Man wearing headphones in a busy office.

Noise cancellation and noise isolation might sound similar, but they’re two entirely different ways of blocking unwanted sounds. Let’s take a look at how they differ and which one is right for you.

Isolation vs. Cancellation: Two Ways of Blocking Noise

Noise cancellation, also called “active noise cancellation” or ANC, is an electronic process that uses sound waves to actively reduce unwanted environmental noise. Noise-canceling headphones do this by sampling external noise with their built-in microphone. Active noise canceling is usually billed as a premium feature, with top-tier audio brands like Bose, Sony, and Apple all touting the effectiveness of their technology.

On the other hand, noise isolation, sometimes called “passive noise cancellation,” uses a tight seal inside or around your ears to block out environmental noise. Manufacturers achieve this with physical design considerations, such as the shape of the headphones, the materials, and the fit with your ear shape. For example, in-ear earbuds with silicone tips such as the Apple AirPods Pro tend to block out some noise even when you’re not playing any audio. In contrast, earbuds without tips like the standard Apple AirPods offer very little noise isolation.

Usually, these two technologies work together in tandem. While certain headphone designs such as silicone-tipped earbuds or closed-back over-ears with thick padding can often block out most noise, you might still be able to hear some noise coming through. This is where active noise cancellation tends to be helpful, especially if you’re listening to something that’s not particularly loud, like an audiobook or podcast.

Does Noise Isolation Work?

While it’s difficult to beat the pure noise-canceling power of an active noise cancellation feature on wireless headphones, noise isolation can be surprisingly effective at blocking out sounds. This is especially true for mid and high-frequency noises. For maximum effect, make sure to get the fit just right. If you’re using earbuds, select the right-sized tips for your ear canals or use foam tips for an even tighter seal. If you’re using over-ear headphones, adjust the band to make sure they fit your head shape perfectly.

In-ear monitors or IEMs are especially great at providing passive noise isolation. Technology companies design them to get the best seal possible, with their shape fitting precisely in the wearer’s ear. While audio professionals and performers are their target audience, IEM headphones have become increasingly popular among consumers.

Listening to music at a loud volume also tends to have a “noise-canceling” effect. Music tends to drown out environmental noise, especially if you’re using headphones that already provide excellent noise isolation. If you’re on a tight budget, but you don’t want to hear environmental noise, then a pair of in-ear earbuds at a decently loud volume will likely drown out most of the audible noise around you.

However, if you plan to listen to audio that’s not particularly loud, then nothing beats active noise cancellation. You might also want to consider a pair of standard earplugs, which soften or block out environmental noise.

Noise Cancellation Considerations

If you’re debating whether you should shell out for a pair of expensive noise-canceling headphones, then you should consider the following questions.

First, what is your preferred headphone design? If you enjoy earbuds that don’t have tips, or you prefer the resonance of open-back headphones, then you should probably limit their use to your own home. Not only do these designs offer little to no noise isolation, but they also tend to leak out sound to the outside world excessively.

Next, what environments will you be using the device in? Noise-canceling headphones might be convenient for busy and noisy environments like planes, cafes, and school campuses. However, if you plan to use the device at home or a quiet library, then you might not need noise-cancelling headphones at all.

Lastly, are there scenarios where you need to hear outside audio? Some in-ear headphones with active noise cancellation offer a “transparency mode.” This is a feature that allows for some external noise, even when you’re listening to music at a loud volume. It comes especially handy if you want to work out outside, as it lets you hear important audio cues like other joggers or car horns. You can also use it to listen to what someone else is saying quickly.

Finding the Right Headphones

Headphones can be challenging to shop for. Aside from noise cancellation, you also need to consider sound quality, design, comfort, wireless capabilities, and durability. When you’re looking for your next pair, start by setting a budget, then figure out what features are must-haves and what you’re willing to compromise on.

If you need more help, we made a round-up of the best over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. You can also read our reviews the all-around best headphones on the market.

The Best Headphones of 2022

Best Budget Headphones
Philips SHP9600
Best Wireless Headphones
Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
Best Workout Headphones
Adidas RPT-01
Best Studio Headphones
Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO Headphones
Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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