Noise isolation vs. noise-cancelling headphones, a very popular debate we’ve seen around the headphones realm. When talking about today’s headphone technology, it’s very easy to get lost in all the technical “mumbo jumbo” about the difference between noise isolation and noise cancellation. With a myriad of terminologies from the familiar algorithm and sound wave, to the complexities of digital signal processing and active noise reduction, just trying to sort through and comprehend it all can turn your brain to pudding. Before we can clear the fog and discover which one is right for you, we have to answer the most important question first. What exactly do the terms noise cancelling and noise isolation mean?
Noise cancelling headphones use a combination of miniature microphones installed on the outer plastic shell, and inside the headphones themselves, along with tiny internal computers and speakers, to take in the outside sounds around you and filter those sounds through your speakers, to keep you from actually hearing them while listening to your favorite tunes. Combined with thick ear pads made from space age materials, the overall result is quite effective at blocking most, if not all of the outside noise. Think of it like a wall in your apartment. You can hear your neighbor’s music and conversations through the wall, and it makes it difficult to hear your own tunes. So you turn up the music to cancel it out. Without getting too technical about it, that’s essentially how it works. Your ears are the miniature microphones, your brain is the small computer, your music is the filter and the wall is the thick space age ear pad. Noise cancelling headphones require external power, either through a battery, plug or some other sort of rechargeable source.
Noise isolation headphones
Noise isolation headphones are the old standby, which are probably more familiar to you. Noise isolation technology is about as simple as it gets, put a barrier between your ear canal, and the outside world. These barriers come in the form of in-ear headphones (earbuds), and over-ear headphones. Noise isolation headphones that come in the form of “earbuds” create a form fit inside the canal of your ears, like earplugs. They completely isolate your eardrum from the sounds of the outside world. On-ear headphones, on the other hand, completely cover your ears with a thick foam padding that forms a fit to your skull and blocks out the sound from your entire ear. Noise isolation headphones generally require no extra power, you just plug them in. Keep in mind though, many these days also have built-in rechargeable batteries.
So, now that we’ve defined the difference between noise isolation and noise cancellation, it would help to discuss some of the more technical elements of exactly how noise cancelling headphones work. This way, you can have a better understanding of the technology that goes into today’s noise cancelling headphones, and have a firmer grasp of which style you want, and how it will affect your budget.
For the purposes of this discussion, when referring to noise cancelling headphones, understand that we are talking about an “active” noise cancellation system. What this means, is that the headphones are constantly sampling all of the outside noises around you, and are “actively” trying to block out the sound waves from the low-end of the frequency spectrum. The way they do this is by analyzing the waves from outside the headphones, matching those waves exactly, and reproducing the exact opposite of those waves inside the headphones. The result blocks the sound, or “cancels” it out before it reaches the eardrums. This method is called destructive interference, and they’ve been trying to perfect it since the late 1970’s. The addition of digital technology, along with the ability to miniaturize the computers, microphones and speakers, meant that you could fit the components into headphones small enough to fit into the ear itself, resulting in the noise cancelling earbud and in-ear headphones.
Understand that electronic noise cancellation (ENC), active noise reduction (ANR), and of course active noise cancellation (ANC), are all different names of this concept. When it comes to noise cancelling headphones, you can run the gambit from lower-end to higher-end, and still get good quality sound, so don’t freak out when you see these terms while shopping.
What are the pros of noise-cancelling headphones?
Now that all of that technical terminology is behind us, we can now focus on the pros and cons of noise cancelling vs. noise isolation headphones. For noise cancelling headphones, they are more effective at actually cancelling out noise than noise isolation headphones. While noise isolation headphones only employ a physical barrier to prevent the outside sounds from interfering with your listening pleasure, noise cancelling headphones actively seek out the sounds and eliminate them. They are also very comfortable to keep on your head, which comes in handy when you have an extended stay on a subway or plane. With some of the higher end styles, you can even get memory foam and real leather, so your body may be tired after those long trips, but when your head finally hits the pillow, your ears will be just fine.
What are the cons of noise-cancelling headphones?
As with any technology, it’s not always perfect. Although both low-end and high-end headphones can do a very good job of noise cancelling, sound can sometimes still get in and ruin a listening session. For example, they may work well on a plane, where the sound is low-frequency and constant, but if you have a construction worker with a jackhammer outside your office window, don’t expect your headphones to deliver you to musical nirvana. Also, they are typically heavier than noise isolation headphones, because they have components other than just the speakers inside them. This may not be a big deal on a 5 hour flight, but when that flight goes 12, heavy is the crown.
What are the pros of noise-isolation headphones?
There are two big things that are in favor of noise isolating headphones, comfort and affordability. First, let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way. If your budget is on the slim side, noise isolating headphones definitely don’t hurt the wallet whatsoever. You can literally get a pair for about $10. This may not be the best option for you, but when you compare them to higher end headphones, you can lose or break 10 to 15 pairs of headphones before you approach the cost of one pair of high-end noise cancelling headphones. In this instance quantity has a quality all its’ own. Comfort is another plus for noise isolating headphones. With both in-ear and over-ear styles available, you won’t have heavy cans pressing directly on your ears trying to squeeze them until they actually touch. They come in a variety of materials, so depending on your budget you can also get memory foam and real leather for the over-ear style. The in-ear style is very straight-forward, they are earplugs that play music. The foam ear buds are form-fitting, so the comfort and noise isolation qualities are really quite good.
What are the cons of noise isolation headphones?
Although noise isolation headphones are typically less expensive than noise cancelling headphones, that price comes at a real world cost. They are a physical barrier to the outside world, and just like any barrier, they can be breached. While your sound quality from the speakers may be solid, sounds like the airplane engines or the wheels bouncing along the tracks underneath you can bleed in, leaving you with a cacophony of outside sounds competing with your tunes for your brain’s attention. Nowadays, the ear pad materials on some of the high-end noise isolating headphones can be very impressive, but they are not foolproof. Even properly fitted earbuds can let the outside world interfere with your listening experience.
Noise-cancelling vs. noise isolation headphones
Most of what we’ve discussed today has been focused on the technology itself, and the pros and cons of noise isolation vs. noise cancellation headphones. We haven’t delved into many of the traits that these two styles have in common, which can really make this a difficult choice for the consumer. For example, both styles have Bluetooth capability available, and come in both wired and wireless models. The choice, as always, really comes down to you, and what best fits your lifestyle and budget. If you’re really an “on the go” type of person, that doesn’t carry a bag or backpack, but wants to have high quality sound with you, maybe earbuds are the way to go. If you are a business traveler, and you spend several hours every week on a plane or train, over-ear or on-ear headphones might do the trick. Noise isolation and noise cancelling headphones come as in-ear “buds”, on-ear and over-ear styles, allowing them to be flexible with any lifestyle you have. In the end, you can find high quality for the price, and a budget-friendly pair anywhere, so let your ears be your guide.