Looking for headphones that can block out background noise and distractions? Noise cancelling headphones are designed to do just that, using advanced audio technology to filter out ambient sounds. But not all noise cancelling headphones work the same way. There are two main types to consider: active noise cancelling (ANC) and passive noise cancelling.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain the key differences between active and passive noise cancellation, compare the pros and cons of each type, and provide tips to help you decide which is better for your needs and budget. You’ll learn how the technologies work, how well they block noise, factors that impact performance, and recommendations for top headphone models in each category.
What is Active Noise Cancelling (ANC)?
Active noise cancelling utilizes advanced electronic technology to actively cancel out ambient noise before it reaches your ears. ANC headphones have built-in microphones that pick up background noise in your environment. The headphones then produce their own sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase with the incoming noise. This effectively cancels out and muffles distracting sounds around you.
The result is dramatically reduced noise that lets you enjoy your music, movies or calls without distraction. ANC is most effective at cancelling out consistent low-frequency noises like the rumble of a plane’s engine, the hum of an AC unit, or the drone of traffic. But it can reduce chatter and other moderate ambient sounds as well.
How Active Noise Cancelling Works
Here’s a simple overview of how ANC technology works:
- Tiny microphones on the exterior of the headphones pick up ambient noise.
- The microphone sends the noise signal to a digital signal processing (DSP) chip inside the headphones.
- The DSP chip generates an inverted “anti-noise” sound wave that matches and cancels out the incoming noise.
- The anti-noise signal is transmitted back out via the headphones’ speakers.
- This cancels out and muffles the original ambient noise before you hear it.
As a result, your music or audio sounds clearer without constant background noise intruding. Some ANC models allow you to select from multiple noise cancelling modes to optimize performance based on your environment. More advanced headphones offer adaptive ANC that automatically adjusts in real-time to reduce noise as it fluctuates.
Benefits of Active Noise Cancelling
Here are some of the main advantages of choosing ANC headphones:
- Significantly reduces ambient noise – Actively cancels low-frequency rumbles as well as chatter, engines, etc. Allows you to hear your audio clearly.
- Creates a quieter, more isolated experience – Eliminates distractions so you can focus fully on your music, movie, game or call.
- Ideal for travel – Makes plane journeys, commutes and other noisy environments more peaceful.
- Adjustable noise cancellation – Many models allow you to tweak the ANC level or select different modes as needed.
- Hands-free noise reduction – ANC works automatically without you having to hold or wear cumbersome ear protection.
- Rechargable and portable – Most ANC headphones are wireless Bluetooth models with built-in rechargeable batteries for convenience.
Limitations of Active Noise Cancelling
ANC isn’t perfect, however. There are some downsides to be aware of:
- Less effective with voices or high-pitches – Better at blocking low rumbles than nearby conversations or crying babies.
- Can produce “white noise” – You may hear a subtle hissing sound when ANC is turned on. Newer models have improved in this area.
- Need power to function – ANC won’t work if the headphones battery dies.
- Higher price – Quality ANC headphones are more expensive than passive models.
- ANC can cause fatigue – Some report discomfort or headaches after prolonged use. Taking breaks is recommended.
- Not designed for total silence – Even high-end ANC can’t completely eliminate ambient sounds. Passive noise cancelling is required for 100% noise isolation.
What is Passive Noise Cancelling?
Passive noise cancelling (PNC) blocks sound through physical design and sound-isolating materials rather than powered electronic technology. PNC headphones use several techniques to prevent outside noise from entering your ear in the first place.
Cushioned earcups with a tight seal physically block noise. Sound-absorbing padding like memory foam also prevents noise leakage. PNC headphones typically encase the entire ear and have a supra-aural (over ear) or circumaural (around ear) design. This fully envelops your ears inside the closed-back headphones.
Materials like leather, velour, silicone and rubber help passively absorb ambient sound waves before they reach your eardrum. Overall, PNC headphones provide very effective noise reduction and isolation without batteries or electronics.
How Passive Noise Cancelling Works
Passive noise cancelling utilizes simple physics to block noise:
- Padded earcups and headband physically prevent outside noises from entering the ear.
- Snug fit and tight seal around the ear prevents sound leakage.
- Foam, fabric and other sound-absorbing materials soak up noise before it travels down the ear canal.
- Closed-back headphone design contains sounds within each earcup.
- Earcups fully encase the ear to create a protected, isolated environment.
- Materials like leather and velour passively absorb vibrations that cause audible sound.
The result is physical barriers and noise-dampening materials substantially reducing background noise similar to earplugs or earmuffs. But unlike cumbersome ear protection, PNC headphones are comfortable and let you enjoy your audio content.
Benefits of Passive Noise Cancelling
Passive noise cancellation has some notable upsides:
- Blocks very high noise levels – More effective than ANC at eliminating extremely loud environments.
