If you have a snoring spouse or have to take a long trip with other people, noise-cancelling headphones are invaluable. Although they are great when it comes to listening to your favorite podcasts or music, sometimes we just want silence. So just how versatile are noise-cancelling headphones?
Do noise-cancelling headphones work without music? Some noise-cancelling headphones are effective without music. Although passive isolation headphones only serve to muffle sounds, headphones equipped with active noise-cancellation technology can cancel all noise even before it reaches your ears.
Although that answer gives you the basic idea, I decided to dive deeper into the world of noise-cancelling headphones to learn how they work, the benefits, drawbacks, and more. Let’s start with the basics.
What Exactly Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones?
Noise-cancelling headphones are audio headphones that are capable of blocking out all the sounds around the user. This can be especially helpful in busy train stations or just at home when you are looking for some peace. There are two different technologies used in noise-cancelling headphones, and we’ll explore each one below.
A Quick Note Before Reading On: If you’ve read any of my previous Gizbuyer Guide articles regarding noise cancelling headphones, you’ll know that I absolutely love my Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless over ear headphones.
Having owned them for several months now, I can confirm that they are not only extremely comfortable for long periods of listening time, but their power can reduce low repetitive noises to the point that they can’t be heard. This is more so than closest competitors, Bose QC 35II and the even newer Bose 700 headphones, making the Sony 1000XM3s well worth their price and my absolute top recommendation.
Passive Noise Isolation
The first type of noise-cancelling headphone technology is passive noise isolation. Just like the name says, this variety physically shuts out the sounds around you. This allows you to tune everything out without cranking the volume of your music up.
Most earbuds do this naturally by fitting snugly inside of your ears, simply plugging your ear canal and blocking all external sound out. Some people find earbuds to be uncomfortable or even painful at times to use. If that’s the case, the over-the-ear type might be more to your liking.
Over-the-ear headsets use the same basic method to get rid of background noise as well. Instead of going directly inside your ears, they utilize padding and pressure to effectively create a near air-tight seal around your ears, causing them to be somewhat more effective.
Although passive noise isolation does a great job in greatly reducing the sounds around you, they do not actually eliminate it. The design naturally muffles ambient noise around you, but they really depend on audio in order to work.
Active Noise Cancellation
The other technology used in noise-cancelling headphones is called active noise cancellation. While the passive noise isolation works by physically keeping noise from getting in, active noise cancellation electronically cancels out noise before it even gets close to your ears.
Originally designed to allow aircraft pilots to communicate with one another over the roaring motors (think helicopter pilots in movies), they became available for use in the consumer markets soon after. Awesome, right?
Well, mostly. Even with the ability to cut off environmental noise, they have a pretty limited range. In addition, they work better with repetitive, and long-lasting noise than that of a screaming child, for example.
How Do They Work?
Their limited range, interestingly enough, comes from a design flaw. In order to do its job, these headphones need a separate power source to operate the noise-cancelling part of the design.
The unique way this is achieved is by use of a microphone located on the outside of the earphones or on the cord. This microphone picks up the noises around you and measures their frequencies while the speakers play the opposite frequencies into your ears.
Add this ability so that you can cancel out sounds while also being capable of playing audio, and you now have been blissfully transported into your own world. But that’s not even the best part!
It can work without playing music as well! Keeping in mind that the headphones have a separate power source to operate the frequency drown-out, you’ll need to make sure you charge them prior to taking them on your next adventure. A full charge means silence, even without audio!
So, Do They Really Block Out All Sound?
Well, again, that’s not so cut and dry an answer. In order to really answer that question, we’ll have to look into the limitations we touched upon earlier.
What Are the Limitations of Noise-Cancelling Headphones?
Let’s revisit how active noise cancellation technology works. It’s able to cancel out sounds picked up through the microphone by playing an opposite frequency in the ear, right? This means that the microphone has to identify the frequency of the sounds before it can provide a counter to them, creating a slight delay.
This delay is the reason this technology works best on repetitive, long-lasting sounds. Once the frequency has been identified and countered once, it will not need to again. This is great for engine noises and other continuous environmental noise pollution, but not so much for sudden noises.
