Noise-cancelling Headphones

Are noise-cancelling headphones right for you? Features to consider.

Noise Cancellation Capabilities and Limitations

Noise-cancelling headphones (also called noise-reducing headphones) are headphones with electronic circuitry that cancels out noise coming from your external environment. Noise cancellation works very well for steady, lower-pitched background noise, such as the dull roar in an aircraft, and because of this, noise-cancelling headphones are popular with frequent flyers. Hearing that jet cabin noise for hours on end fatigues the brain, and if you can find a way to avoid it, you'll arrive feeling more refreshed.

However, if you board a flight expecting your headphones to eliminate the noise from fussy babies or over-exuberant children, you may be disappointed. Noise reduction has its limitations, and it is not very effective against these higher pitched, intermittent noises. In fact, it might even make them more noticeable and annoying, since it actively reduces other sounds that would tend to mask these shrill noises. To block out these kinds of noises, you might be happier with ordinary ear plugs, or (for listening to music) a pair of in-the-ear headphones.

Because the noise-cancelling circuitry must necessarily alter the music signal, noise reduction headphones will not match the high fidelity of a reasonably good pair of ordinary headphones, even a much cheaper pair. Still, there are differences in sound quality between brands and models. With some there may be a perceptible hiss. Sound quality is subjective; it depends on the kind of music you will be listening to, and your own preferences for what the music "should" sound like.

Selecting a Headphone

Features to consider when choosing a noise reduction headphone:
  • Whether the earphone encloses the ear or sits on the ear. An on-ear model will be lighter and more compact. On the other hand, an around-the-ear version will help greatly in blocking out higher frequency noises that the noise cancellation feature is not as effective with.
  • Whether the headphones will work without a battery. A battery is always required to operate the noise cancellation feature, but some models will continue working as ordinary headphones if the battery is dead or missing. Other models will not function at all without the battery.
  • Whether there is a button or switch allowing you to turn off the noise cancellation, so exterior sound can pass through temporarily.
  • Sturdiness of construction.
  • Comfort, including adjustability.
  • Compactness.
  • Quality of noise cancellation.
  • Sound quality of the music, according to your own preferences.
  • Affordability.

Before selecting a set of noise cancellation headphones to purchase, try them out if possible. That's the only way to know how comfortable they will be for you, and whether the sound quality will be to your liking.

Some brands and models that consistently earn high ratings within their price ranges are:
  • $300 to $350 (US dollars): The Bose QuietComfort series (QC3 or QC15, each with different features).
  • $200 to $250: Creative's Aurvana X-Fi, or the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7.
  • $100 to $150: The Sennheiser PXC 300.

Three Noise Reduction Techniques in One

With active noise reduction headphones, you combine three separate approaches for dealing with noise, all in one device:
  • Sound masking, with music.
  • Physical noise blocking, with a full ear cup.
  • Electronic noise cancellation.

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