- Functions without batteries – PNC works whether headphones are powered on or off.
- Lower price – Quality PNC headphones cost significantly less than ANC models.
- No sound quality loss or artifacts – Doesn’t alter audio signal like ANC processing can.
- Total silence possible – PNC combined with ANC provides the highest noise reduction.
- Minimal discomfort – Avoid possible fatigue or headaches associated with ANC.
- Works for any audio – PNC enhances music, movies, games, calls rather than mainly travel.
- Durable and reliable – No electronics to fail or require repair.
Limitations of Passive Noise Cancelling
The simplicity of passive noise cancelling also comes with some downsides:
- Less convenient – Bulkier and heavier than sleek ANC models.
- Lower noise reduction overall – Not as effective as ANC for common moderate ambient noises.
- Minimal sound customization – Can’t adjust levels or modes like with advanced ANC circuits.
- Lacks advanced features – No adaptive ANC, transparency mode, app integration, etc.
- Heat buildup – Fully enclosed design can cause ears to get hot.
- Less portable – Not wireless and lack rechargeable batteries common in ANC.
- Tight fit can be uncomfortable – Snug seal required for best noise blocking.
- No ambient awareness – PNC fully isolates you from your surroundings.
Active vs. Passive Noise Cancelling Compared
Now that you understand the key characteristics of active and passive noise cancellation, let’s directly compare them in several categories. This will help highlight the pros and cons of each technology.
Noise Cancelling Performance
- Consistent low-frequency noise – ANC is superior at reducing steady rumbles like engines.
- Intermittent noises – ANC also muffles moderate ambient sounds better than PNC alone.
- High-volume environments – PNC isolates very loud noises better than ANC capabilities.
- Voice frequencies – Human speech can be tough for ANC but is physically blocked with PNC.
- Total silence – Combining ANC + PNC provides maximum noise blocking.
Most people find that ANC headphones provide better overall noise cancelling performance in common real-world environments with a blend of noise frequencies and volumes. But passive isolation is needed for extreme sounds.
Audio Fidelity & Customization
- Sound quality – PNC edge with zero audio processing or artifacts affecting quality.
- Customizable settings – ANC offers more modes, adaptive tech, transparency controls via app.
- Audio enhancement – Many ANC models have EQ, spatial audio and other audio upgrades.
ANC headphones provide more ways to tweak noise cancelling and audio to your preference. But PNC guarantees zero alteration of the native audio signal.
Design & Comfort
- Portability – ANC headphones are lighter and more compact. Better for travel.
- Fit comfort – PNC can feel bulky but ANC earbuds are available for comfort.
- Noise fatigue – Some report headaches from prolonged ANC. Less issue with PNC.
- Heat buildup – Fully enclosed PNC can cause ear sweat. ANC models more breathable.
- Battery life – ANC requires battery power while PNC functions anytime.
For extended wear, PNC avoids potential ANC discomforts. But most find modern ANC headphones comfortable for hours of everyday use.
Cost & Value
- Purchase price – Quality PNC is significantly cheaper than comparable ANC.
- Power requirements – ANC requires recharging while PNC functions without batteries.
- Repairs – PNC has no electronics that can fail. ANC may eventually need service.
- Lifespan – Well-made PNC can outlast usage lifespan of ANC models.
- Included technology – ANC provides more advanced features like adaptive modes.
PNC is clearly the more affordable option. But ANC offers added convenience and noise cancelling capabilities that can justify the higher price.
- Travel – ANC is ideal for flights, commutes, busy public places.
- Home listening – PNC isolates well for music, TV, gaming in quieter home environments.
- Noisy workplaces – ANC great for blocking chatter, phones, printer noise in offices.
- Extremely loud environments – Only PNC can isolate harmful ultra-loud machinery and construction sounds.
- Simplicity needed – PNC avoids any batteries, charging or settings management.
For frequent travel and moderately noisy environments, ANC is preferable. But PNC excels when simplicity, affordability or extreme noise isolation is required.
Recommended Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
Here are some top ANC headphone models to consider across various form factors and price points:
Over-Ear ANC Headphones
- Bose QuietComfort 45 – The new benchmark for premium over-ear ANC with adjustable modes.
- Sony WH-1000XM5 – Sophisticated ANC with advanced processing and excellent audio.
- Apple AirPods Max – Luxury design, seamless Apple device integration and spatial audio.
- Anker Soundcore Life Q35 – Impressive budget-friendly option with multi-mode ANC.
In-Ear ANC Earbuds
- Apple AirPods Pro – Top choice for iOS users with wireless convenience.
- Sony WF-1000XM4 – Class-leading ANC earbuds with hi-res audio and LDAC support.
- Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 – Stylish, comfortable buds with powerful ANC.
- 1More Evo – Well-priced ANC buds praised for bass, sound quality and fit.
