Then there’s the marketing claims, like “95% noise reduction,” which sounds too good to be true, not to mention that anyone who’s had a decent pair of in-ear headphones knows how much they isolate you from the world on their own.
The answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no,” but hopefully I’ll be able to help you decide if they’re worth it for you.
Before we get going, if you’re curious about the value of high-end headphones, or have questions about headphones in general, first check out Are Expensive Headphones Worth It?, What Are The Best Headphones?, Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones, and How To Compare Headphones.
Noise cancelling headphones use microphones and some fancy processing to create an opposite sound wave than the one that’s headed for your eardrum. This inverse wave is sent through the headphone driver, and if it’s done correctly, the inverse wave cancels the intruding sound wave. For example, while on a plane, the headphones send out an inverse wave to cancel the engine noise.
In a perfect world, this means that the wave is cancelled perfectly, and you don’t hear the noise at all. Sadly, it’s not quite that simple.
Even the best noise cancelling headphones can’t work magic. Low frequency noise, like the airplane example above, are where noise cancelling headphones shine. Low, steady sound is easy to cancel out. Higher frequency, and transient sounds, aren’t. So you’re still going to hear voices, babies, etc.
However, what they do, the best do really well. The Bose QuietComfort 20 I reviewed dropped ambient noise by an incredible amount. But notice that caveat, “the best.” I’ve tested a lot of noise cancelling headphones, and the vast majority are rubbish. Many do little, if anything, and the worst actually add noise.
I think these two factors, not magic and mostly crappy, are the reasons why noise cancelling headphones get a bad rap. I could hardly fault someone for saying they’re not worth it, if they’ve never heard a good pair, and/or were expecting total silence when they put them on.
Perhaps making matters worse, or at least not helping, is the misleading terms manufacturers use to describe their noise cancelling. You’ll often see “15 dB reduction” on one headphone, and “95% noise cancelling” on another. Because decibels are a logarithmic scale, technically it’s possible for “95%” to be mathematically true. However, that’s not what you’re going to hear.
Noise cancelling headphones, as we’ve discussed, don’t work at all frequencies. They don’t even work at the same amount across the frequencies they do work at. The Bose, for example, drop by 45 dB at 160 Hz (a low, bass sound), but “only” 20 dB at 500 Hz. So when a manufacturer claims any number, keep in mind that at best, they’re talking about one frequency. It tells you next to nothing. A headphone that drops a large number of frequencies by 15 dB might seem quieter than one that does 20 dB at only a few frequencies. This is why I highly recommend checking out reviews of any headphone you’re considering, and specifically those that have (or link to) objective measurements.
Then there’s noise isolating headphones. I covered the difference in Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones. If you get a good fit, noise isolating headphones definitely do a lot. They drop more in the mid- and high-frequencies than many noise cancelling headphones.
In the low end of the sound spectrum, it varies a lot depending on everything from your actual ears, to the design of the headphones, to how good the noise cancellers are.
The best noise isolators, though, really isolate you from the world. Again, if you’re looking for a headphone for all occasions, ask yourself if something that severely blocks the world around you is always a good thing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (like, how often are you around traffic that your headphones prevent you from hearing?)
The best noise isolating headphones I’ve reviewed were the Shure SE846 (though there are plenty of other, cheaper, options).
How do you want to use them?
To a large extent, it comes down to use. For example, what kind of sound do you want to block? If you’re in a cubeland-style office and want to cut down on the chatter of your coworkers, noise isolating would probably be better. If you’re a road warrior/heavy traveler, and you want to make a plane, train, or automobile quieter, noise cancelling is probably better.
Then there’s the question if you really need noise reduction. If you’re looking for a single pair of headphones that does everything, sadly, you’re not going to be able to find it. Noise cancelling is a specific niche, and so you’re going to sacrifice something (or many things) to get something good in that niche. Sound quality is one, as mentioned. The best noise cancellers don’t sound bad, but other headphones sound better, often for less money. Also, almost all noise cancellers sound different with the NC on vs. off, usually better when on. So that means to get the best sound, you need to have them on always, draining the battery.
Then there’s that battery pack itself, and the electronics. On most over-ears, these are built into the ear cup, but with in-ears, there’s an external battery pack. Not a huge deal, but cumbersome if you don’t need it.
In other words, unless you specifically want noise cancelling, you’re better off getting a different headphone. If you only think you’ll use it once and a while, it’s not ideal. There are some cheap noise cancelling headphones, though, if you want a pair to travel with.
So the short answer is yes… depending. How you’re planning on using them, what kind of noise you want to get rid of, and so on, are all crucial factors to consider. There’s no perfect headphone for every situation (unfortunately). Noise cancelling headphones are a specific use headphone: perfect for what they do, but not a jack of all trades. Noise isolators can have better sound quality, but personally I would be wary walking around traffic with them.
If you can, try before you buy, and keep an open mind.