Noise-Canceling Headphones--For Music, Phone Calls, and More
If you’ve flown in a plane in economy class, you’re probably familiar with the constant sound of the roaring of the engines. You get used to it eventually, but it can still be annoying if you’re trying to sleep or listen to music. The engineer and founder of Bose Corporation, Amar Bose, thought of a way of eliminating background noise, especially for airplane pilots, who are subjected to this noise for hours at a time. He started working on noise-canceling headphones in 1978, and finally devised an aviation headset for pilots in 1989. The technology for noise-canceling headphones began appearing on the consumer market in 2000.
Sophisticated noise-canceling headphones work on the principle of destructive interference: They employ special microphones that pick up the ambient noise around you and create a sound that is the inverse of the noise. That is, the frequency of the ambient sound is the same as the sound produced by the headphones, only shifted by 180° or half of a complete cycle. It thus reduces the noise to a soft hum.
(An illustration of destructive interference, from https://byjus.com/physics/destructive-interference/)
But noise-canceling headphones will differ in how effective they are in employing this technology. And they can have special settings to turn the noise-canceling feature off at times, if necessary. There are also voice-activated versions, and products that have features like speak-to-chat, “multi-device connect”, longer battery life, and more. We’ll go through some of the options, to help you make an informed decision!
Types of Noise Cancelling Headphones
There are two main types of noise-canceling headphones. They can either cancel out ambient noise passively or actively:
Passive Noise Canceling: These will have padding that encompasses your ears from all sides. The seal of the padding is what cuts down the outside noise. An example is the Motorola Escape 220 Passive Noise Canceling Headphones.
Motorola Escape 220 Passive Noise Canceling Headphones
Active Noise Canceling: Instead of just muffling sound by sealing your ears, active noise canceling involves the special microphones that we mentioned in the introduction. They’re very effective for eliminating a constant noise, like the noise of a plane engine when flying, or a train traveling on the tracks. They record the ambient noise and reproduce it with a slight delay, to achieve the noise cancelation. But they aren’t as effective against sudden, loud noises. An example of this is the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Overhead Headphones.
Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Overhead Headphones
What reviewers say
Here are some impressions of customers who bought noise-canceling headphones and earbuds:
Multi-device connect: What if you want to hear music or content from several devices? Many manufacturers allow you to connect your noise-canceling headphone to several devices. You can thus take phone calls from your cellphone, and then return back to another Bluetooth device playing music. But, customers who bought the Shure Aonic 50 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones noticed that they could hook up a USB device and a Bluetooth or NFC device, but not a device that requires a 3.5-mm jack.
Check if they pair with your device: One customer was disappointed when he found out that the Anker Life Soundcore Q30 headphones do not pair with iOS devices. They are capable of multipoint connections and Bluetooth, but won’t pair with Apple devices. Certain other features may work only with Android devices, for example.
Headphones vs. earbuds: There are also noise-canceling earbuds, such as the Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earbud Headphones. Customers have found that over-the-ear headphones are better at noise canceling than earbuds, especially for mid-frequency and high-frequency noise. So, both will be the same for blocking the sound of air conditioners, but over-the-ear models will be better against high-frequency sounds, like the clinking of glasses and cutlery in a restaurant.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earbud Headphones
Manufacturers have various added features and tweaks that can make their particular product more attractive.
Battery life: If you have wireless noise-canceling headphones, they will need battery power for both amplifying the incoming signal (which you want to hear), as well as battery power for canceling out the ambient noise. But you’ll see impressive battery life with many models. For example, the Treblab Z7 Pro can give you 45 hours of battery life, after only 2.5 hours of charging up!
Noise-canceling without any music: Let’s say you just want quiet, without wanting to listen to music. The Sony noise-canceling headphones have a setting for that as well. You can use their Headphones Connect app to have noise-cancellation for as long as you want, from 5 minutes to “do not turn off”!
Noise-cancellation modes: The Anker Life Soundcore Q30 Hybrid Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones have three modes, depending on the type of ambient noise you wish to filter out. There’s “Transport” mode, to cancel out airplane engine noise. There’s also “Outdoor” mode, to kill off traffic noise and wind, as well as “Indoor” mode, if you want to concentrate in an office with a lot of chatter in the open space, or in a restaurant.
Voice-activation: Although it’s not essential, you’ll see that many noise-canceling headphones will allow you to consult with Google Assistant or Alexa by your voice. The Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones can access whatever voice-activated assistant you use on your phone.
Speak-to-chat: If you want to converse with someone, you don’t want the noise-cancelation feature working. Older Sony headphones employed “Quick Attention” mode in their headphones, where you just cup your right hand on your right headphone to turn off the noise-canceling feature. But newer models, like the Sony WH-1000XM4, use “speak-to-chat”: when you start talking, the voice cancelation is paused, until you finish your conversation. After a few seconds, the headphones pick up the music where you left off!
We examined some of the features of noise-canceling headphones and earbuds on the market. You have a wide selection of passive headphones, which can be as modestly priced as $60, and high-tech active noise-canceling headphones, which can go for $250 and more. Look at the various features, and see if active-noise canceling is worth the extra money. Either way, you’ll derive more enjoyment from the music you listen to, as well as peace and quiet!