What are noise cancelling headphones? How do they work?

So one of our readers got in touch to ask us if we can answer, simply and understandably, the question of what is noise-canceling headphones and how do they work?  The answer is actually straightforward.

Noise Cancelling headphones (ANC) are headphones that cancel out unwanted external environmental noise and leave you (in an ideal situation) with only the sound of your music being played through your headphones.

Traditionally if you had been looking to improve your listening experience, you would be looking at getting a set of headphones with good isolation (Sound isolating headphones).  This is different in how active noise-canceling headphones will work, as the reduction in external noise comes from insulating the listener’s ears from the external environment.  

In this scenario, you would be looking for a set of headphones or earphones that reduce the amount of sound from the surrounding environment that penetrates the headphone’s earcup and finds its way into the eardrum of the user.  

While there are many good isolating headphones out there, you will almost always find that some sounds can find their way inside these headphones.  These headphones essentially rely on soundproofing to create an environment where users can focus on listening to their audio devices without interruption.

Graphic of how noise canceling (ANC) works

More recently, and mainly due to the popularity of one headphone company, in particular, Bose, there has been a dramatic increase in demand for active noise-canceling headphones.

To understand what noise-canceling headphones are, you need to know a little about how sound works.  I want to keep it as simple as possible here, so here we go.  In the simplest terms, sound travels in a waveform. Active noise-canceling headphones use a microphone outside the headphones to capture the sound wave produced from your unwanted external noise.  They then inverse this wave (a kind of mirror image) and play it along with the sound of your music. By inverting the external sound wave, you effectively canceled out the external sound, thus reducing it to zero (or as close to zero as current technology can get).

What are noise-canceling headphones’ best uses?


Active noise-canceling headphones are best for those people that listen to music in noisy environments.  This makes them perfect for those using their headphones for commuting or listening in a busy work environment.  I myself use the Sony WH-1000XM4 active noise-canceling headphones every time I get on a flight. 

They are perfect for drowning out other passengers’ sound, and they virtually eliminate the constant engine drone and make flying, on the whole, a much more pleasurable experience.  On the opposite side, it cannot be said that active noise-canceling headphones will best traditional noise isolating headphone designs for all-out sound quality.  

It is commonly found that sound quality is lacking when using such using sound cancellation technology. This is all relevant, though, to how you choose to listen to your music when on the go.  What is the greater inconvenience to your listening pleasure?  

Can you live with a very slight drop-off in sound quality in exchange for isolation from external distractions, or would you rather have a little bit more fidelity but an increase in environmental noise?

Audiophile Onhttp://www.audiophileon.com
Audiophile On is a website dedicated to high-end audio products. With over 15 years as a reviewer, all articles are hand-written by one person to allow the comparison of products. Headphones, earphones, speakers, amplifiers, or DAC's we cover here.

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