Headphones: Noise Canceling Vs. Isolating

December 11, 2013
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Does the outside world drive you crazy? Atypically, if you travel a lot, or are just a fan of a bit of quiet, you’ve probably looked for headphones that reduce noise. The two main varieties are “noise canceling” and “noise isolating” headphones. Although each kind reduces noise, per sé, the way they do it, and just how well, are different.


Noise Isolating headphones physically block ambient noise via their seal against your ear. Noise canceling ‘phones also do that, but additionally they electronically cancel the actual sound waves. Noise canceling headphones use microphones to listen to the incoming sound, yet some fancy processing creates inverse waves that get fed back into your headphones. These ‘inverse’ waves cancel out any ambient sound. Of course, the reality doesn’t turn out to be quite so perfect. The simple mission of Noise Isolating headphones is to muffle everything around you. In the end, though, in-ear models are like having big earplugs stuck in your ears. My best recommendation is the Harman-Kardon 720 earphone, currently at prices varying from US$79.99 to US$139.


Noise Canceling works best with low droning sounds, like car engines, airplane engines, air conditioners, etc. Midrange sounds, like voices, are largely unaffected, although low frequency parts of the voices are cancelled out. Perhaps, most sadly, that bane of any long flight, baby cries, aren’t reduced by noise canceling headphones, even a bit. My best recommendation goes to the Bose Quiet Comfort model, although they’re expensive at US$314.95 and up. Most in-ear and on-ear headphones work to isolate you from ambient noise. Some are better than others. The idea is simple, a physical barrier between your ear and the offending sounds. With over-ear headphones, the noise isolation usually isn’t a lot; just barely enough to muffle the surrounding sound somewhat. Using in-ear headphones, how much noise they reduce is based entirely on how good your seal is. Everyone’s ears are different, and as such, in-ear headphones fit everyone differently.

Bose headphones

A veteran traveler, I prefer Noise Canceling. They tend to be far more comfortable to wear over long periods and remove most, if not all, annoying ambient noise. What I don’t like is the way Noise Isolating in-ear headphones cram in my ears. Essentially, they’re tiny soft plastic earplugs, which are fine for an album or a concert, but not during a lengthy flight or a long drive.

Considering the hefty chunk of change you might be laying out, my very best advice would be to check as many out as you can in the same or similar surroundings. Hit the different stores with a notebook. Be sure to take a trustworthy friend with you. Treat them to a solid and liquid lunch and prep them beforehand so that they happily scream obscenities and alternate with chunks of mime from different angles and areas.

The better noise cancelling headphones aren’t cheap. I recommend the over-ear Bose QC-15s at US$269, and the brand-new Bose Quiet Comfort 20s are first-rate at US$314. The Parrot Zik and PSB M4U 2s, both at US$399.95 do offer better sound quality than the Bose, but not quite as high-quality noise canceling.

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