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How To Choose Noise-Canceling Headphones

Updated on May 12, 2015
Noise-Canceling Headphones in action
Noise-Canceling Headphones in action | Source

You're on a long-haul flight. The meal is over. The lights are being dimmed for those wishing to sleep or watch the in-flight entertainment. You begin to think about that drive on unfamiliar roads in a foreign country at the end of your journey. Or maybe you start to worry about that morning meeting where you need to be as sharp as possible. A little music to relax you would be nice. A spell of sleep would be even better. If only you had some way of blocking out the roar of the engines and the chatter of the other passengers.

Your thoughts turn to those noise-canceling headphones you saw earlier in the duty-free shop. What exactly are they? Do they actually work? Are they really worth the high price? Should you get a set for the return flight?

Noise-Canceling Headphones: What's the trick?

Audio entrepreneur Amar Bose pioneered noise-canceling technology in the 1980s for the use of airplane and helicopter pilots, but it wasn't until the turn of this century that noise-canceling headphones became more widely available to ordinary consumers.

The technology behind noise-cancellation is quite straightforward using the physical principle of coherence. A microphone in the headset monitors and analyzes background noise. An audio processor then emits an opposing sound wave which cancels out the background noise. This process is concerned primarily with reducing lower frequencies. Higher frequencies, meanwhile, are dealt with through noise isolation or passive noise cancellation - covering the ear as completely as possible in order to muffle external noise.

Noise-Canceling Headphones explained on the example of Bose QC20i In-Ear Headphone.
Noise-Canceling Headphones explained on the example of Bose QC20i In-Ear Headphone.

Consider This Before Buying

This technology does not come cheap, so before buying a set of headphones you should consider a number of factors:

First, when and where do you plan to use the headphones? Noise-canceling headphones are ideally suited for airplane passengers as they are capable of canceling engine noise while allowing the user to hear announcements. The technology does well with constant, background noise but does not cope so easily with sudden changes in volume level. If you're looking to block out these sort of abrupt noises at home or work, you may be better off with cheaper headphones which rely on isolation.

If you do decide to go with noise-canceling headphones, you should certainly try them out before you buy. For example certain headphones ordered through Amazon offer a "no questions" trial period after which you can return the headphones for a full refund if you're not satisfied. Otherwise you should try them out in-store with music of your own choice, if that's how you intend to use them.

Audiophiles should note that there is usually a trade-off between sound quality and noise canceling. It's generally the case that the higher the price of the set, the better the quality of the audio processor. Some people may also find that they are overly sensitive to the signal produced by the audio processor. For some, the sound can be irritating over time - in rare cases even to the point of causing nausea.


If you intend to use the headphones with your phone, you should check that the two are compatible. Some sets offer bluetooth capability, but this too can compromise both sound quality and the effectiveness of the noise-cancellation. If you opt for wired models, make sure that the cord is neither too short nor too long for your needs. The audio processor needed for noise-cancellation requires a constant power source. If the controls and the battery pack or power source are located along the headset's cord, check that it isn't too bulky or awkward. Check also if the headset can still play music without a power source. Battery life tends to be around ten hours, after which the headphones may shut down completely.

On-Ear vs. In-Ear Noise Canceling Headphones

As far as aesthetics are concerned, not all headsets are created equal. Form often comes a distinct second to function in the design of many noise-canceling headphones. There are two basic groups of noise-canceling headphone designs: On-ear noise canceling headphones vs. in-ear noise canceling headphones. The vast majority of noise canceling headphones are built with an on-ear design - it's just simpler and requires less engineering skills. Some on-ear noise-cancelling sets are quite bulky and chunky and, depending on your opinion on such things, may look cheap considering the high price tag.

As for the in-ear noise-canceling headphones, you can choose between models with different types of ear buds. Some people prefer minimal ear-coverage but remember that this can, especially at lower prices, mean less-effective noise-cancellation.

A very elegant solutions is the Bose QC20i in-ear noise canceling headphone. This set is a bit of a mix between the two worlds: The proprietary Bose ear tips combine good ear coverage and fit with one of the best noise-canceling result on the market.

Conclusion: Noise-canceling headphones aren't for everyone. But if you're a frequent flier who values quiet, they may be worth the price for you. The most important thing is to choose a set with which you feel comfortable physically, aurally and financially.

Checklist - 6 Points to Choose Noise-Canceling Headphones

  1. Use-Case: Noise-Canceling headphones achieve great results on trains and airplanes. They don't work as good in high-frequency environments such as open-plan offices.
  2. Fit: Each ear is different. Especially in-ear noise canceling headphones have to fit your ear. Try them out before you buy.
  3. Audio Quality: Cheap noise-cancelling headphones have a big trade-off between sound quality and noise cancelling. Choose high quality products if you want both.
  4. Compatibility: Make sure the Noise-Canceling Headpones support your smartphone or tablet (e.g. iPhone vs. Android).
  5. Battery Life: Noise-Canceling Headphones consume energy. Choose a model with at least 10h battery life and easy charging options.
  6. On-ear or In-Ear Noise Canceling: On-ear is cheaper but bulky. Good in-ear noise-canceling headphones are elegant, but more expensive.

Which Noise Canceling Headphone do you prefer?

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    • hdmiguru profile image

      Tobias 2 years ago from Germany

      Glad the article helped you! I will see if I can get some pictures of the ear inserts and add them to the article!

    • American_Choices profile image

      American_Choices 2 years ago from USA

      I had no idea there was ear inserts. Wish there was a photo showing visually the differences.

      I learned allot, voted up! This is on my list but oh, my I have a collection of headsets and ear plugs - mandatory today both at work and the health club.