Block Background Interference with Noise-Canceling Headphones

Due to the advent of portable music players like smartphones, tablets, and iPods, personal music listening has truly become a part of everyday life. Whether you're rushing to work on the bus, working out at the gym, or lounging on an airplane headed for Hawaii, chances are you've got your portable device pumping your favorite music into a pair of headphones or earbuds. While the freedom of being able to take your tunes anywhere is certainly a huge benefit, it also introduces certain problems that aren't as pronounced when you're sitting in your living room listening to music. The problem that we'll be addressing here is a pesky phenomenon known as "background noise." We'll also be discussing a remarkable technology that's specifically designed to swiftly remove this sonic party-crasher from your listening experience—noise-canceling headphones.



Noise-canceling headphones bear some similarities to conventional headphones in the way that they combat background noise, and also some key differences. Conventional headphones rely on the physical designs of their ear cups (or ear buds) to “block” unwanted noise by isolating your ears from the environment around you. While some isolation headphones do a better job at this than others, it's impossible to block all of the noise from your surroundings, especially in extremely noisy places. So, if you're trying to use conventional headphones on a plane or subway train, you end up having to crank the volume up to uncomfortable levels just to hear your music over the background noise. This is neither good for your hearing, nor your sanity.

Now, noise-canceling headphones also isolate your ears from the outside, but take things to the next level by “canceling out” the unwanted noise, allowing only the sweet sound of music to fill your ears. That is, if you want to listen to music at all. In fact, noise-canceling headphones cancel background noise whether you're listening to music or not. So, if you're trying to sleep on an airplane or a bus, or trying to work in a noisy office, noise-canceling headphones can also help you just enjoy some peace and quiet. Sound like magic? Well, not exactly…

The science behind this magic makes use of tiny microphones that are built into their ear cups or ear buds. These small microphones “listen” for any ambient noise that makes its way past your headphones' physical isolation and into your personal listening space. Then, the noise picked up by the microphones is fed into special electronics that produce an exact opposite signal to effectively cancel out the unwanted noise, allowing you to enjoy your music in noisy environments without having to raise the volume. Another point to mention is that noise-canceling is generally an “active” technology, meaning it requires batteries to work, as opposed to noise isolation being a “passive” technology, meaning that it doesn’t require batteries or electricity to work.

Next, we’ll get into some specific noise-canceling headphone models to give you a snapshot of what’s out there.

Over-Ear Designs

First let’s take a look at the silver QuietComfort 15 and the slate/brown QuietComfort 15 Limited Edition models from Bose. Pioneers in noise-canceling headphones, Bose has been considered a leader in the field for decades. It’s no surprise that these two models offer an impressive set of features. The QC15 and QC15 LE build on traditional noise-canceling designs by incorporating sets of microphones both inside and outside their ear cups for even more accurate noise detection and cancellation. Both models feature an around-ear form factor with soft cushions designed for comfort, even during extended listening sessions. Speaking of extended listening sessions, these headphones boast 35-hour average battery life using just one AAA battery. Additionally, the QC15 and QC15 LE ship with two detachable cables: one standard audio cable and a second cable with an inline mic and remote for iPhone and iPod control, plus hands-free phone calls.

Next up are the MDR-10RNC on-ear noise-canceling headphones from hi-fi audio heavyweight Sony. Similar to the QC15, the MDR-10RNC headphones come with two detachable cable types and noise-detecting microphones are embedded both inside and outside their ear cups. They also feature three selectable noise-cancellation modes that have been optimized for different environments with different types of background noise. These include aircraft, train, and office modes. Additionally, the MDR-10RNC allow you to control and make phone calls on your Apple or Android device, plus they feature a swivel-folding mechanism for compact storage and transport.

Known for their stylish looks and hard-knocking bass, Beats by Dr. Dre bring us their second-generation Studio Headphones, featuring an over-ear design and a selection of different colors. These headphones deliver active noise cancellation, but are conveniently rechargeable rather than taking regular batteries. They feature a visible battery-life gauge and allow you to recharge by plugging the included USB charger into any computer or wall socket. The Beats Studios also feature a folding design for compact storage, and a cable with an in-line remote and mic that works with iOS, Android, and Windows devices.

Audio-Technica, a well-regarded name in the pro audio world, makes a generous offering to the hi-fi market in delivering the ATH-ANC7b and the ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint active noise-canceling headphones. Delivering affordable noise-canceling technology, the closed-back ATH-ANC7b headphones feature a folding design and detachable cabling. They ship with a 5-foot cable, plus a smaller 3-foot cable that's perfect for walking around listening to your headphones with your portable device in your pocket. While the higher-end ATH-ANC9 model has similar features to these, it also adds multi-mode noise-canceling functionality. These noise-canceling modes include one for airplanes, trains, and buses; one for noisy offices; and one for creating a quiet environment for study. The ATH-ANC9's also feature a folding design and come with two detachable 4-foot cables: one regular cable and a second cable with an in-line remote and microphone that is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and most iPods.

In-Ear Designs

Moving on to in-ear designs, Panasonic brings us the RP-HC56-K noise-canceling earphones. Providing up to 40 hours of battery life, these earphones offer an affordable noise-canceling solution that is ideal for use on the go. They feature an in-line, noise-canceling electronics unit with a clothing clip to hold them in place. The unit also has a slider that allows you to control the volume of your music remotely without you having to touch your portable device.

The JVC HA-NCX78 in-ear noise-canceling stereo headphones feature detachable soft ear loops for keeping the cable secure around your ears. This feature can come in handy for use during physical activity such as jogging or working out, to ensure that your ear buds stay in place and don't become disengaged from inside your ears. They also feature memory-foam ear tips for added comfort and an impressive 50-hour battery life using just one AAA.

Last, but certainly not least, we have the Bose in-ear noise-canceling models: the QC20 and QC20i. The Bose in-ears are more expensive than the others, but they do have some extra features. Like their larger cousins, the QC15 and QC15 LE, the the QC20 and QC20i feature microphones lining the inside and outside of their ear buds for improved noise detection and cancellation. Also, they're rechargeable, delivering up to 16 hours of noise canceling per charge. Another cool feature is the "aware" function that allows you to hear what's going on in your surrounding environment and still enjoy the benefits of noise canceling at the same time. Aware mode can be activated simply by pressing a button on the in-line remote. In addition to the aware button, the in-line remote on the QC20 model features a mic, plus one more button for answering phone calls on Android, BlackBerry, and Windows devices. The QC20i features a mic plus three additional buttons for answering calls, and controlling music and voice commands on Apple iOS devices.

If you’re currently in the market for noise-canceling headphones, hopefully we've given you a good starting point. If you’re just learning about them, you may now have a little background on the technology that will help you decide if noise-canceling headphones are the right product for you.

1 Comment


Im looking for some "over ear" headphones that have the ability to block out external noise for both parties when im taking a phone call.

Thank you,