Noise Cancelling Headphones vs. Ear Protection: How to Choose?


noise cancelling headphones vs ear protection best recommended how to choose

Our daily lives are constantly cluttered with excess noise. This can be caused by something as mundane as the background noise of your TV or the industrial machinery used in your profession. Whatever the source, we can all seek to reprieve ourselves from the noise. Thankfully, we have many methods to block out the excessive noise in our day to day activities. With all these options, it may cause some intimidation to choose the right one for your needs. 

Between noise cancelling headphones and other forms of ear protection: how do we choose the right tool for the job? Most would agree that standard ear protection prevails over noise cancelling headphones for their efficiency at a budget price. 

While this appears to be a straight-forward answer, the background behind the use of each tool will ultimately dictate which tool is right for your preferences and needs. Let’s examine the principles behind each hearing protector to have a better understanding of how to buy your investment best.

How to Choose?

Depending on their use, you can never go wrong with having a device to shut off the noise of everyday life, whether noise cancelling headphones or ear protection. A student working on his thesis paper might focus better by blocking out the background noise in a bustling coffee shop. On the other hand, you may work in construction and need appropriate protection from the loudness generated by all the machinery around you. 

Let’s ponder these three questions for choosing the best hearing protector:

  1. How much noise reduction do you need? The obvious first consideration when choosing appropriate hearing protection. You want a protector that will block enough noise to reduce the exposure back to a safe level. Any protector, fitted correctly, can provide a sound reduction of 10dB (how loudness is measured). Of course, a louder environment will require a higher level of noise reduction. Noise-cancellation is limited to a small range of noises. Earplugs or muffs operate at a wider range of filtered noises.
  2. Where will you use them? Based on the occupation or task, this will impact the protector for the job. In construction, where you’ll be wearing other head-level personal protective equipment (PPE) and getting dirty, it wouldn’t make sense to wear high-end headphones. Earplugs or earmuffs will provide enough protection without the worry of damaging them.
  3. What hearing protector is the most comfortable and convenient? Many people, including myself, often feel constrained using headphones. The padding is never one size fits all and, after long exposure, causes soreness for the user. Earplugs or earbuds offer a lot more mobility, without the constraint of needing to readjust or take off the set completely. 

For all intents and purposes, you should always invest in the tools that are best suited for the job.

Most consumers would recommend a specific outlook towards the dispute between noise cancelling headphones and other forms of ear protection. If you’re a student or simple traveler with some more cash to spend, go for the headphones. For those seeking something more carefree and less tech, you can’t go wrong with the standard approach of blocking out sound with a pair of ear plugs or ear muffs.

Hearing Loss: When are We at Risk?

advantages and disadvantages of earbuds noise cancelling

With all these varying stipulations for needing ear protection, let’s take a quick anatomy lesson to how we perceive sound:

Hearing Transduction

In essence, noise is a collection of sound or pressure waves that vibrate in the air. To make sense of these waves, our ears must convert this mechanical stimulus into a nerve impulse. Only then, will they be able to hear and interrupt the noise. As a result, our ear is broken up into three sections to accomplish this task: the outer, middle, and inner ear.

The outer ear is the external section of the ear, consisting of the auricle, pinna and ear canal. Sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and sent down the canal to the middle ear. There, the sound is able to vibrate the tympanic membrane, more commonly known as the eardrum. 

In the middle ear, the vibrations from the eardrum cause three tiny bones into motion. The three bones: the hammer, anvil, and stirrup act as a sort of bridge to connect the eardrum to the oval window of the inner ear. The amplification process, during this connection, will cause fluids to move in the cochlea. 

The cochlea, located in the inner ear, is the most crucial structure that allows us to perceive sound with clarity. The movement of fluid causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. The hair cells change the vibration into electrical impulses. The electrical impulses are transmitted to the auditory nerve and sent directly to the brain. That is how we experience sound. 

What Noises can Cause Hearing Loss?

The transduction of sound is an intricate process. From the previous discussion, one can assume that any damage to this process is an attack on our overall hearing. In that assumption, you are correct.

Hearing loss can result from many sources. The louder the sound, the more damage it can cause to your hearing and the rate in which this damage will occur. Sound is measured in units called decibels (dB)—the higher the level, the louder the noise. The average human can tolerate a range of 10 to 80dB without any repercussions. The loudness of a normal conversation ranges between 50 to 65dB. 

Once we go past 85 dB, we increase our risk of hearing loss. A single loud noise from standing near a firework (145dB) can instantly cause hearing damage. Or, more often, hearing loss can be a gradual process caused by repeated exposure to loud noises. Professions, involving construction or music, will always cite their employees to wear ear protectors. In these professions, the decibel readings will easily exceed 100dB, and the exposure will last for hours.

