How do noise cancelling headphones work?

Dec, 08, 2022

How noise-cancelling headphones work

Noise-cancelling headphones are pretty nifty little gadgets, blocking sound and letting you immerse yourself in your music, audiobook or podcast – whatever you like to listen to. But how do noise-cancelling headphones work? Which are the best noise-cancelling headphones NZ has to offer? And are noise-cancelling headphones better for your ears than regular headphones? Read on to learn everything you need to know about noise-cancelling headphones.

What are noise-cancelling headphones?

Ever found yourself wondering, ‘What are noise-cancelling headphones?’ While traditional headphones simply emit sound through small speakers placed over or in your ears, noise-cancelling headphones block out other sounds around you, giving the wearer a more immersive experience. You may have noticed when wearing headphones that you can still hear the sounds of life around you, from people’s conversations to babies crying and other distractions. With noise-cancelling headphones, these sounds are diminished, leaving you able to focus on whatever you’re playing through your headphones.

How do noise-cancelling headphones work?

There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones available – active noise cancelling and passive noise cancelling. Passive noise cancelling uses the structure of the headphones or earphones to manually block out external sound. For example, the silicone or foam tips of in-ear headphones fit in such a way that they create a physical barrier to sound, while on-ear headphones often use foam and other materials to form a seal around your ear that blocks out external sound.

Active noise cancellation (or ANC), on the other hand, uses technology to counteract noises around you. How do noise-cancelling headphones work with this technology exactly? In addition to having all the features of their passive noise-cancelling cousins, active noise-cancelling headphones feature tiny microphones which capture the incoming sound waves. These immediately play the opposite frequency to the sound coming in, and as these two frequencies play simultaneously, they effectively erase or cancel each other out, leaving ‘anti-sound’. This so-called anti-sound plays through the headphones at the same time as your music, removing any interfering noise without affecting whatever it is you’re playing.

So which is better, active or passive noise-cancelling headphones? While many might assume that the (often more expensive) active noise-cancelling headphones are best, this isn’t always the case. The right noise-cancelling headphones depend largely on the kind of noise you are trying to block out. Active noise-cancelling headphones are usually most effective on lower frequency sounds, such as the hum of an aeroplane engine, a droning motor, a loud air conditioner unit, background conversations, and other ambient noise.

What active noise-cancelling technology can’t do yet, however, is drown out the sound of crying children, barking dogs and other higher-pitched noises – that’s where passive noise-cancelling headphones may be the superior pick. In creating a physical barrier against the external sound (this is called passive isolation), higher-range frequencies are blocked.

Luckily, you don’t have to pick one type of noise cancelling or the other – many of the best active noise-cancelling headphones are also designed with passive noise-reducing features, blocking as much high- and mid-range frequency as possible via physical isolation and reducing lower frequencies using ANC technology.

Are noise-cancelling headphones bad for your ears?

The good news is that noise-cancelling headphones aren’t bad for your ears. However, it’s important to remember not to listen to any headphones turned up to full volume, as this can be damaging to your hearing and may lead to eventual hearing loss. The World Health Organisation recommends listening for no more than 60 minutes at a time, at no more than around 60 per cent of your mobile device’s volume, so as not to affect your hearing and ear health adversely.

Many people also wonder, are noise-cancelling headphones bad for tinnitus? The good news here is that noise-cancelling headphones are not bad for tinnitus, despite receiving some bad press in recent times. In fact, as noise-cancelling headphones reduce low-frequency background noise, people can better hear what they are playing, making them potentially less likely to turn up the volume to damaging levels – and thus may even help prevent tinnitus (which can be caused by constant exposure to noise, especially high-pitched tones).

However, some people who suffer from tinnitus have found the ringing in their ears seems to increase when they use ANC headphones. This may be because, without the background noise that ANC removes, they become more aware of the ringing sound.

Do noise-cancelling headphones protect hearing?

As we’ve already touched on, noise-cancelling headphones are not only not harmful to your ears but may also protect your hearing. In fact, active noise cancelling technology was developed to safeguard helicopter pilots’ hearing against the loud noises they experience while flying their aircraft!

It’s also worth noting that active noise-cancelling headphones, which use Bluetooth technology to connect to your device, do not emit radiation, so they are perfectly safe in that regard. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones may also help reduce the stress that occurs as a result of a noisy environment. Clearly, there are a lot of benefits to using these handy gadgets! 

Noise-cancelling headphones are a fantastic option for anyone who likes to block out the noise around them, whether at the gym, on an aeroplane, at work or, in fact, anywhere. Be sure to choose the right type of noise-cancelling headphones depending on the kind of noise you want to reduce – active noise cancelling technology is ideal for low-level background noise, while passive noise cancelling that provides a physical barrier is best for higher-pitched sounds – or look for headphones that combine the two for all-round noise-cancelling. Even folks who suffer from tinnitus can safely use noise-cancelling headphones but remember, it’s essential not to turn up the volume too loud, as this can damage your ears, regardless of the headphones you use.

To find out more or to talk to a specialist about your ear health, visit a Bay Audiology clinic near you.

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