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I often get asked which is better, noise cancelling or noise reducing headphones? While the answer is largely subjective, there are some clear differences that might make you choose one over the other. But first, it’s important to understand the difference, so here’s a quick answer:
Noise cancelling headphones use built-in microphones to pick up and then cancel out ambient noise, and can be both over-ear and in-ear headphones. Noise reducing headphones, however, simply create a seal around your ear, which effectively blocks out ambient noise, and are more effective as in-ear.
As you can see, the biggest difference is their use of active or passive technology. Read my article on how noise cancelling headphones protect hearing in which I explain in detail how the active and passive ones work.
In this article, I’ll look at how both noise cancelling headphones and noise reducing headphones work, along with the pros and cons of each.
Difference between noise cancelling and noise reducing headphones
Technology is always evolving and looking for bigger and better ways to improve our lives, and headphones are no exception. Noise cancelling and noise reducing headphones have been around for a few years now, but not many people are completely aware of the difference.
As mentioned, the main difference between noise cancelling and noise reducing headphones is that one is active and one is passive. This is just a fancy way of saying that one requires power and the other doesn’t. However, I’ll expand on this in more detail below.
Noise cancelling headphones
Noise cancelling headphones are the active kind, which means they use a power source to cancel out ambient noise. How do they do this? The headphones feature one (or several) microphone that is used to pick up ambient noise around the wearer.
After picking up these ambient waves, the headphones then use a set of speakers to produce waves of the same frequency, although they’re 180 degrees out of phase with the ambient noise waves.
What does this mean? In short, it means that the incoming sound waves are cancelled out by the waves produced by the headphones. Both waves have the same frequency, but their waves and troughs are out of sync, which is what cancels them out.
The scientific name for this is destructive interference and is a well known occurrence in the audio world. It boils down to the headphones reducing the level of ambient noise, allowing the wearer to focus on their music.
The main components in noise cancelling headphones are:
Microphone. The microphone picks up the ambient sounds around the wearer, specifically ones that can’t be blocked passively.
Noise cancelling circuit. The circuit inside the headphones registers the frequency of the ambient noise and produces a wave of the same frequency that’s 180 degrees out of phase.
Speaker. This is simply the normal speaker found in any set of headphones, as the noise cancelling waves are fed in along with the music audio. This allows them to cancel out ambient noise without affecting the desired audio.
Battery. The battery powers the circuitry, and is what classifies these headphones as active.
Does this work for all ambient noise?
If you think noise cancelling headphones sound too good to be true, then you’re almost correct. They’re able to cancel out around 70% of ambient waves while providing around 20dB of noise reduction.
What’s more, they use all the same technology as passive headphones (discussed below), but have the bonus of the active circuit. This means they’re arguably better than noise reducing headphones.
When it comes to the frequency of waves the headphones cancel, they don’t work on everything. They’re much more effective at blocking out low frequency sound waves because they’re longer and more repetitive than high frequency waves.
This means they’ll work great for something like a car engine or airplane, but won’t be as effective for blocking voices. Many high frequency waves have significantly more variation in them, which makes them harder to match.
However, when combined with the technology used in noise reducing headphones, they can still do a good job of muffling these higher frequency waves, even if they don’t cancel them completely.
Noise reducing headphones
Noise reducing headphones, on the other hand, are passive headphones. This is because they don’t feature any batteries or circuitry related to blocking out ambient noise. This doesn’t mean they won’t have a power source, though, as Bluetooth headphones can be passive in this regard.
So how do they work? Simply put, noise reducing headphones create a barrier between your ears and the ambient noise, which reduces the level of ambient noise you’re able to hear.
Therefore, the effectiveness of the headphones is dependent on how good a seal they can make around your ear. For this reason in-ear headphones are generally better than over-ear because they can make a tighter seal around your ear.
However, this entirely depends on the shape of your ear. For example, some people have many issues with in-ear headphones, and if you have particularly large ear openings then they’ll be much less effective.
