Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating

There has been a lot of confusion lately, regarding noise cancelling headphones and noise isolating headphones. Contrary to what many people think, noise cancelling and noise isolating aren’t the same thing. Though, they both have a common goal – to reduce noise – they do it with the help of completely different methods. In short, noise cancelling attempts to electrically cancel sound waves, while noise isolation reduces the noise by isolating. Headphones that seal tightly around the ears, to block out sound, are noise isolating. This article will describe the difference between noise cancelling and noise isolating.

Noise Cancelling

Author and Copyright holder: Marekich. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0. Image from Wikipedia.org

Author and Copyright holder: Marekich. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0. Image from Wikipedia.org

Let’s first talk about noise cancelling. Noise cancelling, or Active noise control, is a method for reducing unwanted noise by adding a different sound that is designed to cancel the first. Noise cancelling makes it possible to listen to your music at a lower volume, as some of the background noise will be reduced.

The first patent for a noise control system was granted in 1934 [source: Patents]. Noise cancelling technology and methods have improved over the years, and nowadays are commonly used in headphones. The headphones basically listen to the background noise via a microphone. They then send out a sound wave that has the same amplitude as the recorded one, but with an inverted phase. The two sound waves then combine to form a new one. This process is called interference. The noise cancelling process attempts to create a destructive interference. This happens when the waves are shifted by an odd multiple of Pi. With perfect destructive interference, the waves cancel each other out, resulting in no sound being heard.

With perfect destructive interference, the background sound would be completely cancelled. Reality isn’t that perfect, though. The noise cancelling technology of real headphones won’t cancel all of the background noise. It makes the most difference on low sounds, like car engines and airplanes. These sounds are obviously the main source of background noise, so that is good. Midrange sounds aren’t affected much at all. These are sounds like voices.

Most headphones that come with noise cancelling do an incredible job. A great feature of noise cancelling is being able to listen to music at a lower volume. This reduces the risk of damaging your ears. There are plenty of reasons people want their headphones to include noise cancelling. Some of them are:

  • Working with Loud Noises. If you’re working in construction, or some place where there are loud noises – noise cancelling might be beneficial for your hearing.
  • While Sleeping. Some people are very light sleepers, so they opt to use noise cancelling headphones for sleeping. There are specially designed headphones for this purpose.
  • On Walks. Noise cancelling can be great for cancelling out vehicle noise. So if there’s a lot of background noise on your daily walk or run, NC (noise cancelling) might be up your alley.

Pros and Cons of Noise Cancelling

Pros

  • Able to reduce background noise efficiently.
  • Lets you listen to music at a lower volume.
  • Can be good for your hearing, by reducing loud noises.

Cons

  • Requires battery. Though, most NC headphones come with rechargeable batteries.
  • It is expensive.
  • Big difference in quality of noise cancelling. Quality noise cancelling headphones do a good job, but low quality headphones hardly make any difference at all.

Noise Isolation

Noise isolation goes by many names. Some call it sound isolation, noise reduction or sound reduction. Some even call it noise cancelling, but this isn’t the correct term for it. Noise cancelling is something entirely different, and is described above.

Noise isolation is the means of physically blocking sound waves. The cup of noise isolating headphones is often what provides the isolation. These headphones usually come with big cups that press around the ear, sealing the ear from the outside noise. A lot of studio headphones come with these big, circumoral cups that offer noise isolation.

How well this type of headphones reduce sound, is based purely on how well they seal the ears. Everyone’s ears are different. Thus, the same type that works wonderfully well for your friend, might not work as well for you. Noise isolating headphones don’t reduce nearly as much noise as the cancelling headphones do. They do, however, make a difference.

Pros and Cons of Noise Isolation

Pros

  • Can reduce background noise to some extent.
  • Are cheaper than noise cancelling headphones.
  • Don’t require extra batteries.

Cons

  • Don’t reduce as much noise as noise cancelling headphones.
  • Can be uncomfortable. As these headphones are blocking noise by pressing against or over your ears, they can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods. Make sure you do your research prior to making a purchase.

Keep in mind that a lot of people get these two types of noise reduction confused with one and other. This includes a lot of sellers, so make sure you truly get what you pay for. You can do this by checking out the official website of the headphones’ brand. They will most likely display the correct information about their headphones.

Check out these great resources, if you want to read more on the topic:

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