Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones – Which is Right for You?


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When using our headphones while traveling, walking down the street, or in a public place, we are literally bombarded by noises: people talking, children crying or screaming, traffic, etc. The noises interfere with the sound coming out of the earphones, preventing us from enjoying our favorite playlist to the fullest.

In these cases, the ideal solution is wearing a headphone that has sound reduction feature. The two types of Noise reduction features on headphones are Noise Cancelling Headphones and Noise Isolating Headphones. Before we answer which of these is right for you, let’s understand both:

Noise Isolating Headphones

These are also referred to as Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones. Noise Isolation techniques are also commonly known as acoustic insulation systems. They are designed to prevent external sounds from entering our ears.

How this is achieved is by the interposing of insulating material between the casing or outer part of the headphone and the part that is going to be glued to our ears. It is a kind of noise reduction that is normally guaranteed by any type of headset.

The noise-isolating headphone is the simplest, cheapest, and most commonly used technology in headphones. However, it has the disadvantage that it does not entirely cancel the external noise but only attenuates it (in values ​​that can go from 8 to 20 dB). Its effectiveness depends on several factors, such as the materials used or if the headphones surround the ear (circumaural design) or are inserted into the ear canal (intraural design).

This method of noise reduction may not work best at low frequencies (below 100 Hz), but it is the most economical.

There are two ways to isolate sound:

Over-ear (circumaural) headphones:

These are headband helmets specialized in isolating external noise. Its cushions surround the entire ear with insulating materials and exert greater pressure around the ear than other headphones to block out sounds.

In-Ear headphones:

These are inserted directly into the ear canal. The in-ear for professional use allows excellent insulation from the outside. The effectiveness of in-ear (also called intra-aural) hearing aids will depend on how tight they are to the ear canal of the ear to prevent external noise from leaking out.

These headphones are very small and seal the ear canal effectively. They are ideal for walking, swimming, and outdoor activity since they are very light and compact.

Also, read about how to choose headphones for travel

Noise Cancelling Headphones

These are also referred to as Active Noise Cancelling Headphones(ANC). The hearing aids of this type of headphones detect the external noise signal and recreate it through an electronic circuit by reversing its polarity. As a result, the noise is canceled.

In other words, Noise Cancelling headphones are equipped with an internal microphone and an audio processor that perceive external sounds and, in turn, produce an opposite sound to cancel them.

The level of noise cancellation varies depending on the model. An ideal Noise Cancelling headphones can actively cancel prolonged external noises, such as the noise from engines, people, air conditioners, etc. However, they are less effective on sudden noises, such as a slamming door. The best models of noise-canceling Headphones, on the other hand, can block almost every sound, allowing you to hear only the music or to hear absolute silence.

Which is right for you? – Noise Cancelling or Noise Isolating Headphones

Now you know that Noise-canceling headphones designed for noise cancellation are different from Noise-isolating headphones. Instead of electronically filtering the audio, Noise Isolating Headphones (Passive Noise Cancelling) passively stop environmental noises before they can reach the ear by blocking them with foam pads that act as an obstacle to their passage towards the ear canal.

On the plus side, Noise Cancelling Headphones (Active Noise Cancelling) have the same and more. Noise Cancelling Headphones have a better noise reduction feature in freezing ambient sounds.

Noise-canceling headphones are more comfortable to wear, but be careful when it comes to total isolation. This type of headphones is recommended mostly indoors or in protected environments, as it would be risky to go out with.

Precisely for this reason, we do not recommend using Noise Cancelling headphones while you are in the midst of people, on the street, in vehicles, or engaged in any other activity that requires concentration and the need to be vigilant about everything that happens around you.

Many Noise Isolating Headphones, however, have the defect of weighing too much. The cups of over-ear Noise Isolating headphones are usually made with rubber layers that increase the weight of the headphones to reduce noise by between 15 and 20 dB, this makes them uncomfortable to wear in the long run, especially if you intend to listen to music for long hours.

The isolations of in-ear and over-ear Noise Isolating headphones have their limitations. For example, an airplane engine can generate noise of up to 80 dB, so the insulation is insufficient. Therefore, if you want to cancel noise, the solution is to buy Noise Cancelling headphones. They do the same as Noise Isolating Headphones but more efficiently.

Noise Cancelling Headphones create a barrier that cancels out high waves and also has electrical systems that allow them to erase low frequencies. If you buy Noise-canceling headphones, keep in mind that they need a power source – a battery – to work. Therefore, you may need to check how often you need to replace or recharge the headphones, especially if you have to use them for many hours or a long journey.

Furthermore, the shape of the headphone(Noise Cancelling and Noise Isolating) affects the effectiveness of noise reduction. The best of all is the Over-ear headphones(circum-aural). They surround all the ears and guarantee maximum effectiveness. But if you want to take into account the convenience and portability of the headphones, obviously, the circum-aural models are heavier and bulky than the inaural ones.

Based on all these facts, choosing either a Noise Cancelling Headphone or Noise Isolating Headphone is more subjective to the buyer’s preference. If you want to consider low budget noise reduction headphone or a headphone that would make you conscious of your surrounding, you may want to choose a Noise Isolating Headphone. On the other hand, if you are more concerned about total noise-canceling and comfortability, you may want to choose a Noise Cancelling Headphone.


We hope that this article would help you make the right decision between buying a Noise Cancelling Headphone or a Noise Isolating Headphone. Also, it’s imperative to test the headphones before purchase because some Noise Isolating Headphones are sold as Noise Cancelling Headphones.

Also, read about the different types of headphone cables‘.