Although this is true for both kinds, you generally get what you pay for with noise reducing headphones. They’re often cheaper, but their effectiveness is dependent on the quality of materials and the shape they make around your ear.
How does this work with ambient noise?
As I mentioned, the headphones simply make a seal around your ear, which effectively reduces the level of ambient noise you can hear. So the tighter the seal, the less ambient noise you experience.
They’re most effective at blocking out noises under 30 decibels, although you’ll definitely notice a difference for louder noises. For reference, a whisper can be anywhere between 15 and 30dB, while a normal speaking voice is around 60dB.
Manufacturers use a range of different materials and designs to achieve this seal, but silicone is a fairly common material for ear buds. Over-head headphones will be different, but will generally just use lots of padding to get a good seal.
That said, in-ear noise reducing headphones are infinitely more effective because they can make a better seal. Again, though, this’ll depend on the size and shape of your ears.
Pros and cons
In my opinion, noise cancelling headphones are definitely more effective than noise reducing ones. However, both kinds come with their own pros and cons, and it’s worth understanding these before you go out and buy a pair.
After all, buying headphones depends on what suits you best, along with which are the most effective. Here are my main pros and cons of both noise cancelling and noise reducing headphones.
Pros of Noise cancelling headphones
Probably the biggest pro of noise cancelling headphones is their effectiveness. Because they have the added circuitry devoted specifically to cancelling out ambient noise, they’re already a step ahead of noise reducing headphones.
However, the extent to which they’re actually effective will depend on the product’s quality. For example, a mid-range pair of noise reducing headphones may very well be more effective than a cheap pair of noise cancelling headphones, simply because the circuitry is cheap.
Although they come in both over-head and in-ear versions, noise cancelling headphones are more popular in the over-head style. This is mainly because the larger headphones create a better seal and covering the whole ear means less ambient noise makes its way in.
However, this entirely depends on your preference. Some people find in-ear headphones provide a much better seal, while others can’t deal with the feel of something directly in their ear (these headphones have to be jammed in pretty deep).
Effective against low frequency sounds
Noise cancelling headphones are pretty effective against low frequency sound waves, although this will also depend on the product’s quality. As mentioned above, this is because low frequency sound waves are generally more repetitive and so are easier to match.
This makes them ideal if you’re travelling on public transport or similar, but just bear in mind that they don’t work as well for higher frequency sound waves.
Better for travelling
I find that noise cancelling headphones are better for travelling, whether this is flying or on public transport. While they don’t block out high frequency sounds, they’ll definitely reduce the overall level of background noise that makes its way through.
Cons of Noise cancelling headphones
Noise cancelling headphones require a power source to work. While this isn’t a massive issue, it does mean you run the risk of running out of juice while listening to your favorite song.
Much the same as with any other product, this will vary wildly depending on brand and quality. Some can run for hours and hours on a single charge while others will run out in no time at all. The key is to do research and to shop around before buying.
As you may have already guessed, noise cancelling headphones are generally more expensive than noise reducing. This is because they have more technology in them, which comes at a price.
Even mid-range noise cancelling headphones will be drastically more expensive, but I believe it’s worth it for the added benefits. Realistically, if you’re looking for a good pair of headphones then you should be willing to pay the price.
Not particularly effective against high and mid-range frequencies
Noise cancelling headphones aren’t amazing at cancelling out sounds like voices, which might be a big issue for some. However, because they use the same technology as noise reducing headphones but with a bit extra, they’ll still do a better job.
Similarly, don’t expect miracles when it comes to particularly loud noises. A good model should effectively reduce ambient noises by around 60dB, but this means that loud noises will still be loud.
Pros of Noise reducing headphones
Noise reducing headphones are generally less expensive than noise cancelling ones, although this does come with a reduction in their effectiveness. However, if you’re on a budget and you simply want less ambient noise, then they’ll still do a good job.
However, the same logic applies that you get what you pay for. If you’re going for noise reducing headphones, I’d still recommend going for a mid-range pair. Similarly, do your homework first.
