Noise Cancelling Vs Noise Isolating Headphones (Compared)

Have you ever wondered if there is actually a difference between noise-cancelling and noise-isolating headphones? Despite their similar names, they work in very different ways. It’s not so much about one being better, but that each is suited for different uses.

So how exactly do they differ and what makes each type unique?

The difference between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones lies in their approach. While both aim to minimize ambient sound, noise cancellation uses advanced electronics to neutralize noise waves, whereas isolation creates physical barriers like tight seals to prevent sound transmission.

Confused? You’re not the only one. Some headphones claim to be be “noise canceling” when they’re really noise isolating. And it’s not a trivial difference.

Depending on your budget, how you intend to use them and a few other factors, you might be more interesting in noise cancelling over noise isolating, or vice versa. Here’s the difference.

Types Of Noise Canceling and How They Work

How Does Active Noise Cancellation Work?

Active noise cancelling (ANC) uses digital electronic wizardry to eliminate ambient sound. Here’s how it works:

  • Built-in microphones on the headphones actively monitor environmental noise around you.
  • digital signal processor (DSP) analyzes the incoming sound waves and generates an inverse wave designed to destructively interfere with and cancel them out.
  • Speakers inside the ear cups play this inverted sound wave slightly out of phase with the original, causing both to eliminate each other.

When it comes to noise cancelling technology, this involves the technology and software used to create the noise cancelling headphones or earbuds. In some instances, the physical design also caters to this purpose. The software used for this seeks to block out sounds by flipping them 180 degrees.

So, if you think about a sound wave, and then flip it and align the two, it will create a straight line, effectively cancelling out the noise. That being said, if you truly want to block out the world, this is your best option.

The result is dramatically reduced background noise so you only hear your music. This active electronic sound manipulation allows noise cancelling headphones to suppress sustained droning sounds like airplane engines very effectively.

What Makes Passive Noise Isolation Effective?

Rather than using electronics to cancel noise, passive isolation simply physically blocks external sound from entering your ears. Some key components that enable this include:

  • Snug fit earbuds or over-ear cups that form a tight seal around your ear canals to prevent sound leakage. Materials like memory foam conform closely to your head’s shape.
  • Closed-back design seals off the ear cups and prevents sound from escaping or entering through the back of the headphones. Open-back headphones allow free air movement and sound leakage.
  • Dense materials like leather or plastic used in padding further absorb external noise rather than letting it pass through.
  • Unique tip shapes that securely fit in your ear canal for optimal sound isolation.

This physical insulation method passively dampens noise simply by blocking sound waves from your environment, stopping them before they reach your ears.

However, occupational noise exposure is also a concern, with an estimated 22 million workers being exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. That’s why you must read this article to know whether noise cancelling bad for your ears or not.

Key Differences Between Noise Cancelling and Noise Isolating

Now that you understand how each method works, here are some of the major differences to consider:

  • Active vs. passive – Noise cancelling employs advanced electronics while noise isolation relies on simple physics and materials to block sound.
  • Ongoing power required? Noise cancellation needs continuous battery or external power to function. Isolating headphones work unpowered.
  • Ambient awareness – Cancelling headphones totally eliminate environmental sound. With just isolation, you maintain a sense of your surroundings.
  • Sound quality – Noise cancellation can sometimes introduce artifacts or hiss during processing. Isolation provides clean, unaltered audio.
  • Cost – Active noise cancelling headphones are generally more expensive due to extra technology required.
  • Travel use – Noise cancellation excels at blocking sustained droning noises like jet engines. Noise isolation also minimizes crying babies or chatty seatmates.
  • Working from home – Both options are effective at tuning out household distractions like kids, pets, appliances.

For the most effective soundproofing solution, read my article on soundproof insulation which covers the materials that block sound transmission the best. This will help you transform any noisy space into a quiet sanctuary.

Noise Cancelling Vs Noise Isolating Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones use advanced technology and built-in microphones to analyze ambient sounds and generate an inverse wave, effectively reducing external noise. On the other hand, noise-isolating headphones create a physical barrier around the ears to block out noise.

Let’s do a more detail comparison between the two.

