Ask LH: How Do I Choose The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

Ask LH: How Do I Choose The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

Dear Lifehacker, I work in a noisy office, and would love some noise-cancelling headphones. What’s the difference between noise cancelling and noise isolation? How do I choose the best ones for me? Should I just buy a pair of Bose QuietComforts, or are there specific ones you’d recommend? Sincerely, Silence Please

Picture: Toshiyuki IMAI, Vernon Chan, kidn0thing

Dear Silence Please,
Noise-cancelling headphones don’t have to be a mystery. There’s definitely a big difference between noise “isolation” and noise “cancelling”, and many people often confuse the two. One just tries to minimise the amount of extra sound that gets into your ear, and there’s serious technology behind the other. Let’s describe the differences first, then we can talk about what to look for in a good set of headphones. Finally, we’ll talk about a couple of models you might want to look into if you’re shopping around.

The Difference Between Noise-Isolating and Noise-Cancelling Headphones

If you’re shopping for headphones or earbuds designed to minimise outside noise and let you focus on your music or help you block out unwanted sounds, you’ll run into two categories of products: noise cancelling and noise isolating. They’re very different, and while we’ve touched on this difference before, it’s important to know what each one means before you shop around:

Noise-isolating headphones block external noise through physical means. You may also hear this category referred to as “passive noise cancellation”. Basically, noise-isolating headphones block out noise by creating a good seal between your ear and the headphone. Noise-isolating earbuds block out external noise with a snug fit. Over-ear models that fit all the way around your ear have thickly padded cups designed to block out as much outside noise as possible.

The goal is to create the strongest comfortable seal around your ears or ear canal so the only thing you hear is your music. To that point, noise-isolating headphones are usually designed to be operated at lower volumes than others, since outside noise will be muffled. Similarly, you should be careful wearing them when out and about, since you may not be able to adequately hear your surroundings.

Noise-cancelling headphones use digital signal processing (DSP) technology to actively cancel out the sound waves from ambient noise. Put simply, when you see “noise cancellation” or “active noise cancellation”, it means the headphones have an internal microphone and audio processor that “listens” to the sound around you and plays an opposite sound to cancel it out. This is called destructive interference.

Most decent models can handle constant, ambient noise, such as conversations, air-conditioning units and engines. However, sharp changes, such as someone shouting or a door slamming are difficult to adjust for. The best make it easy to hear nothing but your music while you’re sitting in an airline seat, or they offer you some peace and quiet even if there’s no music playing. Again, these are headphones you should be careful wearing when you’re out and about, because the goal is to eliminate noise from your surroundings. If you need to hear your surroundings for safety, they’re a bad idea. If you’re sitting in a cubicle and hate hearing your chatterbox officemates spoil the previous night’s episode of Game of Thrones, these are for you.

What to Look for When Shopping for Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Shopping for noise-cancelling headphones is no easy task. Plenty of models boast noise isolation or active cancelling, but some do it better than others, some do it at the expense of audio quality, and others are just flimsy budget headphones that do little more than crank up the volume to drown out the noise. We sat down with Jude Mansilla, editor and founder of Head-Fi, to chat about the category and come up with some things to look for:

