Music and noise are terms that can be as relative as they come. One man’s music might just be noise to another man.

Regardless of your taste however, there is a common enemy for music and sound lovers and that is the ambient noise or music.

The good news is that the headphones have been discovered. With headphones you can have an exclusive listening experience without much interference from the ambient noises.

Noise-Canceling-Headphones 1

There are different kinds of headphones and when it comes to specifically getting rid of background noises, two types are popular;

The noise cancelling and the noise isolating headphones. People tend to use both terms interchangeably but contrary to popular opinion, a noise cancelling headphone is essentially different from a noise isolating headphone.

Although both types of headphones have a common aim which is to limit noise inflow into the ear, they employ entirely different approaches to achieve this common goal.

Noise cancelling devices actually go all out to electrically strike out background noises whereas noise isolation devices just attempt to block out the same background noises.

This noise cancelling vs noise isolating headphones article aims to describe both noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones vividly, point out the differences and some pros and cons that come with each one.

noice cancellation history


Noise cancelling can also be referred to as active noise control. It attempts to reduce or get rid of unwanted interfering noises or sounds by introducing another sound specifically designed to cancel out the first sound which is the noise.

Noise cancelling technology has been in existence for more than 80 years and has improved over the years up to the point that they can now be incorporated into headphones.

With the aid of a microphone, noise cancelling headphones listen to and pick up background noise. Through some processing and technology, they create a sound wave that is the direct inverse of the picked up sound.

This inverse sound wave is then sent out from the headphones and it then combines with the original sound from the ambient noise and because they are direct opposite of one another, they cancel each other out.

A simple analogy will be something like say the background noise from an air-conditioner is +1, a noise cancelling headphone will create its own sound -1 and when the two combine, you have 0.

noise cancelling vs noise isolating headphones

This entire process works on the basis of interference and in this case specifically, destructive interference which when it works perfectly results in no sound being heard whatsoever.

However, perfect destructive interference is hard to achieve in reality and noise cancelling headphones will not cancel out all the background noise.

The noise cancelling technology in headphones have been found to be effective in cancelling out low sounds like the humming of car engines, airplanes and air-conditioners, sounds like voices fall in the midrange category and are largely unaffected.

Noise cancelling headphones do a remarkable job, they make it seem like you are in a somewhat quieter place and the sound quality is great as well.

There are several reasons why people often go for headphones with noise cancelling technology, some of them are;

  • Listening to Music at Lower Volume. Being able to turn down the volume of your music and still be able to make out the lyrics and have an overall pleasant listening experience is important as it reduces the risk of damage to your ears. Because noise cancelling headphones deal with the unwanted background noise, they let you turn down the volume and still hear.
  • Working in a loud and noisy place. If you work with heavy machines, on construction sites or in any place where there are always loud noises to contend with, noise cancelling headphones are your best bet.
  • Light Sleepers. There are specially designed noise cancelling headphones for very light sleepers who want to enjoy their sleep without having to wake up at the slightest disturbance.

Pros of Noise Cancelling

  • It reduces background noise to the barest minimum
  • Reduces your risk of causing damage to your ear by allowing you to listen to your music at very safe volumes
  • Creates a quiet and serene atmosphere even in the midst of apparent chaos

Cons of Noise Cancelling

  • Noise cancelling headphones are expensive
  • They require use of battery although the batteries are often rechargeable
  • Difficulty in ascertaining quality of noise cancelling. It is difficult to tell the quality noise cancelling headphones that do a good job from the low quality ones that seem to make no difference at all.



People use many terms to refer to noise isolation. Some people call it noise reduction, sound isolation, sound reduction and some even mix it up all together and call it noise cancelling but like I have explained in noise cancelling vs noise isolating headphones above, this is not correct.

Noise isolation like the name implies seeks to isolate you from background noises by attempting to block the errant sound waves from filtering into your ear.

isolation difference

Noise isolation works on the basic principle of putting up physical barriers between your ears and the ambient noise, the barriers being the cups of the noise isolating headphones.

Noise isolating headphones usually have big cups that press firmly around the ear in attempt to seal it from outside noise. A very common example is the studio headphones that have very big circular cups.

How effective these headphones will be in isolating noise and reducing outside sound interference is purely based on well they seal the ears.

So be it the studio-like headphones with big cups, the on-ear headphones, the in-ear headphones or the ear buds, how much background sound that will be cut off will depend on well the headphones fit into your ear.

Since everyone’s ears are different, what works really well for a friend might not work for you.

Even though noise isolating headphones do not reduce as much noise as the noise cancelling headphones do. They indeed make a significant and remarkable difference.

Pros of Noise Isolating headphones

  • Noise isolating headphones are way cheaper than noise cancelling headphones
  • They do not require extra batteries
  • They achieve significant reduction in background noise

Cons of Noise Isolating headphones

  • Noise cancelling headphones can be very uncomfortable. Since they block out sound by covering your ears or pressing against them, they can be really uncomfortable to wear for long hours. Make sure you get your facts right before you make a purchase.
  • They do not reduce as much background noise like the noise cancelling headphones do

Further Thoughts

You must bear it in mind that most people confuse these two different approaches to noise reduction with one another.

Even sellers and shop owners usually mix them up, so make sure you know what you’re buying. It is always wise to gather information from the manufacturer’s official website.

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