Noise cancelling (aka “active noise canceling” or ANC)

  • Needs power (has batteries)
  • Not as reliant on fit as noise isolating
  • Good for low-frequency droning sounds
  • Not good for quick or high-frequency sounds

Generally speaking, noise cancelling is what most people are actually looking for when they think of either of these terms. Those famous Bose and Sony headphones you see reviewed and advertised? Those are noise-cancelling. Today noise-cancelling headphones are available in over-ear and in-ear (a.k.a. earbud) models.

The fundamental difference is that noise cancelling is an active, electronic process. Noise isolating is, basically, passive — something to wedge in your ears to block out sound. They’re basically earplugs, except they can pipe in your Spotify.

How noise cancelling works is actually rather fascinating. Sound waves are, well, like waves. The compressions and rarefactions “move” through the air, your eardrum moves with them, and your brain processes this as sound. These compressions and rarefactions are like the peaks and troughs of waves in the ocean.

Microphones built into noise-cancelling headphones listen to and analyze the sound waves of the world around you. Then, an inverse of that wave is created by the headphone.

Sending a trough when there’s a peak, and sending a peak when there’s a trough. Sending a compression when there’s a rarefaction, and sending a rarefaction when there’s a compression. When the “real” sound of the outside world and this manufactured “opposite” sound hit your ear, they cancel each other out.

Instead of waves if you want to think in numbers, if the outside world is creating a +1, the headphones create a -1, so your ear gets a 0. The sweet 0 of silence. Well, mostly. But we’ll get to that.

Done well, the results are impressive. The best noise cancelling headphones can reduce certain noises significantly. They work best on low-frequency, droning sounds. Aircraft engines are a great example. Car tire and engine noise on the highway is another. Even noisy air conditioners can be reduced fairly well.

The loudness of common noises is typically higher than normal conversations, which are around 60 dBA. For example, subway noise levels can reach 86 dBA, while street noise ranges from 70-80 dBA.

However, most sounds are not affected by noise cancelling. Fast, transient sounds, like an alarm beeping, or higher-frequency sounds like babies crying, aren’t going to be reduced by much, if at all.

This is the main reason people are disappointed with noise-cancelling headphones. The marketing implies they’ll create a cone of silence. They don’t. They reduce sound, they don’t really “cancel” it.

That said, with the sounds they’re good at reducing, they’re great. I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles over the last 9 years and I wouldn’t step foot in a plane without a good pair of ANC headphones.

They make flying significantly more pleasant. You’ll still hear neighbors crying and babies talking or whatever, but the tiring, endless engine drone is minimized significantly. If you take a train or bus for your commute, these will likely make that a lot less annoying too.

One other important thing to keep in mind. Just because a headphone has noise cancelling, doesn’t mean that noise cancelling is any good. Like the performance of most tech, there’s good and bad noise cancelling.

Cheap, mediocre noise cancelling likely won’t do much, if anything, to reduce any noise. Frustratingly, the amount of claimed noise reduction does nothing to tell you how well a headphone will cancel noise. Two headphones, both claiming “15 dB of noise cancelling” could perform completely differently.

Lastly, know that those noise-cancelling waves can create a sense of pressure, and for some folks with sensitive eardrums, that can cause a bit of discomfort.

Noise isolating

  • Passive (no batteries needed for the noise isolation)
  • Good fit is crucial
  • Good for mid- and higher-pitched sounds
  • Rarely as effective as noise cancelling at lower frequencies

As you’ve probably figured out by reading this far, noise isolating is the far easier way of reducing noise. It’s basically the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, though probably a bit more comfortable.

Most in-ear headphones (aka earbuds) that go into your ear canal are, to some extent, noise isolating. How much ambient sound noise-isolating headphones reduce is a combination of their design and how well they fit in your ears.

Everyone’s ears are different, and getting the right fit is crucial with any headphone. Doubly so if you’re trying to keep out the noise around you. Not only will a bad fit let in more ambient noise, but it will “let out” bass.

Changing the tips on your earbuds could radically change the sound, and perhaps greatly improve their noise isolation abilities. Most headphones come with multiple tips. It’s worth trying them all to see what you like best.

There are also aftermarket tips available for many earbuds, some even with memory foam that might work better for you.

A good representation of noise-isolating versus not are the Apple AirPods models. The standard AirPods — the newest model is the AirPods 3 — just sit in your outer ear, which is why many people find them comfortable, but not especially effective at blocking external noise.