On-Ear ANC Headphones
- Beats Studio3 – Bass-heavy wireless on-ears combining ANC and Apple’s W1 chip.
- JBL Live 660NC – Lightweight, folding Bluetooth option with voice assistant support.
- Anker Soundcore Life Q20 – Impressive ANC at a very wallet-friendly price point.
- Razer Opus – Feature-packed gaming headset with ANC and long battery life.
Recommended Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones
These highly-rated PNC headphones deliver excellent passive sound isolation across headphone types:
Over-Ear PNC Headphones
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro – Durable studio headphones praised for bass and comfort.
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50x – Critically acclaimed for neutral sound reproduction. Removable cables.
- Sennheiser HD 280 Pro – Budget-friendly closed-back pair ideal for mixing and tracking.
- Shure SRH840 – Professional headphones with replaceable parts and collapsible design.
In-Ear PNC Earbuds
- Etymotic Research ER2SE – “Earplugs with sound” offering exceptional noise isolation.
- Shure SE215 – Clear audio and deep bass with interchangeable sleeves for custom fit.
- EarFun Free Pro 2 – Wireless buds with slick controls, waterproofing and great passive isolation.
- 1More Triple Driver – Impressive sound at low cost rivaling more expensive models.
On-Ear PNC Headphones
- Grado SR80e – Open-back on-ears revered for sound quality and comfort.
- Audio-Technica ATH-S220BT – Compact wireless headphones with bass boost feature.
- Koss Porta Pro – Retro-inspired lightweight design touted for durability and value.
- Pioneer SE-MJ522 – Wired on-ears with deep bass and foldable design.
FAQs About Active and Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones
Does passive noise cancelling work as well as active?
Active noise cancelling is generally more effective at reducing typical ambient noise levels from chatter, engines, crowds and other moderate sounds. But passive isolation outperforms ANC in extremely loud environments like heavy machinery or power tools where decibel levels physically overpower ANC circuitry.
Is it better to get ANC or PNC headphones?
It depends on your budget and needs. ANC provides very good noise reduction plus audio enhancements in a convenient wireless design. This makes them preferable for travel and work. But PNC guarantees natural audio fidelity with similar noise isolation capabilities for less cost. If you mainly listen at home, PNC is often the better choice.
Can you use ANC and PNC together?
Yes, combining advanced ANC technology with passive sound isolation provides the highest levels of noise cancelling and the closest experience to true silence. This is why some ANC models also incorporate padding, tight seals and closed-back design for enhanced PNC. For noisy environments where sound isolation is critical, using both technologies together is recommended.
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Do noise cancelling headphones require power/charging?
Active noise cancelling headphones require battery power to function, either disposable or rechargeable batteries. Most ANC headphones today use integrated rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Passive noise cancelling headphones do not require battery power and will isolate noise whether turned on or off. Keeping ANC headphones charged is necessary for optimal performance.
Are noise cancelling headphones bad for your hearing?
There are no risks specifically associated with noise cancelling headphones compared to standard headphones. However, as with any headphones, excessive high volume levels and prolonged use can negatively impact hearing over time. Keep volume at moderate, safe levels and allow ears to take occasional breaks. ANC can also cause discomfort or fatigue for some after hours of continuous wear.
Should ANC be turned on without audio playing?
It won’t damage headphones to have ANC enabled without audio, but there is no benefit. ANC analyzes incoming external noise in order to generate anti-noise that cancels it out. Without any audio actively playing through the headphones for the ANC to act upon, the technology doesn’t serve any purpose when idle. Leaving unused ANC headphones on also needlessly drains battery charge.
Do noise cancelling headphones work for voice calls?
Both ANC and PNC headphones can improve call clarity by reducing background noise you and callers would otherwise hear. PNC provides very effective physical isolation from loud environments. ANC uses its noise cancelling abilities to actively mute ambient noise during calls for clearer conversations. Just be aware that ANC is less effective against human speech frequencies. For best results, combine headphones with microphones enhanced for call quality.
The choice between active and passive noise cancelling headphones ultimately comes down to your budget, needs and listening preferences:
- ANC delivers excellent overall noise reduction plus audio customization in a wireless design preferred for travel. But higher cost, potential fatigue and need for charging must be considered.
- PNC guarantees zero audio alteration and functions anytime without power. But noise isolation is less comprehensive and more bulk is required to physically block sound.
- For most day-to-day use in moderately noisy environments, advanced ANC models prevail. But PNC can provide simpler, cheaper noise blocking where advanced electronics aren’t required.
- Combining ANC and PNC technologies provides the maximum possible noise isolation, but isn’t essential for casual listeners.
Understanding these key differences allows you to decide whether the impressive noise cancelling capabilities of ANC are worth the premium over more affordable but limited PNC headphones. But either solution can help you enjoy distraction-free listening wherever you go.