Here is a short table to demonstrate the decibel levels seen in our daily lives:

Decibel RangeSound Example
Decibel (dB)
10dBNormal Breathing
30dBWhispering
40dBRefrigerator Humming
50-65dBNormal Conversation
70dBHair Dryer
78dBWashing Machine
80dBCity Traffic
90dB Lawnmower
100dBTrain
105dBSnowmobile
110dBJackhammer
130dBJet Aircraft Take-off
145dBFireworks

Hearing loss can visibly be witnessed within our cochlea. The hair cells are hit with sound so hard that the cells are bent, broken, or even totally sheared off. Once this occurs, there’s no going back. Unlike most cells in the body, hair cells cannot regenerate.

Noise Reduction Ratings

examples of decibel sound noise level jet takeoff

Referring back to question 1, the noise reduction potential for every hearing protector is based on a rating system known as NRR or Noise Reduction Rating

NRR is a unit of measurement used to determine the effectiveness of a hearing protection device to reduce sound exposure in decibels. The higher the NRR, the more effective it will be at reducing noise. It’s important to state that the NRR is not equivalent to the number of decibels being reduced. 

To figure out the exact number of decibels being reduced, you must subtract seven from the NRR and then divide by 2. The equation should look like this:

Decibel Reduction = (NRR-7) / 2

For example, say you’re exposed to a decibel reading of 100db and wearing a hearing protector with a rating of 27NRR. You would do (27-7) / 2, which would come out to a reduction of 10 decibels. As a result, the initial exposure of 100db will be reduced down to 90db.

What if you were wearing two hearing protectors at the same time (i.e., earplugs AND earmuffs)? Would you add the two NRR numbers together and average them out? Not at all; instead, you simply add five more decibels to the device with the higher NRR. For example, if the earmuffs have an NRR of 31 while the earplugs have an NRR of 33, then the NRR of the combination would be 38 NRR.

With both the anatomical and mechanical approach to hearing protectors covered, let’s examine how different hearing protectors stack up against each other.

Noise Cancelling Headphones: How do they Work?

The standard headphone operates under the principle of passive noise cancellation. The physical design of the ear cups will block out noise. Based on the shape of the ear cups and how well-fitted they are to the user will determine how much noise can be blocked out. When the conditions are perfect, the user hears less unwanted background noise and can focus more on the sound projected out from your headphones. 

Noise cancelling headphones, on the other hand, operate under the features of both active and passive noise cancellation. The initial padding of the ear cups will provide your standard protection. But what gives them the edge is their active circuitry underneath each earcup.

Waves, such as sound that are inverted from one another, will cancel each other out when added together. In a nutshell, this is the principle that noise-cancelling headphones operate under. 

Within the ear cup, a microphone will surveil for external sounds that cannot be blocked passively. Once detected, an electronic system will generate the inverse of the incoming sound and project it back out via a speaker system.

This feature is heavily admired for audiophiles or those involved in the music industry. Noise-cancellation allows the user to grasp the purest quality of their favorite tunes. This is especially vital for musicians as they’ll be able to grasp their recorded performance without any external interruption. This feature is even well-regarded by most students. During the stressful exam season, noise-cancellation will enable the student to become completely submerged into their studies.

The “Irony” of Noise Cancellation

While this principle of active noise-cancellation sounds completely failproof, that’s not always the case. As we have demonstrated, the headphones will always be surveilling for external sounds. Noise generated from a flight or a crowd is easier to counter as the loudness won’t vary at all. If the sound exceeds a range that the microphone can’t pick up, then an inverted wave can’t be produced. This is typically seen with spontaneous sounds generated by a firework or aircraft take-offs. 

Another caveat is that these headphones require a battery to power their circuitry. Without an influx of electricity, active noise cancellation is unobtainable. You’ll have to rely on their passive noise-cancellation abilities, especially if you don’t have a spare battery or the means to recharge them.

Finally, this is where the ironic aspect comes into play. Not all noise-cancelling headphones are built the same. Now, this may seem like an obvious observation. But for the untrained consumer, this can impair your attitude towards this brand of headphones. When demoing different headphones, they may seem equal at first. It’s not till you test them during a flight or a lively coffee shop, where you start to realize the difference in quality.

Sony wh 1000xm3 gizbuyer guide top recommended wireless noise cancelling headphone 2020

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 (which I personally bought here on Amazon). 

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.

The Flexibility of Earbuds

Earbuds are the second most common type of loudspeakers on the market today. The tiny design and portability make them a popular item for music lovers, as most phones or media devices offer them as a free perk. This item is a necessity today as more and more people are seeking entertainment while traveling or exercising.   