By contrast, the AirPods Pro push into your ear canal and seal you off from outside noise (assuming you get a tight fit). Of course, the AirPods Pro also offer active noise-cancelling — so they are both noise isolating and noise-cancelling. (As we said: Yes, it’s confusing.)

Over-ear headphones, at least the ones that aren’t the “open back” variety, typically offer a fair amount of passive noise isolation just by covering your ears. Some are designed to do this to an extreme degree. For example, in many industrial settings, big noise isolating headphones are required so the workers don’t go deaf.

The main advantages of noise isolating headphones is that they’re typically cheaper than noise cancelling and they’re passive. No batteries. Well, unless they need batteries because they’re wireless.

Presuming you get a good fit, and they’re made to isolate sound, you can get a fair amount of noise reduction with noise-isolating headphones.

They’re far more reliant on fit, however. A good set of noise-canceling headphones will outperform all but the most heavy-duty noise-isolating headphones, at least when it comes to the situations and sounds where noise-canceling headphones work best.

Which is to say, on a long flight NC headphones will offer a greater reduction in airplane engine sound than noise isolating headphones. Standing next to a jackhammer, or a baby, or a baby with a jackhammer, you’re going to want some industrial-strength noise-isolating earmuffs.

The best of both worlds

There is some overlap. If you find a pair of noise isolating headphones that fit you perfectly, they might work better for everything compared to a mediocre pair of ANC headphones. And, as noted above, most noise-canceling models also offer a fair amount of noise isolation (since the former isn’t much good without the latter).

The flip side is if you can’t find a pair that fits perfect (remember, everyone’s ears are different), even an average ANC headphone will likely work better. A general best-to-worst ranking would look something like this:

  • Noise cancelling (in situations where they work best)
  • Noise isolating (good fit and in situations where ANC isn’t suited)
  • Noise cancelling (all situations if you can’t get a good noise isolating fit)
  • Noise isolating (mediocre fit)
  • Noise cancelling (bad/cheap noise cancelling performance)

Which Headphones Are the Best for Noise Cancellation and Noise Isolation?

Top Noise Cancelling Headphones

  • Sony WH-1000XM5 – Industry-leading ANC headphones with eight microphones and HD Noise Cancelling Processor QN1.
  • Bose QuietComfort 45 – Stellar noise cancelling performance in a lightweight and comfortable design.
  • Apple AirPods Max – Powerful noise cancellation plus seamless integration with Apple devices.
  • Sennheiser Momentum 4 – Excellent audio quality with adaptive ANC to optimize noise blocking.

Top Noise Isolating Headphones

  • Shure SE846 – High-end in-ear monitors with excellent passive isolation from custom sleeves.
  • Etymotic ER2XR – Deep earbud insertion provides 35 dB noise reduction.
  • Beyerdynamic DT 770 Studio – Over-ear monitoring headphone seals out ambient sounds.
  • JBL Live 300TWS – Budget true wireless earbuds with tight ear canal seal.

Is noise cancelling better than noise isolation?

There is no definitive “better” option between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones. Each technology has its own pros and cons:

  • Noise cancelling is more effective at reducing low frequency droning sounds like airplane engines, but noise isolation works better for blocking out voices and higher pitched noises.
  • Noise cancellation requires battery power while isolation is passive and doesn’t need charging.
  • Noise isolating headphones tend to offer more natural, uncolored sound quality compared to potential audio artifacts from cancelling.
  • Noise isolation maintains some ambient awareness while cancelling fully blocks external sounds.
  • Noise cancelling costs more due to extra required technology.

The right choice depends on your specific listening needs and preferences. In noisy travel environments, noise cancelling often provides superior noise reduction. For indoor use, passive isolation may suffice. Ultimately trying both types can help determine which you prefer.

Noise Cancelling vs. Noise Isolating: Which Should You Choose?

Here are some final tips for deciding between active noise cancellation and passive noise isolation:

  • If you’ll use headphones primarily in noisy travel settings like airplanes or public transit, lean towards advanced noise cancelling models for maximum ambient sound reduction.
  • For listening in quieter indoor settings or playing music at home, simple noise isolating designs provide a cost-effective choice without extra electronics.
  • Noise cancelling requires ongoing battery power so isn’t ideal for prolongued listening. Noise isolation always works unpowered.
  • If retaining some environmental awareness is helpful, noise isolating headphones allow in some surroundings while muting them. Noise cancelling totally blocks them out.
  • For the best listening experience with no artifacts or hiss, passive noise isolation may provide cleaner, more natural audio reproduction.
  • Try some of each type to see if you have a preference! Some people dislike the pressurized feeling of noise cancellation.

