Noise Canceling versus Isolating: What’s the Difference?

Have you gone shopping for headphones or earbuds lately? If so, you’ve probably seen some sets described as “noise canceling” or “noise isolating.” You may have also seen terms like Active Noise Cancelation, or ANC.
But if you’ve never listened to headphones with these features before, it can be a little tough to know what all the fuss is about. Are these features the same thing, or is each one different? And do they really make that much of a difference?
Below, you’ll find explanations for exactly what these terms mean and how the features work. We will also compare noise canceling versus isolating.
And, of course, which one you choose ultimately doesn’t matter if your headphones (or their noise reduction) quit working. It’s always a good idea to get an extended headphones warranty from Upsie to keep you listening on your own terms.
Now, on to some definitions!

Noise Isolating Headphones – What It Means

First up is the term “noise isolating.” Noise isolating headphones include some physical mechanism for reducing outside noise, creating distance or isolation from the world around you while you listen to what’s pumping through your headphones.
Most noise isolating headphones are earbuds — the ones with the silicone or foam tips that seal inside your ear canal. The noise isolation is purely physical, using the same basic approach as earplugs to block out surrounding sound waves.
The other options in this category are closed-back, over-ear headphones. These are the biggest type of headphones, the ones that envelope your entire ear with an ear cup. As long as you get a good seal, over-ear headphones will block out a good amount of environmental noise.
You’ll find this type of headphones in use at most recording studios, both for their superior sound reproduction and their high level of sound isolation.

Noise Canceling Headphones – What It Means

Noise canceling headphones work in an entirely different way. These headphones or earbuds use active noise cancelation, a powered technology, to do more than block out sound. Active noise canceling uses a microphone to analyze environmental and background noise surrounding the listener. Then the headphones produce an inverse sound wave to that background noise, creating the impression for the listener that the background noise has simply vanished.
Now, ANC can’t eliminate everything. Sudden changes in volume, very loud noises, and background music will still leak through to one degree or another. Still, a good ANC is deeply impressive.
Active noise cancelation is complex technology. If you want to learn more, high-end headphone maker Bang & Olufsen explains how it works in greater detail.

Noise Isolation – Pros and Cons

Noise isolation is the simpler of the two technologies, and there are definite strengths and weaknesses.

Pros

  • Adds little to the cost of earbuds
  • Often as effective as earplugs at reducing distractions and background noise
  • Produces pure, unaffected tone

Cons

  • Requires a good seal to work
  • Can be overpowered in certain environments (e.g., airplanes)
  • Tight fit can become uncomfortable during long listening sessions
  • Sealed design can make jogging or active use frustrating

Noise Canceling – Pros and Cons

While active noise cancelation is the more exciting option and has plenty of strengths, you should be aware of a few disadvantages as well.

Pros

  • Makes some background noise disappear entirely
  • Can produce a much more atmospheric listening environment
  • Can reduce distractions, even when not listening to music or other audio

Cons

  • Sometimes creates the sensation of hissing
  • Can negatively affect sound quality, especially in cheaper sets
  • In-ear pressure sensation can be painful or even disorienting (but varies per listener)
  • Big differences in amount and quality of noise reduction from brand to brand

Other Considerations for Noise Canceling Headphones

Before you choose noise canceling headphones to drown out that annoying roommate or your next-door neighbor’s late-night band practice, there are a few more things you should know.
ANC doesn’t block out all sounds equally well. It’s great at reducing lower frequencies and consistent or persistent sounds, like the drone of an airplane. However, it’s much harder for the technology to block out dynamic sounds, like people talking or singing, or punchy ones, like handclaps and door slams.
PCMag explains the technology in detail, including the flaws and weaknesses discussed here.
Now, the better and more expensive your headphones, the better they will tend to do with these. But cheaper ANC sets are going to struggle. The same goes for pretty much all the cons listed above: buying a premium set will tend to avoid those downsides.

Choose Upsie for Your Extended Warranty Needs

Now that you understand the difference between noise isolating and noise canceling headphones, you’re ready to make your choice. When you do, make sure to pair your new headphones with an extended headphone warranty from Upsie. Upsie protects your headphones and earbuds from manufacturing defects and accidents, helping you to have better quality sound for longer.

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