  • Decide on the type of headphones you want before you start shopping. Beyond active and passive or noise cancelling and noise isolating, You should also familiarise yourself with the types of headphones available and decide whether you’re in the market for earbuds (or in-ear headphones), earpads (or supra-aural headphones), or full-sized headphones (or circumaural headphones, that fit around your entire ear). We’ve talked about the pros and cons of each, and there are active and passive models in all categories, but the form-factor is just as important (if not more-so) than the type of noise cancellation you’re shopping for. Personally, when I use active cancelling headphones, I prefer full-sized models that fit around my entire ear — it helps add a passive hand to the active noise cancellation system. When I’m wearing earbuds, I prefer noise isolation, if anything at all.
  • Premium noise cancellation comes at a premium price. Since active-cancelling headphones have their own audio processor, the quality of that processor (and its circuit) factors heavily into the price of the device. Similarly, the build quality, internal drivers, size and shape all play into the cost. If you want great audio and great noise cancellation, be ready to pay for it. If you’re looking for just one or the other, you may be able to skimp a bit. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains to be had, but those $40 no-name noise-cancelling headphones you picked up online? They may be great for otherwise quiet offices, but they’re not going to make it easier for you to sleep on a plane, that’s for sure. Again, you don’t have to empty your wallet, but the best models are in the hundreds of dollars, not the dozens.
  • Try them on if you can. If you have the option, try on the headphones you want to buy and toggle their noise-cancellation system. If they’re passive, just try to get a good snug fit in, on or over your ears. If they’re active, put them on your head and turn them on in the middle of the store. Listen closely with no music playing to see how well you can make out surrounding noise. If you’re with someone, try having them talk to you at different distances to tell whether you can make them out. Your friend won’t be able to simulate a jet engine, but they will be able to simulate office chatter from a few cubicles down. Also, pay attention to the fit. Will you be able to wear these for a long period? Will they get uncomfortable on hour two of a six-hour flight or will they start to make your ears hurt while you’re sitting at your desk? Even worse, will you get tangled up in cables if you want to wear them while you’re cleaning out the garage? Just because they’re noise cancelling doesn’t mean you’re stuck with wired, bulky, uncomfortable cans. Shop around and try as many models as you can before making a decision.
  • Try them out too. Many people buy noise-cancelling headphones just to block out noise. They turn on the noise cancellation circuit and don’t even listen to music. If that’s you, great! If you want to listen to music or podcasts too, you need to do a little more testing. Grab a couple of your favourite songs and load up your smartphone or media player with them. You could also load up a few Eminent multimedia test files too, and see if you can actually plug the headphones into your own device at the store. You’ll get a better feel for what your music will sound like, coming from your own device, with the noise cancellation on and off. If you’re the type who prefers their music uncompressed and lossless, now’s the time to free up some space on your media player to take some of those files with you. You’ll be able to tell the differences between headphones that emphasise noise cancellation over audio quality pretty quickly, but you’ll also be able to tell which ones actually do sound better.
  • Check the battery life and warranty stats. If you’re buying an active-cancelling pair, remember, there’s an audio processor in there and it needs power. That means they’re more than just a pair of drivers attached to your head: there are electronics in there that can fail, and, if they do, you’ll want to be able to get them repaired or replaced. This goes double for the high-end expensive models that do it really well. Check the warranty and look around for reviews — not just of the headphones (we’re assuming you’re doing that already) but of the company’s customer service policies. Familiarise yourself with how you would get in touch with them just in case. The last thing you want is to spend $300 on a pair of beautiful headphones, have them die on you and get the old customer service runaround. Also, pay attention to battery life — some sets do better than others, and since most headphones use replaceable batteries, you’ll want to know if you have to keep a few extras on-hand for your next flight or in your desk at work.
  • Don’t expect miracles. Remember, even the best active noise cancellation can’t block out everything. You’ll still hear high-pitched sounds, abrupt and sharp noises, and even that jet engine on your flight will seep through — no noise-cancelling set of cans can make you think you’re not in a plane, but they can help you forget for a little while.

Jude explained that even the best noise-cancelling models aren’t ready to beat out a great set of normal headphones for listening to music, so audiophiles probably won’t replace their primary sets with a noise-cancelling or noise-isolating pair. That’s not to say there aren’t great options out there, but he explained:

Trying to satisfy my persnickety audiophile preference for hearing fine details, timbral accuracy and precise imaging, while surrounded by the cacophony of planes or public transport, is almost pointless — not even the best of the current consumer noise cancellers can overcome plane and train noise enough to free up the more delicate, gauzy sonic details audiophiles like me chase.

Some Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones that Won’t Leave You Wanting

We mentioned you shouldn’t expect miracles from your noise-cancelling headphones. Almost all of them are designed to give you peace and quiet more than emphasise the nuances in your music. However, there are some great options out there for you that can keep you well entertained while giving you the peace to focus on your work. Here are a few, depending on the type of user you are.

Best Bang for Your Buck: Able Planet Sound Clarity NC510B ($US125)

Able Planet’s Sound Clarity NC510B around-ear active noise-cancelling headphones aren’t the most expensive on the market, but they do have a powerful noise-cancellation circuit and small, light form factor that puts them on par with models much more expensive than they were. I’ve been testing a pair for a few months now — I’ve taken them on a flight with me and I’ve been pleased with the amount of ambient noise they’re capable of eliminating as well as the sound quality I get when listening to music or podcasts, even on a plane. You’ll need a pair of AAA batteries for them, and the earcups swivel around to store flat in their (included) carrying case. They’re soft, comfortable plastic, but they’re still rugged enough that I didn’t worry about them in my bag going through security at the airport.

