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Are you constantly annoyed by a noisy environment? Ever dream of escaping to more tranquil climes, but in reality, cannot? You’re considering getting noise-canceling headsets but aren’t sure if they’re worth the investment.
Expensive noise-canceling headphones are usually better than cheap options because they have better audio quality, cancel more noise, fit better, and last longer. However, a hefty price tag doesn’t always mean an optimum value. Sometimes, you pay for branding and style.
Brand and style aside, are high-end headphones worth their price? What advantages do they have over their cheaper counterparts? Let’s find out.
While pricier models do make a difference, it doesn’t mean that the most expensive ones are the best. There are medium-priced units that outperform them.
Take note that wireless headphones, with or without noise control, will always be more expensive due to the added technology that deals with connection, such as Bluetooth, infrared, WiFi, or IoT (Internet of Things).
Why Are Noise-Canceling Headphones So Expensive?
These factors determine the price of a premium headset:
- its audio processor’s quality and circuitry
- build quality
- internal drivers
- unit size and shape
- extra features
Online electronics store Arkartech Ltd claims the answer lies in the technology involved, called digital signal processing (DSP). This involves using a microphone to measure ambient noise and generating a sound wave opposite to that, then adding back this inverse wave into the audio signal. This process is called destructive interference. It applies to low-frequency noise.
Most decent models can tune out continuous ambient sound (air conditioning, aircraft rumble), but sharp shifts in sound, like a sudden scream, can leak through.
The best can block sound even if there’s no music playing. Noise-canceling headphones need power, so they have separate compartments for batteries. This aspect contributes to their bulk, weight, and price.
High-Frequency Sound vs. Low-Frequency Sound
Blocking low-frequency noise is the forte of noise-canceling headphones. But filtering high-frequency sound is trickier. That’s why the technology can’t totally block crying babies.
Noise-isolating headphones use soundproofing against high-frequency noise, as it has a shorter wavelength. Noise-control technology locates devices to detect unwanted sound and counteracts it before it gets to the listener’s eardrum.
Noise Cancellation (Active Noise Control) vs. Noise Isolation (Passive Noise Control)
Noise cancellation cancels background noise. Noise isolation blocks it through soundproofing. This means blocking ambient sound manually by physical means, like headphones that cover the ears completely or buds that snugly fit inside the ear or ear canal. Noise-isolating units aren’t as effective as noise-canceling ones, but they’re cheaper and don’t need batteries to work.
Geoffrey Morrison, a Forbes tech writer, claims that noise-isolation headsets drop more in the mid- and high-frequencies than many noise-canceling headphones. He recommends Shure SE846 (Amazon link). Variables that influence the effectiveness of noise-isolation headphones include fit, design, and technology.
Advantages of Noise-Canceling Headphones
- They help reduce the impact of noise pollution. Essential for people working in industries where noise is an occupational hazard, like aviation, construction, manufacturing, and oil/gas drilling. Read how they protect hearing.
- They improve concentration by filtering out unnecessary sounds, thereby assisting the brain in efficiently processing data.
- They make public transport more comfortable. Some airlines provide noise-canceling headphones to their first- and business-class passengers.
- Earbuds can be used as sleep aids. Beneficial for those with disorders like insomnia, snoring, and sleep apnea.
- They help people with sensory or auditory processing disorders, such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears), by providing a distraction that cancels or masks the ringing.
- One doesn’t need to crank up the volume as much, as the reason for increasing it (eliminating noise) has already been taken care of.
- It eliminates the distortion that occurs at high volumes. Users hear richer, more vibrant sounds at a healthier volume level.
Disadvantages of Noise-Canceling Headphones
- They’re more expensive than regular ones.
- They’re heavier and bulkier because they hold batteries.
- Some models don’t work without battery power, so you have to wait for the batteries to be recharged before you can use the headphones again. If this concerns you, carry an extra set of batteries or choose headphones that work as regular ones when noise cancellation is turned off.
- Noise cancellation may reduce audio quality and add high-frequency hiss.
- If there are other wireless devices nearby, like cordless phones, they can experience interference.
Recommendations for Cheap & Expensive Noise Canceling Headphones
Noise-control headphones come in home versions with big base stations and portable ones with small dongles. Bose and Sony lead the way in noise-cancellation technology. They’ve integrated AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT into their headphones, including voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.
Apple’s AirPods Pro (Amazon link) uses two microphones—outward- and inward-facing—to create superior noise cancellation.
