Whether it’s trying to get work done in a loud café or avoiding people in public, noise-cancelling headphones have become a de-facto necessity for more and more people in the modern world of loud sounds. They make life easier by filtering out everything except exactly what you want to be focused on.
Many people are beginning to question whether these devices have a more practical health benefit than just protecting your sanity from screaming children. They’re wondering if you can actually protect your hearing by wearing them instead of regular headphones.
Do noise-cancelling headphones protect you from loud noises? Noise-cancelling headphones offer reasonably effective protection against high-frequency and consistent noises, but offer little to no effective reduction of low-frequency noises and sudden and short-duration sounds like screams and clapping.
It’s very important to realize that noise-cancelling headphones don’t completely eliminate noise; they significantly reduce it. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth looking into. Let’s talk about how they work, what specifically they can protect you from, what kind of headphone set works best for you, and how much you’re willing to spend on them.
How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work?
It’s all very well to say that noise-cancelling headphones can protect your ears from loud noises even a little bit, but it’s worth understanding how they do that before you jump into buying a set of them for the first time. That way, you can make an informed decision about what you’re investing your hard-earned money into.
In their very basic form, noise-cancelling headphones work by blocking soundwaves from entering your ears, so that it’s not hitting your eardrum and so it isn’t registering as a sound. They do this in one of two ways.
- Some versions of noise-cancelling headphones physically block the sound, meaning that the material that they’re made of is what is providing the cancellation. They generally have layers of some kind of padding or foam that form not only a seal around the ear but a shell over it that are essentially a miniature wall the sound has to pass through.
- Other noise-cancelling headphones use a battery to power their own sound-emission system, so that when they’re on, they can produce a defensive sound wave that cancels out the intruding sound wave. This works because if you produce a sound wave that has crests (tops of the waves) where the other wave has troughs (bottoms of the waves), they cancel each other out by making a flat line (think of it as adding +1 and -1 to get 0).
For a slightly more technical explanation of how all of this works, here’s a scientific report about exactly what these headphones do.
Because of the way that both kinds function, noise-cancelling headphones are most effective when used to combat consistent noises. This means that they generally won’t be very good at blocking out people talking (unless they are talking in a crowd and it is more of a continuous hum), clapping, fireworks, and other sudden and intermittent noises.
The Benefits of Passive versus Active Noise-Cancellation
The two types of headphones are called passive and active noise-cancellation. Both types are effective at lowering the sound levels in your ears, but they work in completely different ways. This also means that they have completely different drawbacks and benefits to consider.
Active noise-cancelling headphones are most effective against low-frequency, continuous noises like the roar of an airplane’s engine. They do come with the downside of requiring you to buy batteries for them occasionally, but they also tend to have a little bit of passive noise-cancellation built in as well (though not nearly as much as purely passive sets). Active noise-cancelling headphones do tend to cost the buyer a bit more because they are more expensive to make.
Passive noise-cancelling headphones, on the other side, provide the most effective protection against high-frequency sounds like loud busses or trains and crowds. They are cheaper to buy, more readily available, and also don’t require any upkeep or power to function, so you don’t have to worry about running out of batteries while you’re out and about. The downside is they do also tend to be a bit bulkier to accommodate their functional needs, and don’t last quite as long as the high-end active noise cancelling headphones.
Which Headphones Are Right for You?
Deciding which kind of headphones are the right ones for you specifically factors in a lot of different things. It depends heavily on your budget, where and how often you travel, and the shape of your ears themselves.
Some people find in-ear headphones more comfortable because they do not compress your ears or weigh down on your head, while others prefer over-ear headphones for a more comprehensive seal between your ears and outside noise.
Another thing to consider is whether you are buying wired or wireless headphones. Wired headphones are useful in that they do not require a Bluetooth connection, but they can definitely be cumbersome and risk getting tangled in almost everything. Wireless headphones rely on a Bluetooth connection (and therefore a battery) to work, but give you a greater range of motion and freedom from tangles.
Noise-cancelling headphones tend to range from around $15 for simple noise-cancellation earbuds to about $300 for a set of top-of-the-line active noise-cancellation headphones. This means that there’s a set in almost anyone’s budget.
Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones Really Worth the Investment?
Noise-cancelling headphones are worth the money that goes into them if they are going to make your life more convenient. They can definitely do that when they are letting you focus or drown out the rest of the world in music. They can allow you to be more productive when you’re working on something that requires you to listen closely or pay attention without being distracted.
Depending on your career, they can also offer an advantage to your work. Lots of professional editors use noise-cancelling headphones to ensure that the product they’re delivering is as clear as it can possibly be. The same can be said for podcast hosts, who need to make sure that they are recording without being distracted and that their recording sounds clean and crisp. Most jobs in the music industry like DJs will require a solid set of them so that they can be sure that they’re judging just the music itself without outside influences.
Ultimately, this is a call only you can make. Always remember to do appropriate research, such as looking at other informative articles like this one from litheadphones about picking the best headphones for your situation, or this one from the New York Times about the specific pros and cons of noise cancelling headphones over standard headphones. consider the specifics of your situation. Set a specific budget that you are willing to put aside for the headphones, and shop for a set that is in your price range and covers all of the benefits you need.
Plugging in and Tuning Out
Again, there really is a set of noise-cancelling headphones for everyone, no matter if you are looking for a set of earbuds that will make your audiobooks sound clearer or if you are looking for a full studio headset to start up your recording career. They’re so diverse and multipurpose that there really are very few downsides to choosing them over a standard set if you have the means to do it. So, if you feel that you would get a lot of use out of them, go ahead and invest in a solid set. Plug in, slide them on, and enjoy the silence.