The NC510Bs aren’t perfect mind you, the earcups are a little on the shallow side, which could be a problem if you have specifically big ears (I don’t, so it’s not an issue for me), and some reviewers at Amazon report that they get uncomfortable after long periods of wear because the fit is snug, but I didn’t have that problem — I personally prefer a snug fit in my noise-cancelling headphones. Beyond that though, I found their noise-cancellation circuit to be on par with headphones much more expensive that I’ve tried. Plus, they’re probably the most affordable headphones in this list.

For the Frequent Flyer or Cubicle Dweller: Bose QuietComfort 15 ($399.95)

Jude explained that if you’re the type looking to wear noise-cancelling headphones while you travel or commute, your biggest concern should be the strength of the audio processor and the noise-cancellation circuit in the headphones you buy.

So, for frequent flyers and public transportation commuters who do most or all of their headphone listening on planes, trains and buses, I think the primary consideration should be the effectiveness of the headphone’s noise-cancelling, and the most effective such headphones have good passive isolation combined with advanced active noise cancellation.

To that end, he couldn’t help but praise the Bose QuietComfort 15s for their noise-cancellation circuit. The QuietComfort series is the market leader for a reason, and while that reason isn’t necessarily audio quality, they do have exceptional noise cancellation. Jude explained that the QC15s were the best of the commuter-friendly noise-cancelling headphones he’s tried. They’re light, comfortable and easy to wear, even on long flights or long hours in the office. Plus, they’re everywhere, so you can try them on before you spend the (admittedly expensive) cash on them. In the sound quality department, they left a little to be desired — he noted that the QC15s won’t please audiophiles in quieter environments, so don’t look to them for nuanced audio in quieter offices or during at-home listening.

If you have more cash, Jude suggested the Sony MDR-1RNC as an alternative that puts a little more emphasis on sound quality. They’re a larger full-sized set than the Bose, and while they’re definitely more expensive, they also come with more features to justify the price.

The noise-cancellation circuit in the MDR-1RNCs has three different modes (Office, Bus, and Airplane) that the headphones automatically switch among based on its audio processor’s assessment of the ambient noise. He noted that they don’t block out quite as much as the QC15s do, but they sound better in terms of audio quality, and they have the added bonus that if their battery dies (which is rechargeable via USB, even on the go), you can still use them as headphones passively — something you can’t do with the QC15s (and a surprising number of other active noise-cancelling headphones).

For the Cable Hater: Logitech Ultimate Ears UE9000 Bluetooth Wireless Headphones ($499.95)

If you’re looking for active noise cancellation and wireless audio, be ready to pay for it. The entire class of headphones are relatively expensive, but active noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones all also come with features and audio processing designed to make up for the inherent loss of audio quality that’s synonymous with Bluetooth. Jude suggested the Logitech Ultimate Ears UE9000s because of their build quality, 20-hour battery, and its flexibility as both wired and wireless, active and passive headphones. He noted that they sound good when wireless and active, but if you can sit down and plug them in, you’ll get a better audio experience that may make the flexibility and portability worth the extra cash. They’re not perfect though: the UE9000s can’t be used as wireless headphones without the noise cancellation circuit on, and its noise cancellation isn’t as strong as some other models.

Another option for the cable-hater who doesn’t want to give up audio quality is the Parrot Zik, which boasts a lot of audio processing tweaks and settings that you can play with, even over the Zik’s Bluetooth wireless. The Zik also features on-ear controls, multiple microphones (both for noise sensing and for voice calls if you pair it with your phone), bone-conduction sensors, NFC for pairing, a head-detection sensor that pauses your music when you take them off your ears, and when used in conjunction with Parrot’s iOS or Android app, gives you complete control over the headphones’ equaliser. Jude noted they’re probably the most high-tech noise-cancelling headphones he’s ever used, and while they may be expensive, they’re jam-packed with features and tools to justify the price — assuming you need them, of course.

Noise-cancelling headphones often come at a premium, but they don’t have to. The suggestions we’ve made here are all relatively high-end models, but you can see from our budget pick that you don’t have to spend hundreds upon hundreds to get a decent pair of headphones that will let you focus without hearing your chatterbox coworkers, or let you ride the train to work in peace. However, if you’re serious about your audio, and you really want a pair that will offer you both active noise cancellation and great audio, you should be ready to pay for it.

You could always look into passive models, especially noise-isolating earbuds such as our five best (which really turned out to be five great IEMs), or look for great closed-back passive headphones if you’re looking to eliminate noise without spending money on active noise cancellation. We have some suggestions here and even more here. Shop around, do your homework, check the reviews, and we’re sure you’ll find a great pair that matches your use case, whether you’re sitting at the office or sitting on an aeroplane.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


13 responses to “Ask LH: How Do I Choose The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones?”