What Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

If you like going for a walk with your headphones on, the first thing that you probably do every time you step out of the door is turn the volume up to drown out the sound of traffic. But if you’re doing this regularly, you actually run the risk of causing hearing loss or worse. Thankfully, technology has paved the way for noise-cancelling headphones and noise-cancelling in-ears, which actually eliminate the need to turn the volume up to max. Time for a closer look.

Let’s Be Clear

To avoid confusion, let me start off by saying that noise-cancellation does not mean blocking out ambient sounds entirely. In other words, if you thought you could simply block out your nagging parent, complaining boss or your spouse by putting on some noise-cancelling headphones, I’m going to have to disappoint you. That being said, these smart headphones do cut out a lot of noise, like the sound of passing cars and trains.

Nothing New

While consumer-grade noise-cancelling headphones are a relatively new development, the technology is actually decades old. In fact, American engineer dr. Amar Bose – the same guy who founded the famous Bose Corporation – came up with the idea of noise-cancelling headphones years ago, and he specifically designed them to make helicopter and plane flights a bit easier on the ears. I’ll spare you the technical details here, but what he did was work a tiny microphone into the headphones so ambient noise could be captured and then suppressed with specific sound waves.

Passive vs. Active Noise Cancellation

What I just mentioned touches on a big distinction that can be made between two types of noise cancellation, namely active and passive suppression. Passive suppression is fairly simple to achieve since an over-ear headphone design alone already helps block out ambient noise to a certain extent. Plugging earbuds into your ears has a similar effect since they also literally close off your ear canals. Active noise suppression, on the other hand, is a fair bit more advanced than that.

How Does Active Noise Cancellation Work?

Active noise cancelling headphones are equipped with a number of tiny microphones that capture monotonous sounds like the low-frequency hum of car engines. The moment any noise is registered, ANC headphones immediately produce opposite soundwaves so that peaks in the noise are offset by troughs in the anti-noise sound waves. Basically, the noise is mirrored which results in silence.

What Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones?
Image (edited): Graphical Depiction of Active Noise Reduction, by Marekich, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

The Benefits of Noise Cancellation

Cancelling out noise not only makes listening to music a more enjoyable and immersive experience, but does away with the need to push the volume up to potentially damaging levels. On top of that, your housemates, colleagues or fellow train passengers are no longer forced to listen to you listening to James Blunt on repeat. Of course, you can also use your active noise cancelling headphones when you’re not actually listening to music but when you’re trying to focus on work or reading a book on the bus.


While noise cancelling headphones do not pose a risk to your ears, we don’t recommend using any kind of headphones whenever you’re navigating traffic, no matter if you’re walking on the path or driving a car. In any situation outside of traffic, you’re naturally free to enjoy the benefits of your (ANC) headphones. Just be sure to take them off at some point because your ears will need a break after any long listening session.

The Drawbacks of Noise Cancellation

Active noise-cancelling headphones are mostly brilliant, so if I have to mention a drawback, it’s that the technology requires a power supply, which typically comes in the form of a built-in rechargeable battery that can run out and needs to be recharged again at some point using the included USB cable. The technology also makes ANC headphones a bit heavier and a bit more expensive than standard headphones, but that’s arguably more than worth it if you care about your ears and want to enjoy your most-loved tunes in all of their glory.

How do you feel about noise-cancelling headphones? Share your thoughts below!

See Also

» Noise Cancelling Headphones
» Noise Cancelling In-Ears
» All Headphones and Accessories

» What are the Best Headphones For Me?

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