A force sensor lets you control music and calls, plus switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency Mode, which allows external sound in, connecting you to your surroundings. Flexible silicone tips in three sizes conform to the shape of your ear. Audio Sharing allows couples to share the same audio stream on two sets of AirPods. You can also have built-in Siri read your messages to you.
Macworld recommends the Culture Audio V1 Noise-cancellation Bluetooth Headphones ($200; on sale at $50). This model has an Ambient Sound Mode that amplifies external sound while slightly dampening music. Useful for when you’re waiting for pizza delivery. Its intuitive controls have touch-sensitive exteriors that let you change tracks or swipe to adjust the volume.
Morrison claims the Bose QuietComfort 20 (Amazon link) and 25 are the best in their class. He says many of the noise-canceling headphones he tested “don’t do anything and the worst add noise.”
Also recommended is the Bose QuietComfort 35 (check price on Amazon), whose battery lasts 24 hours. This model’s disadvantage is it picks up some background noise when you’re on the phone. But it can block both high- and low-frequency noise. It also sports comfortable earcups. Cheaper brands’ earpieces are either static (cannot be swiveled or adjusted) or hurt after being worn for a lengthy period.
Equipped with a 20-hour battery, the Bose Headphones 700 model ($350-$400)—one level up—boasts first-of-its-kind audio augmented reality platform (AR) that reproduces astonishing audio. Its adaptive four-microphone system with 11 levels of noise cancellation isolates your voice while canceling external noise. It’s optimized for the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, which can be activated by pressing a button on the right earcup.
For quick interruptions, press a button for Conversation Mode to pause the music and let external noise in.
If you intend to use headphones as sleep aids, noise-canceling earbuds from Amorno (Amazon link) would be appropriate, as headsets can be quite uncomfortable for sleeping.
Sony’s proprietary HD Noise-Canceling Processor, QN1, within its WH-1000XM3 model ($178-$348), automatically detects surroundings and adjusts the amount of noise blocked (including voices).
The difference is significant. The WH-1000XM3 has Ambient Sound Control for hearing essential sounds on the move, an equalizer, and a virtual surround sound. Its Sound Position Control lets you choose where you want the sound to originate.
Hip-hop or electronic music fans who dig monster bass go for Beats by Dr. Dre ($289-$350).
Audiophiles say these headphones are overpriced because of the branding. But it’s popular with the millennial and Gen Z crowd because, unlike traditionalists, they’re more concerned with transforming music to their own liking than reproducing it.
Audiophiles, concerned with accurately reproducing sound, rely on the classics rather than modern music as the reference audio source for evaluating headphones.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Noise-Control Headphones
What sound type do you want to deflect? If you want to restrict office chatter, opt for a noise-isolation unit. If you travel a lot and want to obstruct engine roar, choose a noise-canceling pair. No single set can do everything.
Audiophiles need to accept that the noise-control technology behind most noise-canceling headphones has a tendency to affect audio quality. Sometimes, noise control adds a different type of noise, like hissing. This phenomenon isn’t limited to cheaper models. Users can turn noise control on or off, but headphones usually sound better with it on.
Other headphones without noise control but specialize in audio quality are cheaper and sound better. So if you don’t plan on using the noise-canceling feature regularly, it’s better to spend more on headsets that focus on audio quality than noise control.
Morrison claims there are cheap, effective noise-canceling headphones, but this writer has tried to replicate the quality of Sony’s premium set by purchasing more affordable alternatives. None of them came close. There are inexpensive noise-isolating models with better sound quality; however, that satisfactorily blocks sound. (Not all of it, though.)
Format, Comfort, and Fit
Base this on where you’ll be using your headphones and what type of music you like. There’s active and passive noise control in all categories:
- Earbuds (in-ear headphones)—go into the ear canal. Great for noise isolation. Eyeglass-wearers, people who fall asleep to music, and those uncomfortable sticking things in their ears prefer them as they’re more comfortable than over-ear types.
- Earbuds connected with a behind-the-neck headband—a variation of the above format. Earbuds that don’t fit properly can fall out, so they’re not recommended for vigorous exercise. So audio companies came up with a solution for the fitness market: connect them with a flexible cord.
Rain and sweat-proof, Sennheiser’s PMX 684i Fitness Earbuds (Amazon) can be rinsed under running water. No need to monitor your movement with these buds. They stay comfortably locked in place.
- Supra-aural (aka earpad, on-ear, open-back, or closed-back headphones)—small pads that go over the ears, but don’t cover the entire ear. Necessary for keeping tabs on your surroundings, like when jogging. Some sound leaks both ways—you can hear external noise, and the outside can hear a little of your music. So don’t use them in a library.