Between earbuds and headphones, the advantages of the former can outweigh those of the latter in terms of pure, compact convenience. Consisting of little more than a cord, audio jack, and two small speakers, earbuds are perfect for stashing in pockets or wrapping around your device. Their lightweight attitude also contributes to their ease of travel, considering that you won’t need a secondary and bulkier case to stow them away. 

There’s also the cost to examine. Since there isn’t a lot of material or large sound drivers used in their construction, you can snag a decent pair for sub $50. The same price point can’t be applied to many larger headphones. Earbuds only increase in price point when you want to add features such as wireless charging, noise cancellation, or water-resistance. Still, these additive features will cost less with earbuds over the same features applied to over-ear headphones. 

Affordability at a Risk

With all the conveniences associated with earbuds, I would be remiss not to point out some of the more significant drawbacks: 

  • Most earbuds are designed to sit right outside your ear canal. Without any additive padding to each speaker, they are unable to filter out external noise very well. If there’s too much background noise, you will have difficulty hearing through your earbuds. As a result, you will feel inclined to increase the volume. This increase puts you at risk of hearing loss due to the unnecessary volume adjustment 
  • The possible lack of passive noise cancellation in earbuds can contributes to less than ideal sound quality. Headphones will always reign supreme with their sound quality, especially when examining the bass response. The hardware in the earbud’s tiny speakers can’t project all the attributes within a song. They simply don’t have the hardware to back it up in comparison to your larger pair of headphones. 
  • There may be some discomfort associated with their design. Standard earbuds are built around rigid plastic pieces, specifically the make-up of the speakers themselves. Forking over cash for a higher-grade model will snag your plastic covers for the speakers. This additive feature can alleviate some of the discomforts as long as the cover fits the contours of your ear. You’ll have to go through the hassle of mixing and matching plastic covers to find the right fit for you.   

Professional Noise Reduction: Ear Plugs and Ear Muffs

As we have witnessed, noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds showcase some attributes of ear protection against loud noises. But they should only be witnessed as more geared towards entertainment purposes. When put into practice against heavy machinery or huge loud venues, they can become practically useless against these forces. It’s best to use ear protection that can not only withstand the louder noises but can also take a beating if the situation calls for it.

This point is further emphasized by the fact that these protectors can demonstrate higher-recorded noise reduction ratings. Most ear plugs have demonstrated an NRR rating of 33, outperforming most earmuffs that clock in at 31 NRR.  

Ear Plugs

earplugs pros cons Hearos best recommended

A staple tool for attending concerts, ear plugs are extremely versatile with their use and affordability. Earplugs are inserted into the ear canal, where they provide a mechanical blocking method for sound from reaching our inner ear. Once they have fulfilled their role, you can simply take them out and dispose of them.  

Most would issue complaints that earplugs must be readjusted regularly, as they will naturally work themselves loose over time. While this is mostly true, this is often the result of improper insertion. 

Here is a quick tutorial to properly fit an ear plug:

  • Ensure that your hands are clean and dry as the moisture will be quickly absorbed by the plug, rendering it completely unusable
  • Roll the earplug into a tube, as narrow as you can
  • With the other hand, reach over your head and gently pull your ear up and out to open up the ear canal
  • Insert the earplug with a slight turning motion inside your canal 
  • Hold in place for about 30 seconds so that the expanded foam can’t escape

If you follow these steps accurately, you’ll notice how much more effective they are at blocking loud noises, all with zero maintenance. The moldability of earplugs even ensures that one size does fit all types of ear canals. They are also smaller than other hearing protectors. This makes it easier to wear alongside other gear such as goggles or head protection. Their size also benefits working in warmer climates as bulkier protection can become uncomfortable in hot weather. 

Besides your average work setting, many have seen great success using earplugs to improve their sleep quality, including my personal favorite Hearos that I continually buy here on Amazon. Their small size guarantees to block out noise from a snoring partner or a nearby freeway without adjusting to a new position. 

Studies have shown that low-quality sleep over time may increase your risk of:

  • High blood pressure
  • Strokes
  • Diabetes
  • Reduced immune function
  • Depression
  • Heart attacks

Given the importance of sleep for your health, ear plugs offer benefits that go far beyond a good night’s rest. 

Disadvantages of Ear Plugs

Ear plugs have demonstrated many benefits to one’s work and sleep schedule due to the luxury of their tiny frame. But the aspect of inserting earplugs directly into the ear canal can lead to issues involving the buildup of earwax

Earwax, or cerumen, is a waxy substance that helps protect the ear canal from water, bacteria, dead skin, and other harmful debris. Over time, the earwax moves towards the entrance of the canal, alongside with all the impurities. 

