Anyone who has ever flown on a plane, lived near a construction zone, or rode the metro to work knows: Hearing your music over a din can literally be a headache. For many, the best solution is to invest in noise canceling headphones. Available in both over- and in-ear styles, headphones with active noise canceling technology (ANC) are able to cut the noise while saving your hearing in the process.
How Does ANC Work?
Active noise canceling, not to be confused with noise isolating, reduces the unwanted sound that reaches your ears. To explain how it works, we’ll need to delve into some physics of sound.
Basically, sound travels in waves: patterns of up and down that hit your eardrum. If one sound wave meets another sound wave that is its exact opposite (going down where the other goes up, and vice versa) the two waves cancel each other out. The result? Silence.
So ANC works by having a small microphone somewhere on the headphone that processes noises in the environment. Then the headphones create a waveform that is the opposite (or out of phase) of the sounds around the listener. This is sent to your ear simultaneously with the actual noise—whether from a plane engine, air conditioner hum, or train—and cancels them out.
The sounds that you actually want to hear are left. It’s not a perfect system; lower sounds are easier to cancel than higher ones, so voices are tougher to block than a constant hum. Plus, active noise canceling is battery-dependent, so once the battery runs out, the noise comes back.
And of course, for quality ANC, you’re going to pay more, but for people who are driven crazy by the whir of a fan, or are forced to turn up the volume to drown out traffic sounds, the extra cash can be well worth it.
Why Do Some Work Better, and Do they Cost More?
There are a few reasons that some ANC headphones work better than others. First, the closer the microphone that captures the noise around you is to your ear, the more precise the canceling can be. So headphones that have the microphone on the actual earcup as opposed to on the cable will be more difficult (and more expensive) to make, but more effective at doing its job.
Secondly, the technology is still evolving. Some companies, such as Bose, have spent an enormous amount of resources over decades to research and test its ANC technology. And, as with any tech product, new innovations are developed every day. So this year’s model will generally function better than one released two years ago.
As for cost, yes, the better working ANC headphones generally will set you back more money (around $300–$400). This is largely because, as a new technology that’s still evolving, it hasn’t yet reached the point where the science has been perfected, the same equipment is made year after year, or the manufacturing costs are able to be reduced. Hopefully, with time, we’ll start to see this change, just as we did with HDTV and Bluetooth.
When traveling on a plane or bus
When your house is a beehive of activity
When you crave complete immersion in the music
When you’re trying to focus in a noisy officeWhen Not to Wear ANC Headphones
When you’re babysitting
When walking or biking on a road
When you’re at a social gathering
When you’re at a bus or airport terminal and need to hear travel info
Who Are the Big Names in ANC?
As mentioned before, Bose has dominated the active noise canceling field for a while. Its headphones are widely regarded as the gold standard for what ANC can do. Bose over-ears have been widely regarded as the best for years, with the QC25 ($299.95) being the most recent addition. However, the Bose QC20 in-ear ANC headphones ($299.95) are truly remarkable, and have yet to be equaled. Because they are in-ear, and therefore closer to your eardrum, they are able to cancel out more higher-range frequencies than their over-ear counterparts.
However, some other companies are making progress. Parrot, with its Zik 2.0 ($395), offers over-ear headphones that are close to Bose’s level on ANC capability, and Samsung’s Level Over ($349.99) also do a great job of reducing external sound. Other names to watch are PSB with its NoiseHush headphones ($399.99). While the latter two aren’t quite at the Bose level yet, a few model years could make a lot of difference.
Worth It in the End
While not everyone needs ANC, for frequent travelers, office workers, or those in noisy environments, it can be a huge benefit. When it comes to ridding unwanted external noise, there really is no substitute for good active noise canceling. Yes, you will spend much more money than you will for standard headphones that can muffle sounds, but for someone who is easily disturbed, or for those who otherwise would need to listen to music at higher volumes, the cost of investment is far exceeded by the savings of sanity, focus, and hearing. EH
Lauren Dragan is an audio tech writer and voice actor who has been published in the Wirecutter, HE Mag, Home Theater, Sound +Vision, and Time, among others. Since 2012, she’s tested over 250 headphones.