Many earpads are open, so they’re not great for noisy venues. Some prefer these for their sound quality, but they don’t have as much bass response as closed models. Some brands have closed ear pad phones, but they aren’t as effective in noise control.
- Circumaural (full-sized headphones)—cover the ears entirely. Serious padding makes them bulkier and less portable, though. Plus, they can be uncomfortable as they generate heat. But their size and near-perfect acoustic isolation make them better suited to studio use. They offer amplified treble and powerful bass and can handle maximum sound levels. Sound leakage is minimum, and the surround-sound effect is awesome.
- Monaural vs. binaural headsets
The former consists of a lightweight single earpiece and a microphone—better suited when you need to be aware of your environment, like in a call center. The latter includes a full pair of headphones and a microphone for focusing on conversations and drowning out surrounding noise, like in online gaming.
From our experience (keeping in mind that various sounds affect people differently), circumaural models are good for blocking thumping, rumbling noises, or bass sounds, while in-ear types are good for high-pitched sounds like soprano singing.
This is one of the most important aspects of choosing noise-canceling headphones. Most devices have an expected battery life, meaning the number of hours the manufacturer claims a unit can last on a charge. Most wireless earbuds are rated for five to eight hours, while Bluetooth headphones can last about 25 hours or longer.
High-fidelity brands have the longest battery longevity. For instance, the battery of Sony’s WH-1000XM3 lasts 30 hours. A 10-minute charge gives five hours of playback.
Where You Buy Counts
Choose stores that specialize in audio equipment. If you insist on a particular brand, visit their website for their nearest retail outlet.
Try Before You Buy
Test sound quality and noise control. Download test tones from Eminent Technology’s Multimedia Speaker Test onto your media player. The site describes what each tone should sound like. You should hear the same on your chosen headset when you play the WAV file.
If you don’t have these on hand, listen to in-store old music (modern music is usually compressed) or the classics. Listening to a combination of instruments will reveal the range of the headphones.
Check return policies. Some online retailers, such as HeadRoom, allow customers to try a pair and return them without penalties if they’re unhappy with the product. Physical stores have display models for testing. Exceptions are in-ear models due to hygiene issues. Bring the unit you intend to use them with (smartphone, tablet, media player). Wear headphones for a minimum of 15 minutes to determine if they’ll hurt after some time.
Toggle the headset’s noise-cancellation controls. Listen without music to see how well it blocks ambient noise. Ask a store rep to talk to you at different distances to check the range of the noise-control mechanism.
A lot of headphones will come with a one-year warranty, but high-end brands with more durable units offer lengthier ones. Handy for when your most prized set suddenly conks out. Also, investigate the quality of the store’s customer service. Is their tech support easy to contact? Ideally, a live rep should be reachable by phone 24/7.
Be wary of using noise-control headphones when driving or operating machinery. These activities require attention to surroundings, as with jogging. (Most muggers prey on inattentive people.)
Regardless of headphone type, regularly listening to music at high volume, especially jacked-up bass, may cause ear irritation. Take regular breaks.
Can Noise-Canceling and Noise-Isolating Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?
They don’t, because they spare users from pumping up the volume to block noise. The World Health Organization claims they’re also beneficial in reducing stress levels and preventing heart problems in those consistently exposed to low-frequency sounds.
Future noise-control headphone owners should manage expectations, as even the best can’t promise total silence. Many high-end headphones don’t work at all frequencies, nor at the same degree across those frequencies that they’re able to cancel. We have to accept this fact until future technologies tell us otherwise.
If you’re a casual music listener who can’t distinguish between low and high-bitrate audio, it doesn’t make sense to splurge. Cheaper or mid-priced units may be enough to meet your audio requirements. If you’re adamant about getting both active noise cancellation and stellar audio, be prepared to shell out top dollar. Or stalk sales. Manufacturers usually decrease the prices of previous models when they introduce new ones.
No single headset can do everything. We attempted to duplicate the quality of an expensive pair with five cheaper ones. Together, they couldn’t come up to the high-end model’s standard, but each had its own merits. One blocked bass, the other high-pitched sound. Another was worthless as headphones, but its microphone captured heavy accents efficiently.
If you can afford it, buy a pair with outstanding reviews. If you’ve got a budget, get an affordable one for noise cancellation, another for noise isolation. Don’t bother searching for the jill-of-all headphones. Like a perfect spouse, there isn’t any.