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Your Portable Sound Oasis: How to Choose the Best Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

Updated on February 13, 2012
Klipsch IMAGE S4
Klipsch IMAGE S4 | Source

© 2012 by Aurelio Locsin.

When you need a brief respite from the world, you can retreat into a conversation with a friend on your smartphone, listen to music on your iTouch, watch a movie on your iPad or have your Kindle read to you. A pair of comfortable earphones can dramatically improve sound quality and provide privacy from eavesdroppers.

How It Works

Even if you wear the best earbuds, a noisy crowd, the throb of an airplane engine, or the din of traffic can prevent you from indulging in your sound comfort clearly. You then need noise-cancelling earbuds to fully enjoy your audio.

  • Passive noise cancellation uses special materials, such as foam, to block out external noise. It needs no external power source.
  • Active noise cancellation generates its own sound to interfere and eventually block ambient noise. The sounds you want to hear become clearer. This technology requires external power, taken from either the media player or generated from a battery source.

Comfort is Key

The only way to determine if a specific earbud shape is comfortable for you is to try them out at your local electronics or audio/video store. If the specific model you want is not available on the floor, look for earbuds with a similar shape or appearance. You may be able to find them not just in the audio section but in the smartphone, e-reader or tablet areas.

Figure out if they fit comfortably in your ear during the type of activity you’ll use them for. For example, if you intend on jogging with them, mimic the motion in-place, if you can’t actually jog for a few feet with them on. They should fit snuggly in your ear without falling out, or binding and scratching the skin.

Make sure that there’s enough cable to reach from the earbud to where you place your multimedia device, and that it is thick enough to withstand your planned activity.

Sound Quality

You can only determine sound quality by trying on the exact pair and listening to the audio you normally enjoy whether in movies, hip-hop music, opera or the spoken word. If possible, bring the multimedia device for which the noise-canceling earbuds are intended, so you can test them with your typical files. If you do not have access to a floor model, you’ll need to rely on specifications at the manufacturer’s website to determine suitability.

Decibels above 85 dB can produce permanent hearing loss.
Decibels above 85 dB can produce permanent hearing loss. | Source

Explaining Specs

If you already understand earphone information, you can skip to the next section, which details the following specifications.

  • Technology. Describes the type of cancellation, which was explained previously.
  • Weight: Lighter ones feel better but more insubstantial.
  • Cord Length: The average length is about 4 feet. If these are too long, they can get tangled while you’re using them.
  • Frequency Response: The wider the range of numbers, the more types of sounds you can hear. The normal hearing range is from 20 to 20,000 Hz, so any numbers beyond that are not discernible.
  • Sensitivity. Shows the efficiency of headphones. Higher numbers mean better response to a wider range of power output – you don’t need maximum power for the best sound. All the earphones listed here have good sensitivity at over 100 decibels per milliwatt.
  • Impedence. Measures the flow of current. In general, the higher the number, the less power it draws, and the longer the power source lasts.

Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

The following lists the noise-cancelling earbuds, arranged from most expensive to cheapest.


Sennheiser CXC 700 Active Noise-Canceling Ear-Canal Headphones

Though these noise-cancelling earbuds function acceptably without any power, they shine in active mode when you put the included AAA battery in the small control box. You can use the box to turn the unit on and off, adjust volume or choose from one of three active options. (You’ll need to change this battery every 16 hours, according to the manufacturer.) You can also press the Talk-Through button to hear someone talking without having to remove the earphones. The unit comes with the standard earplug, as well as an airplane adapter and ¼-inch adapter for large earphone jacks. It also features three separate eartips to increase comfort.

