Noise Canceling vs. Noise Isolating Headphones – Which Do You Actually Want?

noise canceling vs noise isolating headphones

If you're like me and you travel a lot, you know the value of being able to synthesize your own quiet zone.

Noisy places like planes and trains can make it hard to concentrate, give you a headache, and make the time appear to pass more slowly. Not ideal if you're trying to get some work done or some sleep on a long flight.

When you're traveling, you want to block out as much external noise as possible, and there are two ways you can do that with a pair of headphones.

The first is noise isolation, which uses a physical barrier to block external noises, the second is noise cancellation, which transmits and equal and opposite frequency to nullify external sound waves.

In this article, we are going to dive into the similarities and differences between noise isolating and noise-canceling headphones, as well as give you a few recommendations along the way.

Let's get started!

What Are Noise Isolating Headphones?

The less technical of the two methods of blocking out external noises, noise isolating headphones use a tight fit in your ear canal to block out noises.

You probably already have a pair of noise-isolating headphones. They're fairly common, and are often marketed as "noise canceling," but that's technically incorrect.

Noise-isolating headphones don't require any energy and rely solely on a tight fit in your ears to block out noise.

Many people don't like the feeling of noise-isolating headphones, so if you're planning on doing a lot of traveling, you may want to invest in a pair of true noise canceling instead.

If you don't mind the feeling of snug earbuds in your ears, you may want to give something like the Jabra Elite Active Earbuds a try.

They're true wireless headphones and are some of the most comfortable in-ear headphones we've tested to date.

What Are Noise Cancelling Headphones?

Unlike noise-isolating headphones, noise canceling headphones use technology to get the job done.

Think of it like this -- imagine you're sitting on a plane and you can hear the constant rumble of the engine in the background. A pair of noise canceling headphones will pick up on the frequency of the engine (for the sake of simplicity and explanation, let's just say the frequency is described as +1). The headphones will then send out the opposite frequency (in this example, -1) to cancel out the sound, so you hear 0.

Now, this example isn't perfect, but it should give you a good idea of how true noise canceling headphones work.

They sense the frequency of the ambient noise around you and transmit a frequency that cancels it out.

Noise canceling headphones can also be noise-isolating headphones if they go in your ear and create a tight fit.

For traveling, you may want to go with something a little more comfortable, like the Sony WH1000XM3. These aren't the cheapest option out there, but they provide unmatched noise cancelation and comfort.

What You Should Consider When Shopping For Noise Isolating & Noise Canceling Headphones

If you want the best sound quality with the least amount of ambient noise, it's best to go with a pair of headphones that utilize both. You'll get a solid barrier from external sound, as well as the help of modern technology to help block the remaining noise out for overall great sound quality.

If you don't like the feeling of in-ear headphones, you're going to want a pair of solely noise canceling headphones. However, you should bear in mind that with this technology, you get what you pay for.

If you truly want to invest in active noise cancellation headphones, you aren't going to find them for $20. Always make sure to check reviews before you make a purchase, and expect to get what you pay for when it comes to noise canceling technology.

Closing Thoughts

Do you have a pair of noise-isolating headphones that were marketed as "noise-canceling"? Have you ever actually tried active noise cancellation headphones? Let us know in the comments section below!

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