As the holidays approach you may have added a pair of wireless noise canceling headphones to your wish list. But here’s the thing, despite what all the marketing hype claims, noise canceling technologies aren’t as effective as most headphone makers would have you believe. Unless you spend most of your life on a loud plane, you’re better off putting your money towards wireless headphones with superior battery life, bigger drivers, and higher build quality.
There are two basic approaches to reducing unwanted ambient sounds and noises from reaching your eardrums while wearing headphones or earbuds. Passive noise cancelling, also often referred to as sound isolation or a long list of other creative names thought up by marketing teams, essentially employs a physical barrier to prevent anything other than the sounds coming from the headphones from entering your ear. These often come in the form of over-ear headphones that essentially cover the wearer’s ear entirely, or in-ear earbuds that use a soft foam or silicone tip to block the ear canal, like a cork in the neck of a wine bottle.
Passive noise cancelling has been in use for decades, almost as long as headphones have existed, but it’s been re-branded in recent years as a genuine feature to compete with the new(er) kid on the block: active noise cancellation. Invented way back in 1932 and later implemented as a tool for pilots in the ‘50s, active noise cancellation—or ANC—uses electronics to more effectively filter out unwanted noises. Microphones on the outside of the headphones or earbuds detect ambient noises, process it through onboard electronics, and then produce an anti version of those noises that serve to cancel out all the unwanted sounds before they hit the eardum.
There were a few speedbumps to bringing active noise canceling headphones to consumers, such as adequately miniaturizing the technology and the fact that it needed power to be effective (believe it or not there was a time when charging your headphones was a ludicrously inconvenient idea) but now that wireless headphones are so popular, it’s become a much-hyped feature. The first company to popularize headphones with ANC was Bose, but now everyone from Apple to Sony has positioned it as a feature that consumers can’t live without. But that’s just not true.
Does ANC actually work? Yes, absolutely, but not as effectively as most consumers probably think it does. If you’re standing in the middle of Times Square wearing a pair of headphones and turn on the ANC feature, the world around you does not instantly go quiet as if you’ve pressed some universal mute button or you’ve suddenly been enclosed inside an anechoic chamber. (Those padded rooms you’ll find in science centers where ambient noise drops to almost nothing.)
The reality is that current active noise cancelling technologies will cut out a decent chunk of lower frequencies, such as the rumble of a plane’s jet engine, but only a portion of higher frequencies. Headphone makers have started adding “quick attention” and “ambient noise” modes that do the opposite of ANC by boosting ambient sounds around you so, for example, you can hear what a barista is saying while still wearing them. But even with ANC active on a $350 pair of Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones (arguably the best consumer ANC experience available) you don’t really have to strain to still hear people talking nearby. They’ll be a little quieter, but it’s not like their vocal chords suddenly stop working.
If a big chunk of your week is usually spent on a plane criss-crossing the world then yes, buying headphones with active noise canceling is definitely worth the extra cost. The technology is remarkably effective at eliminating the low roar of a plane’s engines, and even if you’re not listening to music, wearing ANC headphones will dramatically improve your in-flight experience. There’s a good reason you see frequent flyers breaking out their Bose as soon as they find their seats. For everyone else, the results of switching on ANC aren’t quite as dramatic, and from my experience, don’t completely justify the added cost of the feature—at least given the technology’s current limited capabilities.
Headphones, by design, blast sound directly into your ear canals and the most effective way to drown out everything around you is to simply start listening to something. That being said, there are some headphone designs that are better suited to letting you focus on what you’re listening to. On-ear headphones, designed to sit directly on the wearer’s ears, usually feature smaller ear cups and are easier to stash away in a bag, but they also allow more ambient sound to sneak into your ears. On-ear headphones, with larger cups that completely surround the wearer’s ears, are a better option because they create a physical barrier blocking other sound waves from getting in. Some sounds will still get through—there’s no perfect solution yet—but even without ANC, on-ear headphones can be surprisingly effective at isolating what you’re listening to.
From my experience, the best way to focus on what you’re listening to is a pair of in-ear earbuds. (Not the AirPods design that just sits at the entrance of your ear canals.) But you’ll want to make sure that you’re using an ear tip that snugly fits in your ear canal, or even better, upgrade the silicone tips included with your earbuds with memory foam alternatives from companies like Comply. Like the yellow foam earplugs worn by professionals working in loud environments, memory foam ear tips slowly expand to create a perfect seal in the ear canal, and are very effective at blocking out the world around you.
If you’re going the earbuds route, I also recommend paying attention to the size of the drivers—the part of the headphones that actually creates the sound waves entering your ears. Popular options like Apple’s $159 AirPods use six-millimeter drivers, but cheaper alternatives, like Sony’s $130 WF-XB700 wireless earbuds, feature larger 12-millimeter drivers that are not only louder, they’re also better at recreating low-end frequencies (the bass) that are more effective at drowning out quieter ambient noises that do manage to slip through.
Am I on an anti-ANC crusade? No, but I do think it’s a feature that doesn’t quite deliver the levels of performance it’s claimed to. I’ve tested some of the best active noise cancelling headphones and earbuds currently available to consumers, and while the technology does work to a certain degree, I’ve yet to be truly blown away by it. If I’m in a crowded office, I don’t want to hear anyone; if I’m on the subway, I don’t want to hear the train at all, and right now the tech simply doesn’t work that well. When I’m shopping for headphones, ANC isn’t something I go out of my way to make sure I get, and I don’t think it’s a premium feature that most of you need either.