Technology: Active
Weight: 9.4 ounces
Cord Length: 4.5 feet
Frequency Response: 20-21,000 Hz
Sensitivity: 113 dB/mW
Impedance: 45 Ohms (passive), 300 Ohms (active)


Klipsch IMAGE S4 In-Ear Enhanced Bass Noise-Isolating Headphones (Black)

Highly-rated by both CNET and Amazon users, these noise-cancelling earbuds are the lightest ones listed and come with three sizes of oval tips for a better fit inside the ear. They have a strong bass sound for modern music. They also boast clear mids and highs necessary for classical music, though the highs suffer from some slight distortion. Their compact and lightweight design glues them to the ear during vigorous workouts. Because they use passive noise-cancellation, they do not require batteries that can add weight.

Technology: Passive
Weight: 0.4 ounces
Cable Length: 4.2 feet
Frequency Response: 10 – 19,000 Hz
Sensitivity: 110 dB/mW
Impedance: 18 Ohms


Audio-Technica ATH ANC23 QuietPoint Headphones

These active noise-cancelling earbuds use one AAA battery but can also function as passive versions without baterries. They include three sizes of interchangeable earpieces for maximizing fit. The relatively heavy control box clips onto clothing and offers switches for power and to turn off noise-cancellation: you can listen to an external conversation without removing the earpieces. A two-pin adapter allows use on-board airlines. These earbuds easily handle all types of music from the tight bass of techno to the bright highs of classical.

Technology: Active
Weight: 0.9 ounces
Cable Length: 4.3 feet
Frequency Response: 20 – 20,000 Hz
Sensitivity: 105 dB/mW
Impedance: 32 Ohms


Sony MDR-EX310LP Premium EX Earbuds

This set of passive noise-cancellation earbuds produce lows, mids and highs that are clear and crisp, with accurate reproduction of both voice and music. Their unusual shape may take some getting use to but they remain secure for running or gym workouts. Both sides of the asymmetrical cord go over the neck to help keep the phones in place. They come with three different sizes of noise isolation earbuds, and four different sizes of hybrid silicon earbuds.

Technology: Passive
Weight: 0.3 ounces
Cord Length: 3.9 feet
Frequency Response: 5 – 25,000 Hz
Sensitivity: 105 dB/mW
Impedance: 16 Ohms


Sony MDR-PQ4/BLK PIIQ Earbuds

Pronounced “pike,” these earbuds are designed for the younger, style-conscious and money-saving crowd. They are the cheapest of the noise-cancelling earbuds listed here. Each bud is marked to clip onto the left or right ear so it doesn’t move during sports. But this peculiarity doesn’t work well if you wear earrings. The clips are lightweight and comfortable, though they may be a bit of a strain after long periods if you have sensitive lobes. Though these particular models are in black and white, they come in different colors such as brown and yellow. They include three different sleeves for precise fit. The sound quality is excellent especially in the highs and bass, though the mid-levels may not be on par.

Technology: Passive
Weight: 0.28 ounces
Cord Length: 3.9 feet
Frequency Response: 6 – 23,000 Hz
Sensitivity: 102 dB/mW
Impedance: 16 Ohms


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    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 5 years ago from Northern California, USA

      I'm really amazed at how well the noise cancelling head phones work. My daughter had a set of the Bose and when I tried them on, they were great. I want a set for myself. Maybe I'll try one of the other brands recommended in the video. By the way, I really enjoyed the video with David Pogue. That man is funny!

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 5 years ago from Thailand

      A very comprehensive review. Noise reduction is vital on a long trip. I've used earplugs before, but they can be difficult to insert correctly ... maybe these would be a better option.

      Shared, up and useful. Although I have to say, I don't like the tiny share tab that runs up the left as you scroll ... almost didn't see it (new style hubs I guess).

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, I shall have to show this to my son, he is always saying he can't find the right ones, so this is great! rated up and shared! nell

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Excellent hub describing the different types and uses of earbuds. I have never used any but often see people on walks wearing them listening to something of their choosing. I like to hear the birds chirping, etc. Voted up and useful.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Thanks, Tammy, I like that these feature is available on earbuds costing about $10 or on ones costing over $200.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Great product suggestions! There is nothing worse than a cheap pair of poor quality ear buds. I just broke down and got a set of old fashioned padded head phones. They sound wonderful. Great hub!