Repeatedly blocking the ear canal, such as with the regular use of earplugs, can cause a buildup of earwax. This buildup is called Impacted Earwax. This is common in older adults as their earwax tends to become harder and less mobile. 

Symptoms are rarely demonstrated unless a lot of earwax is built-up. The most common symptoms are:

  • Hearing loss
  • Earache
  • Sense of ear fullness
  • Ringing and Itching in the ear
  • Dizziness

Another issue that even I have fallen victim of is to reuse older earplugs. Unless there are custom or pre-molded, discard foam earplugs immediately after use. Overused and uncleaned earplugs are susceptible to bacteria and can introduce dirt into the ear canal. Also, overexposure to earwax can cause earplugs to become rigid, putting a strain on the ear canal. This can result in ear infection, severe pain, and hearing loss in extreme cases. 

The rule of thumb is to discard foam earplugs after every use. With custom or pre-molded earplugs, clean them daily with a toothbrush, hydrogen peroxide, and a soap and water mixture. Any other practice will nullify the benefits of using earplugs. 

Ear Muffs

Ear muffs are quickly associated as the industry-standard hearing protector on construction sites. If you see a worker with a bright neon vest and a hardhat, there will likely be a pair of industrial ear muffs within arm’s reach.

Following a similar design to music headphones, ear muffs also utilize the principle of passive noise-cancellation. Each ear muff is coated with a thick foam padding in hard plastic. These materials enable noise reduction due to the thick and dampening properties of the foam. 

headband headphones for sleeping sports

Not to be left behind in the times, some ear muffs are also built with active noise-cancellation properties with the additive feature of volume control, like these headband ones that wrap softly around one’s head. In loud, hazardous settings, the wearer may still need to listen for outside sources such as commands from their supervisor. The volume control will enable the wearer to increase and decrease the cancellation properties without needing to take off their gear. 

In addition to sharing a design to music headphones, earmuffs are easy to wear, with most models acting as one size fits all. The ear muffs are able to cover the entirety of the wearer’s ear. This eliminates the need to insert anything directly into the ear canal, and the potential hazards of wax build up as we’ve discussed previously. Just make sure that they are fitted properly over the crown of your head, and the muffs form a tight seal over your ears. 

Disadvantages of Earmuffs

It’s due to their bulkier status that often makes earmuffs a hassle to use for long periods of time. By taking up most of your headspace, it’s inconvenient to use alongside other protective equipment such as safety glasses or a hard hat. Remember, earmuffs become practically useless if the seal becomes loose. As a result, it’s imperative to choose eyewear with thin temples to reduce this interference. 

Their bulkier frame will also result in discomfort for the wearer. With an incredibly tight seal over your ears, the pressure can cause inflammation and soreness over time. This will require the wearer to take them off to readjust or “air” out their ears, adding unnecessary exposure to the loud noises that surround them. Combine this with either hot or humid work conditions, and you’ll have a recipe for disaster. As a result, earmuffs are most effective for shorter jobs. 

Conclusion

With the marketing strategy of “noise cancellation,” who wouldn’t jump on board to purchase these headphones at face value? Without adjectives such as “partial” or “total,” one would assume that all headphones are built the same with just a few slight tweaks between brands. Yet this isn’t the case at all. 

The overall practicality of noise cancelling headphones can diminish the luxury associated with owning them in some cases. Nothing will beat the convenience of the tried and true ear protectors, earmuffs and earplugs, that we’ve used for generations. I would always choose industry-standard ear protection over noise-cancelling headphones if it came down to the pure blocking of sound where music isn’t needed. 

Preferences aside, ultimately, it is up to the consumer to decide which style of ear protection is best according to their circumstances. The average student can make do with a basic pair of headphones or earplugs to get the job done. It’s when we start discussing matters of construction or industrial settings that one must do more shopping research. Concepts like noise reduction rating and overall comfortability become that much more vital in the decision making process. 

Whatever protector you do decide on, you’re ultimately taking the necessary precautions to protect your hearing. Our hearing will inevitably degrade over time with age. Simple melodies or conversations will become that much harder to discern. The goal should always be to delay this process, not rush towards it. 

My Favorite and Best 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.
  • Hearos Ultimate Softness Foam EarPlugs (I continually buy these on Amazon) – If it weren’t for the above-mentioned XM3 headphones being an over ear design, I’d honestly probably wear them to sleep too (it doesn’t help that I’m a side sleeper). However, if I know that I’m going to be sleeping somewhere that involves noise, like at a hotel or friend’s house, I’ll pop in these ear plugs by Hearos, which I’ve depended on for years. They are super soft so they don’t push on your inner ear canal after insertion, but at the same time, it blocks any noise to an absolute mute, no matter how loud things might be. This effectively lulls me to sleep thereafter pretty quickly.

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