Some people can’t stand listening to music on headphones with too much background noise.
Others want the perfect level of noise reduction while still being able to hear everything happening in their immediate vicinity.
Maybe you like to put on soft classical music at work, but they still have to listen to their co-workers, the telephone, and other important things happening in an office environment.
Or maybe you operate a jackhammer all day and it’s the most monotonous job in the world. Instead of being bored out of your mind while on the job, you’d rather listen to Howard Stern talk smack to his latest victim in the studio.
Getting the Best of Both Worlds
With noise cancelling and/or noise isolating headphones you can get the best of both worlds. You can block out the noise so it doesn’t interrupt you even if you’re on a busy street or working on a loud construction site. Or you can cancel the noise just enough that you can have a great listening experience but still know and hear everything going on around you.
As you are about to learn, there’s a big difference between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones. I want you to understand this difference so you can use this information to make an informed choice the next time you have to pick up a new pair of earbuds or headphones because your current pair doesn’t get the job done.
Noise Isolating vs. Noise Cancelling Headphones: What’s the Difference?
There is a short answer to this question and a much longer answer that I’ll share below. But suffice it to say that the short answer is simple and easy to comprehend. Noise cancellation headphones use a built-in microphone within the headphones to pick up external noises, analyze said noises, and then create a signal to block out or cancel this noise.
The great thing about this technology is that it only eliminates the unwanted noise. You can still hear your favorite music or talk radio show without any difficulty because the noise cancelling tech makes sure you hear it with perfect clarity.
As far as noise isolating is concerned, it doesn’t actually use audio technology at all to achieve its aims. Ultimately, the headphones or earbuds are designed to perfectly fit within or over your ear canal as snugly as possible without sacrificing comfort. This snug fit will create a seal around your ear canal that prevents background noise from entering into your hearing awareness.
As you can see, there is a difference between noise isolating vs. noise cancelling headphones that you should have a better grasp and understanding of now that I provided a brief explanation. To help you decide which choice is the better fit to meet your needs, we’ll tackle both of these topics in greater detail below.
The Real Truth about Noise Cancelling Technology
Although it’s easy to call it noise cancellation, the actual technical term is labeled active noise cancellation, or ANC if you’d prefer to abbreviate it.
How does this technology work?
Simply put, if you were to open up your noise cancelling headphones, you would discover a battery unit, a small microphone, and a digital signal processor within each of the earphones.
These components work together to cancel out background noise at your desired level. Some people like to eliminate all of the background noise because they prefer nothing interrupting their listening experience. Others need to hear what’s going on around them in certain scenarios, so they will adjust the settings to make sure they can still hear some background noise but not all of it.
Ultimately, the noise cancellation technology works cohesively to eliminate unwanted noises from your surroundings. The microphone that’s implanted within the earphone is there to pick up any and all unwanted sounds. As the sound passes through the microphone it enters into the digital signal processor. This processor will analyze the sounds and create a competing soundwave to block out or minimize the noise. These sound waves clash and cancel each other out.
The Limitations of Active Noise Cancelling Technology
We live in an imperfect world as you undoubtedly know. And just like everything else going on in your life, active noise cancellation technology is good but it certainly has its limitations.
Rapidly Changing Sounds
As an example, this technology does not possess the ability to cancel sounds that change rapidly. What type of sound changes quickly and often? The sound of people’s voices is the first thing to immediately spring to mind. This tech can easily drown out and block out the unwanted drone of an aircraft engine, the noise created by an air-conditioner, or the loud clanging of a car engine.
But if someone is talking in your vicinity and changing the pace and tempo of their voice too quickly, the ANC can’t handle the rapid fluctuations so you’ll still hear everything they’re saying. Is this a bad thing? I guess the answer depends on who you’re talking to. Some people will be annoyed that they can’t block voices out of their awareness. Other people will be glad that they hear all of the conversations going on around them. You’ll have to decide which camp you belong to and base your decision on whether you prefer noise cancelling or noise isolating technology better.
Battery Charging Limitations
Another limitation of noise cancelling technology is that it requires a battery. And what happens with batteries? They tend to die out if you use them long enough. So the longer you have your noise cancelling technology active, the quicker you’ll drain your headphone battery.
By draining your battery faster, you’ll need to charge your headphones regularly and more often, which some people find frustrating and irritating. I don’t mind if that’s what needs to be done in order to use the ANC tech to the best of its ability. You have to decide how you feel about this battery draining situation.
Everything You Need to Know about Noise Isolation
Passive noise cancellation is another name for noise isolation. But what does it mean? That’s the question so many people are asking themselves.
At the end of the day, passive noise cancellation is only as effective as the headphones you’re using. If your headphones or earbuds were designed to physically block the noise from your awareness, then they’re excellent noise isolation candidates. They passively cancel the noise from your awareness without the need for additional technology.
Earplugs: An Example
If you were to go to the gun range or you’re planning on using really loud power tools, you would protect your eardrums by putting in earplugs. In fact, it’s mandatory to protect your ears at the gun range. They will not let you fire your pistol if you aren’t properly protected.
Well, passive noise cancellation works on the same premise. The earbuds basically act as earplugs. They’ll plug up the hole in your ear canal to prevent outside noise from passing through. When this happens, you’ll only hear the noise coming from the earbuds so you can focus on the music, the talk radio show, or the audiobook that you happen to be listening to at the time. Everything else will remain outside of your awareness because it’s effectively being blocked out by your earbuds.
Types of Noise Isolating Headphones
I’ve mainly mentioned earbuds because they’re the simplest example to explain. But there are also over-ear headphones that completely cover your ears and block out all of the unwanted background noise as well. And closed-back headphones or in-ear headphones do a much better job of protecting against unwanted noise when compared to open-back headphones.
Just remember to focus on finding headphones or earbuds that you find comfortable while blocking out the unwanted noise. If the earbuds are too tight or the headphones are too big and encumbering you will not enjoy your listening experience. So keep this in mind if you decide to choose noise isolating vs. noise cancelling headphones as your overall favorite.
Noise Isolating vs. Noise Cancelling Headphones: The Final Verdict
Determining whether you should choose noise isolating or noise cancelling headphones comes down to personal experiences and preferences.
Some people find headphones a lot more comfortable than earbuds so they would choose noise cancelling headphones 100% of the time. Others like the relaxed and snug fit of a good pair of earbuds, so they’d likely pick noise isolating over their noise cancelling counterpart.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide whether noise isolating or noise cancelling headphones make the most sense to meet your needs. If you want to block out the majority of the background noise but still need to hear people talking in the background, then noise cancelling would likely be the best option.
On the other hand, if you prefer all background noise eliminated from your peripheral awareness, you’d benefit from choosing noise isolating earbuds that will close off your ear canals and keep all extraneous noise out of your cognizance.
Remember, it’s up to you to decide on your personal preference. No one can answer this question but you. Use this information as a guide when making your final choice.
Simon is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado. When he is not playing the guitar or listening to music he is either eating tacos or snoring too loudly.