t create any sound waves, which can harm the overall sound quality.

That’s not to say that all noise-canceling headphones suffer from a reduction in sound quality. These days, the premium models provide effective noise cancellation with next to no effect on quality. However, head further down the price scale, and you will notice the difference with ANC turned on.

Cheap noise-canceling headphones…

Often emit a slight hissing noise to try and deal with the ambient noise of higher frequency. If it’s really noticeable, this can harm your listening.

For this reason, studio professionals and sound engineers prefer to use noise-isolating headphones. This is because they provide a more accurate representation without any loss in quality, no matter how small.

Which is more efficient at reducing noise?

Side by side, the best noise-canceling headphones will do a better job of removing ambient noise than the best noise-isolating headphones. Noise-canceling headphones can use both ANC technology and noise isolation to achieve a far greater reduction in unwanted sounds than their lower-tech rivals.

However, in cheaper models where the ANC isn’t so effective, and the design of the headphone isn’t the best for passive noise isolation, a decent set of noise-isolating cans may be more efficient.

It all comes down to how much you are willing to spend…

Splash out on top-end noise-canceling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and you guarantee the best of both worlds for a far quieter experience.

It’s worth noting here that in-ear headphones generally do a better job of noise isolation than both on-ear and over-ear headphones. That being said, it’s all about creating an effective seal. Without that, they won’t be much good at blocking noise, and they will also allow sound to escape your ear, leading to a reduction in audio quality.

Battery Life

Wireless noise-canceling headphones place a greater demand on the battery to run all that high-tech processing gear. With the ANC switched on, you can expect a reduction in battery life of around 25%. Therefore, you’ll need to charge ANC headphones more regularly.

There is no such drain extra drain going on with noise isolating headphones. So if battery life is important to you, this is something worth bearing in mind.

Safety

It’s a relief to be able to neutralize as much ambient noise as possible. However, this can lead to dangerous situations if using noise-canceling headphones in the wrong circumstances. Make sure you are aware of your surroundings if using them in busy urban environments. You’ve only got to miss that one critical sound, and you could be toast.

Comfort

Comfort

To be honest, there is a wide range of comfort levels for both types of headphones. So much so that there is no answer to the question of which is more comfortable.

However, since the efficiency of noise isolating headphones is entirely reliant on a good fit and seal, they aren’t always the most breathable. Earbuds, in particular, can also cause ear fatigue if used for extended periods.

On the other hand, all that added technology can significantly increase the weight of noise cancellation headphones. If the design isn’t quite right, particularly the headband, then this can lead to discomfort after a while.

Price

All those extra components do not come for free. Therefore it comes as no surprise that noise-canceling headphones are more expensive than noise-isolating ones.

Whether it’s worth paying the extra is up to you. If you will be using them in environments where there is consistent background noise, then the extra cost is worthwhile. For frequent flyers, ANC headphones are a godsend.

But for those who are looking to block out more erratic sounds, it may not be worth the extra cost as they won’t perform so well in less predictable environments. The simple nature of noise-isolating headphones means the price tag is often a lot cheaper.

Looking for a new pair of Headphones?

Know that you know exactly what you’re looking for, check out our comprehensive reviews of the Best Noise Isolating Earbuds, the Best Noise Cancelling Earbuds, the Best Bluetooth Headphones for Commuting, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, and the Best Headphones Under $100 you can buy in 2021.

And don’t miss our in-depth Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 Review, our AKG N60NC Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones Review, and our Sony WH-1000XM2 Review for more awesome audio currently on the market.

Or, if you need more helpful information, check out our guides on How to Disable a Headphone Jack for PC and PhonesHow to Fix a Loose Headphone JackHow to Remove a Broken Headphone JackHow to Fix Headphones When Only One Side WorksWhy do I Hear Static in my Headphones, and Why Are My Headphones So Quiet for more useful info.

Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating – The Verdict

When it comes down to choosing between the two, it depends on the kind of listening environments you find yourself in.

If it’s a consistent low-frequency sound that you’re trying to block out, then noise-canceling headphones are the way forward. If you are trying to block out unpredictable, random noises, they won’t do nearly as good a job and are probably not worth the extra money.

Noise-isolating headphones have to have a good fit and create a good seal. Without this, they won’t block much. But with it, they do a better job of isolating sound in the higher frequencies. Our advice would be to assess your listening habits and make the choice based on what kind of sound you’re looking to remove from the experience.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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