Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Hearing?

A fancy gadget generally invokes curiosity and desire. Noise cancelling headphones is a good example. 

In this article, I bring out 7 reasons why noise cancelling headphones are worth it. But, do noise cancelling headphones provide protection against hearing loss?

The answer is yes, but not in every situation.

Technology has made the environment very noisy. From jet engines to vehicles to factory machinery, prolonged exposure to these sounds does cause hearing loss in the long term.

You know this and you want to do something about it. And then, there is a technology that you have heard about which is noise cancelling.

There are noise cancelling headphones available in the market but the real question is- Do they protect you from hearing loss? But first…

Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Hearing

Why is Hearing Protection Important

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A study was carried out in 2011-12 by CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), to study the effect of prolonged exposure to noise for people in the United States.

The study found that 12.5% of children in the age group of 6 to 19 years and 17% of adults in the age group of 20 to 69 years suffered permanent damage due to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). NIHL is the hearing losses caused by exposure to high pitch sounds experienced in everyday life.

Having been in a profession in which aircraft noise was something I used to deal with on a daily basis, I can assure you that prolonged exposure to high noise does cause hearing loss in the long run.

Similarly, in other professions or jobs like working in a factory or the railways or a motor garage, people are more prone to hearing loss for which OSHA approved headphones (my related article) are recommended. Noise cancelling headphones are safe to wear but there are some considerations. 

What are Noise Cancelling Headphones?

Noise cancelling headphones are categorized into passive and active types.

Passive Noise Cancelling

Passive noise cancelling headphones are those which do not use any kind of power source, like a battery, to block sound. They just rely on the materials that they are made up of, like thick padding.

They’re just like ear muffs which can be connected to your media playing device.

Normal headphones also do some amount of noise blocking but they are not considered as true noise cancelling headphones.

Active Noise Cancelling

Active noise cancelling headphones are those which create sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase with ambient noises.

That means that if you are in an aircraft, the headphones will create sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase with the sound waves of the jet engine.

The main benefit of having this technology is that you can listen to music at low volumes whereas with normal headphones in a noisy environment, you will need to really crank up the volume.

In this video, the basics of noise cancelling headphones are clearly explained.

Check out my article about the active noise cancelling headphones that I own and HIGHLY recommend.

Hearing Protection in Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise cancelling headphones do provide protection for hearing but it would mostly depend on the situation you are in.

The passive ones will be effective in most situations and in others, will provide some amount of protection. Active noise cancelling headphones will also work well in some situations and in some, will not work at all.

Passive noise cancellation is like soundproofing. Like soundproofing, materials are being used to physically block sound. These types of headphones are on the heavier side and can cause some discomfort if worn for long durations.

Passive noise canceling headphones will protect hearing, to some extent at least, during impulsive noises such as gunshots and firecrackers.

Active noise cancelling headphones require some ‘settling time’ before they can really become effective. They take some time to measure the sound waves of external noises so that they can create ones that are 180 degrees out of phase.

So, while travelling in an airplane which has a constant level engine noise, these headphones become very effective. However, for impulsive noises like gunshots and firecrackers, active noise cancelling headphones are not at all effective because they do not work instantly.

So, Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Hearing?

First of all, it would depend on the type, whether the headphones are passive noise cancelling or active noise cancelling.

If they are the passive type, they will generally perform well. Airline pilots have passive noise cancelling headphones and these are good for overall protection in different situations.

They are effective for protection from mid and high-frequency sound waves but are not good at isolating low-frequency sound waves.

Active noise cancelling headphones are effective only for consistent noises in which the battery power is sufficient to produce the sound pressure that cancels the effect of ambient noise.

They are ineffective at high pitch noises and sudden transient noises but are effective for low frequencies like noise from engines, generators, appliances, etc.

Active noise cancelling headphones are really good for listening to music at low volumes. This is also important from ear protection point of view.

With normal headphones, you will need to increase the volume if you are in a bus or train. Listening to music at high volumes is also one of the major causes of hearing loss.

Hence, active noise cancellation headphones are also good for protection against hearing loss.

Also read:

Which Ones Are Best For You?

The ones that you should go for will depend on your preferences, the types of noises you are exposed to and need protection from.

If you are a daily commuter who travels by public transport, active noise cancelling headphones would be best for you. 

The passive ones are best for noisy marketplaces, shooting ranges, etc where you mostly encounter high pitch noises or transient noises which make active noise cancelling headphones ineffective.

Ear Muffs vs Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones

From a hearing protection perspective, ear muffs can perform the same as passive noise cancelling headphones.

Both are good for protection against high-frequency noises such as people talking and babies crying. Both will not be great for engine noises and low-frequency bass from speaker systems.

So, if you are interested in noise isolation only, between the two, it would be more prudent to go for ear muffs instead of spending on expensive passive noise cancelling headphones.

You can also build your own soundproof earmuffs (read my guide).

Active vs Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones in General

Apart from the types of noises they are effective against, there are a few other things to consider for choosing which one is best for you.

Active noise cancelling headphones are lighter and more comfortable. Passive noise cancelling headphones rely on physically blocking sound with the help of materials used in construction. Therefore, they tend to be bulky and can become uncomfortable when worn for long durations.

There are some passive noise cancelling headphones which are designed to do the job, yet do not cause discomfort but these are expensive.

Do Active Noise Cancelling Headphones Hamper Sound Quality?

In theory, they do and many people have complained about a degradation in quality. That is why passive noise cancelling headphones are preferable.

As we know that sound waves are generated by active noise cancelling headphones to compensate for the ambient noises.

High level of accuracy and battery power is required for this technology to work properly. However, active noise cancelling headphones are designed to operate for lesser than optimal battery usage and hence, sound quality is compromised.

Moreover, for active noise cancellation to take place, the ambient sound waves have to be converted into digitized form so that the compensation can be done and thereafter, reconverted to analog for the listener. This also creates a degradation of quality.

On the brighter side, this may not be noticeable in high performing headphones.

Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Safe?

Noise cancelling headphones, whether active or passive are not like mobile phones or microwave ovens. They do not emit low-level radiations and can only be harmful if the music is played at high volume.

In case you are wondering, the noise cancelling process in the active headphones are also not dangerous.

Final Thoughts

From a perspective of an avid listener of music, going for noise cancellation headphones is not a bad choice. They do help in the prevention of hearing loss.

However, if protecting yourself from noise pollution is the only priority, then it doesn’t make too much sense in going for noise cancelling headphones. It’s best to go for ear muffs in this case as they cost much lesser.

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