Noise-Canceling Headphones: What should I look for when buying them?

If you travel a lot or want to concentrate on your work in an open-plan office, you should take a closer look at noise-canceling headphones.

by Redaktion 5 years ago

What should I look for when buying ANC headphones?

When buying headphones with noise cancellation (ANC), you should consider the following factors:

Noise cancelling – the technology behind it.

Noise cancellation is offered by every pair of headphones. Many manufacturers even specify this external attenuation in their technical data as a decibel value. Because headphones shield the ears, certain frequency ranges are already naturally lowered or suppressed. This is also called:

  • Passive Noise Cancellation or Noise Isolation
    With this type of noise cancelling (a.k.a noise isolation), sound waves are physically prevented from reaching the ear. This is achieved by using materials such as foam, rubber or plastic, which form a barrier that absorbs or reflects sound waves before they reach the ear.
  • Active noise cancellation
    This type of noise cancelling uses technology that actively suppresses outside noise and therefore always requires power. It works by one or more microphones picking up outside noise and then generating a sound wave that is exactly opposite in frequency and amplitude. This is also called “antisound” because the sound waves are rotated 180 degrees in phase. When sound and antisound meet, they cancel each other out, resulting in a reduction in noise.

There are several types of active noise cancellation algorithms:

  • Feedforward ANC
    The microphones are located on the outside of the headphones and can therefore pick up noise at a very early stage. The problem here, however, is that the microphones are thus very susceptible to wind noise. In addition, there is no control of the useful signal, which is likely to suffer. With this type of construction, it is very costly to include the physical conditions of the headphones (design, construction, etc.).
  • Feedback ANC
    The microphones are built into the headphones, but sit in front of the drivers. The headphones therefore already passively attenuate external noise, and the active circuitry therefore only has to take into account the “leftovers”. As a result, the technology works more effectively overall and the physical conditions of the headphones can also be taken into account more easily. Unpleasant feedback can occur due to the close proximity of the speaker and microphone.
  • Hybrid ANC
    This type combines the advantages of Feedforward and Feedback ANC. This means that microphones are installed both outside and inside. Noise can therefore be picked up quickly (feedforward), but cancellation can work much more precisely (feedback).

Consider other factors: Don’t just look at ANC technology

  • Sound quality
    You should of course also pay attention to the sound quality when looking for suitable ANC headphones. A pair of headphones that offers very good noise cancelling but sounds bad is no fun. Unfortunately, ANC technology also affects the sound, and many headphone manufacturers try to counteract this with all kinds of algorithms. Good headphones should offer the most balanced sound possible with clear basses, mids and highs – even when noise cancelling is turned on!
    Unfortunately, this does not always work reliably with many cheap offers from no-name manufacturers. Unpleasant noise or partly drastic sound changes are not uncommon. A candidate that doesn’t change the sound at all and the noise isn’t noticeable is, for example, the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 S2 (review).
  • Wearing comfort
    Make sure that you can comfortably wear your headphones for a longer period of time. Sounds trivial, but the contact pressure determines how tight and snug over-ear and on-ear headphones are on the head.
  • Battery life
    Active noise-canceling headphones always need power, so you should opt for a model with a long battery life. Thanks to fast charging option, within minutes the runtime can be extended by several hours.
  • Bluetooth connectivity
    You want to connect your ANC headphones to your smartphone or tablet? Then also pay attention to which Bluetooth codecs are supported. All headphones and cell phones as well as tablets support the SBC codec. However, if you want to enjoy high-quality music, it should at least be AAC and/or aptX. Our guide “SBC, aptX and AAC: Bluetooth standards simply explained” will help you here.
  • Brand and price
    What applies to many other electronic products also applies to headphones: Well-known brands usually offer better sound, ANC and product quality, as well as usually better customer service/support. However, this is then reflected in a higher price. Just set a budget: We will filter all headphones that exactly match your price expectations via our headphone finder function on our home page!

Headphones with ANC: a must when traveling or in noisy environments.

Meanwhile, some premium manufacturers offer clever ANC headphones that go far beyond simple noise filtering. Air pressure sensors detect if you’re sitting on an airplane. The active noise cancelling then adjusts accordingly. The Sony WH-1000XM5 (review) or Sony WF-1000XM4 (review) can do this, for example. The Bose Headphones 700 (review) do not do that, but their very good noise cancellation can be adjusted in ten steps via an app.

You can also set the headphones to let voices through, such as announcements on the train or from the pilot. This way, you can enjoy peace and quiet without missing important information. This function is also called transparency mode or hear through mode. Headphones that master the transparency mode to perfection are, for example, the Apple AirPods Max (review) as well as the Apple AirPods Pro (review). But progress does not stop here either. Thus, the Technics EAH-AZ80 (review) have two different settings for the Hear Through mode. A general mode ensures safety in traffic, as all environmental sounds are blended in. Another mode, on the other hand, specializes in the human voice and clearly emphasizes it.

You can find more information about noise-canceling headphones here:


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