Don’t require a power source
Providing you’re opting for wired noise reducing headphones then you won’t need a power source. Probably the main benefit of noise reducing headphones is that they won’t die on you when you least expect it.
This obviously isn’t the case for wireless headphones though. For example, Bluetooth noise reducing headphones still have a battery that powers their circuitry, and so can still run out of charge.
Range of fits
As a way of compensating for them generally being in-ear headphones, most brands provide a range of different shapes and fits. Many will offer different tips, such as conical or round, and a range of materials, such as foam or rubber.
Hopefully this means that there’s a good fit for everyone. However, some people just don’t get on with in-ear headphones, and while you can buy over-head noise reducing headphones, they’re arguably not as effective.
Cons of Noise reducing headphones
In-ear headphones can cause damage
While this isn’t specifically related to noise reducing headphones, it fits in here because they’re more common as in-ear headphones. They can cause damage to your ears, both through the noise source’s proximity to your eardrum and the physical act of putting them in your ears.
Some people are more susceptible to these issues than others, but if you have concerns about in-ear headphones, then choose an over-head variety. They’re much less likely to damage your ears, but you can still cause damage by listening to music too loud.
Noise reducing headphones are generally less effective than noise cancelling ones, and this is related to the technology included. Noise reducing headphones simply make a tight seal around your ear, rather than actively cancelling ambient noise.
They work well against noises under 30dB, and will reduce the volume of noises above this. But remember for reference that a speaking voice is around 60dB, and that should help you decide how effective they’re really going to be.
This is definitely both a pro and a con, because while there is a range of fits, it might take some effort to find the one that’s right for you. The obvious benefit of noise cancelling headphones is that they usually follow a similar design, making selection easier.
However, if you have experience with in-ear headphones then you might already know what works best for you. Also, this isn’t a particularly objective factor so you will need to do some research before choosing the model right for you.
Which is better; noise cancelling headphones or noise reducing headphones?
While there are pros and cons to both types of headphones, I feel that noise cancelling headphones are the better choice. More than anything, they do everything that noise reducing headphones do and then some more.
For example, if you travel a lot, then noise cancelling will be a better choice because they’re more comfortable and block out more background noise.
However, if you just need some headphones to wear while exercising, and ambient noise isn’t a massive issue, then noise reducing headphones should be fine. It largely depends on your budget and what you’re actually looking for from your headphones.
Some of the best noise cancelling and noise reducing headphones
To help you get started, here are some of my top picks for both noise cancelling headphones and noise reducing headphones.
Best noise cancelling
Bose QC25 (check price on Amazon)
This is a fairly pricey model, but they definitely get the job done. You can expect amazing sound quality from a company like Bose, and they apply the same level of skill to their noise cancelling tech.
This model comes with Android and Apple compatible wires, but there’s also a recently released wireless version (Amazon link) too.
Check out my hands-on review of the QC25.
Budget option: Anker Soundcore Q20 (see it on Amazon)
These are a budget option for noise cancelling headphones, but they still do a pretty good job. The audio quality is impressive and they’re really comfortable too.
Best noise reducing
ISOtunes Wireless Earbuds (check price on Amazon)
These are fairly comfortable Bluetooth earbuds that reduce ambient noise by 22dB. Overall they’re fairly good, but might be more than many are willing to pay for a pair of earbuds.
Budget option: Cowin E7 (see it on Amazon)
These are over-head headphones and do a good job of reducing ambient noise levels. They’re wireless too, which always helps, and they have around 40 hours of playtime on a single charge.
While there are plenty of budget options for noise reducing earbuds, these are generally not marketed as such, but are simply earbuds. Considering these are the type of headphones most people are familiar with, it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick a pair out.
Some final thoughts
Deciding between noise cancelling headphones and noise reducing headphones will largely depend on your budget and needs, but noise cancelling are almost always the better option.
Hopefully this article has given you the right information to be able to make an informed decision about which type will be right for you.
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