Designed to work best for frequencies lower than 1,000 Hz, human speech is sometimes allowed to slip through. Most voices tend to be higher in frequencies and fluctuating in tone. So as great as it will do against your snoring spouse, don’t expect miracles with crying babies.
Pros and Cons of Noise-Cancelling Headphones
They Don’t Make All Noise Disappear
The biggest downside is that none of these technologies really and truly cancel out all noise. At best, active noise cancellation will bring the background down from a loud hum to a very low hum. Clearly, the addition of music will increase that power quite a bit.
To say it plainly, if you are trying to drown out the screaming child in aisle 15, you’re out of luck. You also won’t be able to make disappear the chatty stranger sitting next to you who can’t take a hint either. (By now, shouldn’t everyone understand that when you have headphones in, it means you don’t want to talk?)
They Do Make Some Noise Much More Bearable
However, as we discussed earlier, if your mission is to sleep on a flight or drown out snoring, these will most certainly do the trick. Depending on what type of headphone you choose – and what your budget is – you are likely to find some relief from a noisy environment, to some degree. What it comes down to is exactly the nature of your needs.
Some of The Best Need a Power Source
If you recall, the active noise cancellation headphones also require an independent power source in order to do its job. This means a long trip without access to charging stations or simply forgetting to fully charge up before going out really limits the duration of use.
This independent power supply makes this technology slightly more expensive as well. The passive noise isolation variety may be better suited to your needs if the cost is of major concern. Seeing as they go directly inside of your ear, they work in a similar manner that earplugs do, blocking out sound.
Not All Headphones Are Created Equally
Probably the most frustrating thing of all is the lack of quality consistency. Different brands of headphones might advertise the same amount of noise reductions but perform drastically different ways. The only way to be sure of this is by trying them out for yourself.
Earbuds or Over-the-Head?
We’ve already determined that passive noise isolation earbuds are far less expensive than that of the active noise cancellation, but it does have its advantages. If you have a proper enough fit, you can create a seal, drastically reducing the amount of sound that gets through, but that’s with a perfect fit.
Due to the basic function of over-the-head headphones, the addition of padding and pressure applied can also have a very desired effect. Some people prefer not to place things directly inside of their ears.
Although many people find earbuds to be comfortable enough to wear while sleeping, they can cause a considerable amount of discomfort if you are a side sleeper. Over-the-head headphones might provide a cushion between your head and the pillow, but they can still be rather uncomfortable to use as well depending on brand, style, and personal preference.
Another important thing to consider is what your reason for using the headphones are. Earbuds take up very little space and work great for long trips. But if a good night’s sleep is your aim, they may not be ideal.
What about sports? If you are an active person, you may find that earbuds tend to fall out with repetitive movement. Conversely, over-the-head styles may be just as difficult to keep in place due to movement, not to mention sliding around from sweat.
For sports, there is a third type of headphone to consider, and they are shaped like a headband. The flat on-ear design of the earpieces slips into cozy pockets on both sides of the fabric headband, making it easy to remove to wash.
As I mentioned, some people report discomfort from earbuds in certain sleep positions. The headband design mentioned above makes sleeping on our side much more comfortable. I mean, isn’t the goal, in this case, to improve sleep quality anyway? It seems like an awful lot of effort just to be kept up all night because your earbuds bother you.
Made in a variety of fabrics, from heavy flannel for winter weather protection to lightweight moisture wicking perfect for a sweaty summer workouts, it’s easy to see why they are growing in popularity.
What to Look For When Shopping For Noise-Cancelling Headphones
With all of the options, styles, and limitations, shopping for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones can be quite an undertaking. Some boast noise-cancelling ability, but which are better? Is the noise reduction at the expense of audio quality? Are they poorly made and only make audio louder to drown out the noise?
Decide Which Type of Headphones You Want Before You Start Shopping
Above and beyond choosing between active noise cancellation or passive noise isolation, it is in your best interest to familiarize yourself with the different types of headphones we’ve talked about and which best serve your purpose.
Knowing whether you are looking for earbuds, headbands, or over-the-head before you begin helps to reign in the overwhelming number of headphones to choose from.
We’ve reviewed the pros and cons of types, and there are both active and passive varieties in all of the categories, but the form of the headphone is just as important as the type of noise cancellation you are looking for.
