How do noise-canceling headphones work, and should you buy them?
Noise cancelation may not be actual magic, but how it works is still pretty cool.
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If you've shopped for headphones in any capacity beyond buying the $10 convenience earbuds hanging near the register, you've probably heard of noise cancelation—sometimes called "active noise-canceling" or "adaptive noise-canceling" (ANC).
In fact, if you've used headphones with noise-canceling, you've maybe even heard it happening: that sea-shore wooshing sound that kicks in before your music starts playing. But how does it actually work, and what does it achieve? Here's what you need to know.
Beyond planes, trains, and automobiles
If there's one form of travel that noise-canceling headphones are famously used during, it's flight. I guess there's something about being cooped up in a loudly rumbling tin can alongside 100 other people that makes us want to isolate ourselves and find some peace and quiet.
And that's not just the case for flight passengers, as the case may be. Noise-canceling headphones were originally invented specifically for use by airplane pilots—back in the 1950s—which is why they were then marketed towards folks who took a lot of flights.
The incessant engine noises in a plane's cockpit aren't just annoying for pilots: Over many hours, loud enough sounds can also damage a person's hearing. Once the technology made its way to airplane pilots, it wasn't long before it trickled down to airplane passengers as well.
Once it became clear that noise reduction during flight travel was a big hit, it didn't take long for noise canceling to catch on within the headphone market as a way to achieve a little peace and quiet while traveling in general, especially for daily commuters using public transit to get in and out of the city on buses, trains, or subway cars.
However, a growing number of people have started to use noise-canceling headphones in any situation where they need to focus and concentrate, whether that's in an office for work or studying for school at home.
It's easy to understand why a product that doubles as both a personal audio device and a kind of isolation chamber might achieve such popularity. But how does the process actually work?
How noise-cancelation works
Noise-canceling headphones come in two varieties: passive and active. While any headphone will reduce sound to some degree simply by blocking your ears, noise-canceling varieties are designed specifically to block noise.
Passive noise-canceling headphones provide materials-based sound dampening. They're often constructed with extra layers of padding or interior foam that dampens incoming sound. You can still find passive noise-canceling headphones on the market, but the most popular and effective type are active.
Active (also sometimes called "adaptive") noise-canceling (ANC) works similarly. Most active sets are also physically reinforced to dampen noise, but they also use an internal battery to create their own (inaudible) sound waves, which radiate out from the headphones and cancel incoming sound via a process called "destructive interference."
Modern ANC headphones not only passively and actively reduce noise, but many also allow the user to adjust how much noise is being cancelled, and some even "listen" to noise around you so as to adjust dynamically to the present situation.
So, should I buy noise-canceling headphones?
If you travel or commute a lot, or work in a noisy office environment, good noise-canceling headphones can be a sanity saver. However, there's also something to be said for having the option, even if you don't need it all the time. Some people even use them with the ANC on, even when they're not listening to music, for the calming level of quietude they produce.
As it stands, most of our top-rated headphones—the most comfortable, best-sounding sets—are also noise-canceling headphones. ANC technology has gone from a specialty consideration to an almost standard feature amongst household headphone brands, and you aren't sacrificing other considerations in order to buy a niche product anymore.
We recently tested a bunch of new headphones to determine the Best Headphones of 2019, and amongst the top-rated models were premium noise-canceling sets.
Our favorite headphones this year are the Sony WH-1000XM3. They check off every box: super comfortable, lightweight, great sound, and very effective noise-canceling. They're a bit pricy with an MSRP of $350, but you can find them on Amazon right now for $278 during the holiday season.
However, if over-ears aren't your style, we can't recommend the new Apple AirPods Pro enough. They're still a little expensive, but in our estimation, well worth the cost of admission. You can find them for $249 on Amazon, though this time of year they're often temporarily out of stock.
Finally, if you want a decent set of noise-canceling headphones but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars, there's an app—er, a product—for that. When we tested the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones, we found the Anker SoundCore Space NC to be a surprisingly good product for the money. You can get them for just $99.