If the idea of tuning out the world and getting lost in your favorite music sounds appealing, you’ve probably considered noise-canceling headphones.
There are actually two types of noise-canceling headphones: active and passive. One uses special circuitry to reduce ambient noise that would otherwise interrupt your music. The other forms a tight seal inside or around your ear to isolate the listener.
Let's take a closer look at active and passive noise-canceling headphones. We'll also dive into the benefits of these headphones and consider some of the best noise-canceling models available today.
How active noise-canceling headphones work
Active noise-canceling refers to special circuitry inside headphones that "tricks" your ears into thinking there isn't any sound around you:
- Tiny microphones embedded within the headphones “listen” to ambient sounds in the outside world.
- Electronics inside the headphones generate a sound wave that is 180° out of phase with the sounds around you, literally canceling them out.
- You enjoy an island of near silence, save for whatever music you decide to play through the headphones.
Because of the extra electronics required for active noise canceling, these headphones tend to go through batteries pretty quickly. If you opt for a pair, it’s a good idea to carry some extra batteries. If you’re using a model that includes a charging cable, you should keep that handy, too.
How passive noise-canceling headphones work
Let’s be clear about passive noise-canceling: There’s nothing happening inside these headphones that “cancels” ambient noise. You won’t find any of the special electronics that live inside active noise-canceling headphones. For this reason, passive noise-canceling models are also called “noise-isolating” headphones.
Naming conventions aside, you’ll find these headphones as either:
- Closed-back, over-ear headphones that separate you from ambient noise, or
- In-ear headphones that form a tight seal to prevent sound from "getting in" and interrupting your music.
The lack of noise-canceling circuitry doesn’t mean passive noise-canceling headphones are inferior to their active counterparts! High quality models do a fantastic job of isolating the listener, even when there's no special electronic wizardry at work.
Benefits of noise-canceling headphones
Whether you choose an active or passive model, noise-canceling headphones help create an environment that's free from ambient noise and distractions – something that's almost impossible to achieve under normal conditions.
After all, if you’re home alone, you can hear your refrigerator humming or your air conditioner turning on and off. Even at the library, there’s an ambient rustle of others turning pages and pulling books from shelves.
And so on. High quality noise-canceling headphones erase virtually all of those noises. You’re left with a state of sonic solitude As a result, you can engage with your music – and only your music – without sacrificing any aspect of the listening experience.
Aside from the joys of immersive listening, here’s another reason to consider noise-canceling headphones: saving your hearing. According to audiologists, listening through headphones at over 80 decibels can increase the risk of hearing loss.
And with conventional headphones, you might be cranking the volume more often than you think.
For instance, have you ever struggled to hear your tunes over the commotion inside a busy airport? Or maybe when traffic is whizzing by? It’s easy to turn up the volume in an attempt to drown out ambient sounds, and you might even do it subconsciously. At best, it’s a little annoying to have to listen to music at high volumes. At worst, you could damage your hearing.
To be sure, most in-ear headphones do a pretty good job of reducing ambient noise. A reduction of 25 to 30 decibels is typical. But if you’re always tapping the “plus” button to hear your music in noisy environments, noise-canceling headphones might give your ears a much-needed break.
If you value interruption-free listening, noise-canceling headphones are definitely worth it.
Noise-canceling headphones are perfect for anyone who wants to check out for awhile and spend some quality alone time with their favorite tunes. That’s most of us, so it makes sense that so many people rave about noise-canceling and noise-isolating headphones.
The next time you find yourself in a noisy environment, need to focus, or just want an excuse not to answer the phone, slip on a pair of noise-canceling headphones and tap “play.” You won’t regret setting aside the time for yourself.
The solitude might even be therapeutic.
Recommended noise-canceling headphones
Now that we've explored the "how" and "why" of noise canceling, let's take a look at some great noise-canceling headphones. If you find something you like, we hope you will purchase them here, at AudioAdvice.com.
For active noise-canceling, we recommend the PSB M4U2 headphones, which are an over-ear model. To engage the noise-canceling technology, all you have to do is flip a switch!
In our tests, active mode really came in handy when we were on an airplane and needed to block out the engine noise. However, in environments where there wasn’t much ambient noise, we turned active noise-canceling off and kept on listening. Even no “true noise-canceling, the PSB M4U2 functions as an outstanding noise-isolating model.
Bowers & Wilkins P7
If you need true isolation without any special circuitry, the Bowers & Wilkins P7 gets our highest recommendation. With the P7, B&W borrows heavily from the technology used inside their studio speakers. P7s are professional-grade headphones, and the leather, over-ear pads provide an isolating listening experience that few other passive noise-canceling models can match.
Audeze EL-8 (Closed-Back)
Audeze also makes fantastic noise-isolating headphones. The EL-8, in particular, is worth a serious look. These headphones are available in open and closed-back models. For the benefits of passive noise-canceling, the closed-back option is what you want. The EL-8 uses space-age materials inside an over-ear diaphragm that’s both lightweight and highly effective at reducing distortion. It gives you the solitude you crave, the sound quality you demand, and the comfort you need for long, focused listening sessions.
These in-ear headphones include mouldable over-ear cable and Comply eartips of various sizes to block out any unwanted noise. Comply is a new material that’s engineered for comfort and highly effective at preventing bass from “leaking” outside your ear. The AudioFly AF160 are true noise-isolating headphones – not like the earbuds that came with your last smartphone – but they won't take up a lot of space in your bag.
PSB M4U 4
The PSB M4U 4 headphones come with Comply eartips for maximum comfort. Like the Audiofly AF160, this in-ear model provides a tight seal for isolated listening. PSB applies the same rigorous craftsmanship to their headphones that we’ve come to expect from their speakers, so it’s no surprise that they sound excellent.