If active noise cancelling is what you’re after, you might find the full-sized over-the-head types are preferable. The design itself adds an element of passive isolation along with the active. On the other hand, if you are leaning towards earbuds, you may only need noise isolation, if anything at all.
Decide How Much You Want to Spend
High-quality noise cancellation comes with a higher price tag. Due to having its own independent power source and an audio processor, the quality of the processors and circuits have a bigger impact on the cost. Add that to build quality, internal drivers, style, and shape – and the numbers start to get a bit larger.
If you are looking for outstanding audio and high-quality noise cancellation, be prepared to put out a sizeable amount of money. If you’re only interested in one or the other, you will notice a significant drop in cost.
Although you may find a steal of a deal online, you may pay for it in the long run. A discounted off-brand might make for a quiet day at work, but don’t count on traveling in peace. You don’t have to be bankrupt in the process, but you need to know going in that high-quality models, even though they are in the hundreds of dollars range, have significantly better noise cancellation than cheaper counterparts.
Ask to Try Them On or at the Home and Office
If given the option, test out different brands and consider the differences. If you are shopping for a passive pair, look for the fit. Are they snug? Do they fully cover the ear? If you are leaning towards active technology, put them on and move to the most populated part of the office, house, or store.
Without playing music, listen closely and see how much background noise you can detect. Bring a friend along and have them move around you while talking and see how well you can hear them.
Be sure to note the fit. Will they be comfortable for sleeping? Will you be able to wear them for long spans of time, or during travel trips? Do they seem like they would cause discomfort after a prolonged period of wear? Are they wireless or will you potentially end up choking yourself in a tangle of wires…
Good quality does not mean you have to sacrifice comfort. Test out different brands and different styles to see which have the best functionality and comfort in your price range.
Check Out All the Features
If all you are looking for is noise cancellation, great. But if you intend to listen to music or podcasts, you’ll have to do a little more testing. Try plugging in or paring up the headphones to your mobile device and play some of your favorite music. Try listening with the cancellation options on and off.
It won’t take long at all to tell which headphones favor noise-cancelling at the risk of audio quality. In just a few minutes, you’ll be able to choose the best option for you and your device.
Consider Battery Life and Any Warranties Offered
If active cancelling is what you’re shopping for, don’t forget that these are not just headphones, they are also electronically powered appliances as well. It’s basically tiny computers on your ears. Over time and with use, electronics fail. Once that happens, you’ll be sure to want to fix them.
Do some research on warranty offerings and brand customer service. If you have to make a claim or have a question, how hard will it be to get an actual person on the phone or through online chat? What do deductibles for repair service look like realistically? It’s frustrating enough to have your new prized possession break on you; you probably won’t want to add endless option loops on top of that.
Battery life should be a big factor in the choice. Not all brands offer the same batteries. Some last significantly longer than others. You’ll need to weigh in how long it takes to fully charge your headphones as well as how often you’ll need to do it. Will it fit your needs for usage?
Be Realistic in Your Expectations
No matter what the cost, no headphones will completely cancel out all noise effectively. If audio quality is a priority for you, consider that no pair of noise-canceling headphones will sound as good as your favorite non-cancelling pair to jam tunes with.
The key here is to do your research and read peer reviews. An educated consumer is a good consumer. For a complete guide to finding and buying the right headphones for you, check out this guide.
To Sum it All Up
The answer to this question was far more complicated than I originally thought. Even the highest quality active canceling headphones won’t eliminate ALL noise – especially without music. They can, however, be effective depending on the situation.
I hope I’ve been able to help you in your ultimate quest for quiet. As a fun note, maybe also get a good old fashioned pair of earplugs or earmuffs. If a set of earmuffs can protect your ears from the sound of a NASCAR zooming by you on the racetrack, chances are it’ll drown out your snoring spouse too. Good Luck!
Recommended Products That Helped Me to Research This Article:
- Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancellation Headphones (for a great price I personally bought from Amazon) – My go-to over ear headphones for pretty much anything that involves the need for audio. It seems like I never have to worry about charging them thanks to its awesome 30 hour battery life, and the noise cancellation is so good that I find myself many times using this function even without listening any audio. Customizing bass, mids, and treble with the included EQ app is a nice touch as well.