Noise Cancellation vs. Noise Reducing Headphones

Noise Cancellation vs Noise Reducing Headphones

Noise-reduction headphones are passive sound blockers that use physical sound barriers and sound insulation materials around the ear cups to block out ambient sounds.

Noise-cancelation headphones are active sound blockers that use electronic components that are integrated into the frame of the device to produce opposing sound waves that block out incoming sound waves from your environment.

Noise reduction headphones are better if you want to reduce the ambient sound but still be aware of your surroundings, while noise cancellation headphones are better if you want to focus in a noisy environment.

What are Noise Cancellation Headphones?

Noise-cancellation headphones use active sound blocking — they block out surrounding sounds using a system of components that work together to release a counter-signal that cancels out incoming sound waves from your surroundings.

First, small microphones pick up ambient sound waves and send the signal to a built-in computer chip which analyzes the sound waves and produces an opposing sound to cancel the incoming sound wave.

Noise-canceling headphones are effective at blocking out surrounding sounds, but they only cancel out low-frequency sounds. This includes the humming sound from your AC unit, the sound from your TV or lawnmower, and so on.

What are Noise Reduction Headphones?

Noise-reducing headphones use passive sound blocking — they reduce ambient sounds using sound-insulating materials like foam pads, leather, and headphone cushions. These materials form a sound barrier around your ears to prevent sound waves in your environment from permeating.

Most headphones have noise-reducing attributes as their ear cups are fitted with different sound-insulating materials including cotton, foam, and leather.

The level of sound reduction depends on the material type and quality, and the manufacturer — some materials are more effective at blocking the noise than others.

Noise-reduction headphones are effective in blocking out surrounding noises, but they still allow sound waves to pass through because the ear cups don’t sit flush around your ears.

Noise Cancellation vs Noise Reduction Headphones

The differences between noise cancellation and reduction headphones are listed below.

Noise Suppression

Noise suppression refers to the technology, method, or material that is used to reduce ambient noises in headphones.

Noise-reducing headphones rely on their construction and fitting to block out ambient noise. Their noise suppression quality depends on how well they fit around your ears, the gap, and the material used for sound insulation.

High-quality sound reduction headphones with proper fitting and insulation will reduce mid-high frequency sounds by 15-30 decibels.

Noise-canceling headphones rely on their device software and electronic technology to block out ambient sounds. The built-in components work together to release opposing sound waves that cancel out incoming sound waves from your environment.

High-quality noise-canceling headphones with up-to-date software and technology will effectively block out low-frequency noise and reduce mid-high frequencies by an average of 30 decibels.

Verdict: In terms of noise suppression, noise-cancelation headphones block out noise better. But, neither headphones can offer 100% noise reduction or blocking. Headphones will high-quality materials and up-to-date sound-blocking technology are the best options.

Sound and Audio Quality

Sound and audio quality refers to how well the headphones will reproduce sound or music from the audio source devices. The factors that contribute to sound quality are frequency response, clarity and detail, noise isolation, build quality, soundstage, and bass response.

Noise-reducing headphones don’t have noise-canceling components (or technologies), so the manufacturers focus more on the sound quality and audio output. Their only goal is to produce high-quality sound output.

Noise-canceling headphones have two goals — to produce high-quality sound output and to cancel out surrounding sounds. The opposing sound waves produced by noise-canceling technology to cancel out ambient sound can interfere with the device’s sound output. Users often complain of hearing static or hissing sounds when using noise-canceling headphones.

This doesn’t mean noise-canceling headphones don’t have great sound quality — high-quality series/models will produce amazing sound and bass and still do a good job of canceling out ambient sound.

Verdict: In terms of sound quality, we’ll give this a draw. While many noise-reducing headphones have great audio output, noise-canceling headphones also have great sound quality, especially when you go for the higher-end versions.

Comfort and Design Style

Comfort and design style refer to how well the headphones fit around your ear, their comfort, and the design style they use.

In terms of design style, noise-canceling headphones are larger because their ear cups have to be big enough to have different electronic components that are used in blocking off surrounding sounds. The presence of electronic components also makes them a bit heavier than regular headphones.

In terms of comfort, noise-canceling headphones are comfortable — but users complain that it feels like they are on a flight when using them. This is because the absence of low-frequency sounds can make you feel like there is a change in air pressure, the same feeling you get when you get on a plane.

Noise-reducing headphones are smaller, more compact, and more stylish than noise-canceling headphones since their ear cups don’t have to house any special components. They are also more comfortable. However, headphones that use non-breathable sound insulation materials, such as synthetic leather, around the ear cups can feel hot and sweaty after prolonged usage.

Verdict: Sound-reducing headphones are more stylish than noise-canceling headphones, but the comfort levels when using either depends on the user-end experience.

Usage and Voice Limit

Noise-canceling and noise-reducing headphones are both easy to use as manufacturers include user manuals in their packaging so users can find the needed information. These devices have different listening modes and safety functions that can be activated using buttons.

Manufacturers of these devices often include voice-limit software, so users can’t amp the headphones beyond safety levels. While these volume-limiting functions can be deactivated, it’s safer to keep them enabled.

Power Consumption

Power consumption refers to the amount of electrical power that the headphones require to operate — the higher the power consumption the faster the battery drains.

Since noise-reducing headphones don’t have noise-canceling components or technologies they consume less power and have a long charge cycle, meaning you can use them for a long time without charging.

Noise-canceling headphones need more power because of the technologies and components they use.

Note: The difference in power consumption isn’t as big and doesn’t play a big role on the battery life.


Noise-canceling headphones cost more than noise-reducing headphones as they have more components and a higher production cost.

But, due to an improvement in design and technology and the emergence of several headphone brands, the lines for price tags are becoming blurred. So, don’t be surprised if you find cheaper sound-canceling headphones.

Passive vs Active Noise Cancellation: Which One Do You Need?

Which one you need depends on the place you are.

In The Office

For office spaces, noise-reducing headphones are better as they block out the noise and help you focus on work while still maintaining awareness in case someone calls your name or wants to talk to you.

At The Gym

For gym spaces, noise-canceling headphones are better as they will cancel out the ambient sound and help you get in the zone.

At the Library/While Reading

Noise-reducing headphones are better for people who read while listening to music, while noise-canceling headphones are better for people who read in a café or noise places.

At the Workshop

For workshop spaces, noise-canceling headphones are better, but they can’t cancel out the high-frequency noise from these machines completely. They will reduce it just enough that it doesn’t disturb you.

Use noise-canceling earbuds if you want a better alternative.

When Traveling

Noise-canceling headphones are better for traveling as they will cancel out the sound of car engines, the loud whoosh of the wind, or the cabin noise and plane engine sound.


Frequently asked questions are listed below.

Does Noise Cancelling Actually Reduce Noise?

Noise-canceling headphones do reduce ambient noise but they work more effectively at canceling out low-frequency noise.

Is 100% Noise Cancellation Possible?

No, 100% noise cancellation is not possible and there is no noise-canceling device that is 100% effective. The best you’ll get is around 90-95% sound cancelation.

Does Noise Cancelling Work Without Music?

Noise-cancellation works without music as the electronic components don’t need music to block out noise.

Is Noise Cancellation the same as Noise Reduction?

No, they are not the same — noise cancellation cancels out ambient noise actively using electronic components while noise-reduction suppresses ambient noise using physical barriers.

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