The bottom two there are barely better than nothing at all. The trick is finding headphones that fall into the top two categories. Reading spec lists and marketing frustratingly won’t help. There is no agreed-upon measurement for noise cancelling. One company’s -15dB could be another company’s -5dB.

Reading reviews is the best way to get an idea how they sound and perform. And in that, Soundrify’s got you covered. Check out our best noise-cancelling headphones, best noise-cancelling headphones under $100, the best noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds, and the best headphones.

And for the important question of safety, I’ve written an extensive article on are noise canceling headphones safe that looks at the health effects and hearing protection benefits. Be sure to check it out before using noise cancelling headphones.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do noise isolation headphones do?

Noise isolating headphones use physical design elements like sealed ear tips, closed-back earcups, and dense padding materials to passively block external noise from entering your ears, reducing ambient sound by 15-30 decibels. They don’t require any battery power or electronics.

Do noise cancelling headphones require batteries or charging?

Yes, the active noise cancellation technology in noise cancelling headphones requires power to operate, either from built-in rechargeable batteries or external battery packs. The batteries must be charged regularly for the noise cancellation feature to function.

Can you use noise cancelling headphones without the noise cancellation turned on?

Yes, you can listen to noise cancelling headphones with the noise cancelling feature switched off. However, this defeats the purpose of paying more for noise cancelling models. When noise cancellation is off, the headphones will provide only passive noise isolation from their physical design.

Do noise cancelling headphones completely eliminate all background noise?

While very effective at reducing sustained low frequency noise like jet engines, noise cancelling headphones cannot completely eliminate all ambient sounds. Higher pitched sudden noises like voices or alarms may still be audible. The amount of noise reduction also depends on the specific model’s noise cancelling technology.

Can you still hear traffic and your surroundings with noise isolating headphones?

Some environmental noise may penetrate noise isolating headphones depending on the fit and seal. However, you will maintain more awareness of your surroundings compared to active noise cancellation which electronically blocks more sound. Noise isolating headphones are a good choice if you want to still hear some ambient noise for safety.

What sounds best – noise cancelling or noise isolating headphones?

Noise isolating headphones tend to provide more natural, accurate audio reproduction since they do not use any electronic processing. Noise cancelling can potentially introduce audio artifacts, hiss, or alter the sound profile. However, some high-end noise cancelling models compete well in audio quality while reducing noise.

How well do noise cancelling headphones work on airplanes?

Noise cancelling headphones are very effective at reducing the constant low-pitched engine drone on airplanes, making flights more comfortable. But higher pitched sounds like kids crying may still be audible. Noise cancelling optimized for airplane cabins can make long flights more pleasant.

If you want to learn more about noise reducing materials, I highly recommend reading my in-depth article on soundproofing foam. It will let you understand how effective soundproofing foams actually are to reduce noise in your environment.

To understand exactly how acoustic foam works to absorb sound, be sure to click the link to my guide on acoustic foam which explains the science behind its noise reduction properties.

Conclusion

Noise-canceling headphones use advanced technology to actively reduce noise by generating inverse sound waves, effectively reducing ambient noise by an average of 30dB. On the other hand, noise-isolating headphones create physical barrier that blocks out noise, providing passive noise reduction of around 15dB to 30dB.

I have written a detailed guide on are noise canceling headphones worth it which will help clear up your doubts on whether investing in noise cancellation is right for you. So, make sure to check out the article to weigh the pros and cons.

Key Takeaways

There is some overlap between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones. But some key differences to keep in mind are:

  • Noise cancelling uses advanced electronics while noise isolation relies on simple physics and materials to block sound.
  • Noise cancellation requires ongoing battery power while isolating headphones work unpowered.
  • Noise cancelling totally eliminates environmental sound while isolation maintains some awareness of surroundings.
  • Noise isolation provides cleaner, more natural audio reproduction compared to artifacts or hiss from noise cancelling.

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