Home Headphones Noise Canceling Headphones: Active or Passive? Differences & decision support

Noise Canceling Headphones: Active or Passive? Differences & decision support


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Noise canceling in headphones means the fading out of ambient noise when listening to music. In order to be able to devote oneself to the auditory impression undisturbed, electronic or mechanical means are used. There is noise canceling in the active and the passive variant. Passive noise canceling does not work electronically. It is primarily an isolation, namely the listener from the outside world.

The definition of active noise canceling (ANC)

Active Noice Canceling is a method of fading unwanted background noise by adding another sound. This additional sound is precisely calculated mathematically. Advanced electronic means are used in the process.

On the outside of the headphones there is a microphone – on some models there are two – that picks up the noises in the environment. Software analyzes the recordings and only sounds that change little are relevant. Like the sound of an airplane, a car, or the air conditioning. If such a static noise is detected, the program calculates the inverse frequencies and sends them to the loudspeakers. When both sounds hit the ear, they cancel each other out. The process is called interference. The listener only perceives the music as intended.

The market for ANC is growing steadily

Originally, it was a very expensive technology that few could or would not afford. Today the components have become much cheaper. And the earphones are now offered in different price ranges. Nevertheless, the devices with ANC are still a bit more expensive than conventional headphones.

After all, high-quality ANC headphones still cost around 100 euros. But if you are on a tight budget, you can purchase a device for as little as 50 euros. In the upper price range, however, 300 euros are sometimes required, a hefty expense for a pair of padded speakers with which you can listen to music. Nevertheless – customers love the high-quality devices, and the demand for quality continues unabated in this market segment as well.

The advantages of noise canceling

  • Protecting your hearing – It is now known that a constantly high volume can damage your hearing in the long run. If you listen to music at 100 dBA for two hours, you can suffer permanent damage. But if headphones with ANC are used, everyone can listen to music at a lower volume because the unwanted noise is filtered out. And in the long run, hearing improves.
  • Convenience – Whether you’re commuting to work or traveling to the vacation spot, ANC keeps background noise out. It saves the user unwanted impressions.
  • Satisfaction – Often you just want peace and quiet. And the world out there should leave you in peace. Then ANC headphones are just the thing. With the use of this technique there is silence.
  • Status – people are constantly comparing and competing with each other. Do you have the most expensive car, the smartest smartphone, and who has the best ANC headphones? Everything is rivalry, especially among business people who like to compare. And if the others spend 300 euros on earphones, you cannot be satisfied with the middle class for 200 euros.

And what is passive noise canceling?

The passive form of NC is actually an isolation. The listener is shielded from the outside world by mechanical measures. The headphones are provided with insulating materials that do not allow outside noise to pass through to the ear. Electronics or software are not used here. Every sound is basically a pressure wave that floats through the air. And the air can be physically blocked.

So when the airflow no longer reaches the ear, the ambient noise can no longer disturb listening to music. And passive NC works in exactly the same way: The unwanted sounds no longer penetrate the ear canals. Basically, PNC is a hearing protection, like it is worn when using noisy machines.

How does Passive Noice Canceling work?

All-round closed ear cups that fit snugly so that as little outside air as possible can penetrate. The less shielding, the less passive sound isolation.

Very tightly fitted and thick ear cups that lie on the skin and create a shielded air space. Not all devices are made the same way. Plastic ear cups insulate better than fabric ones. If the supports keep their shape, it is not only more convenient for the user. The shielding works better than with other devices.

Sound-absorbing materials are particularly important at PNC. However, they also add weight.

Which type of headphones are best suited for passive noise canceling is almost obvious. In-ear headphones are the best solution. Especially when they are combined with materials that keep their shape and always fit tightly. Classic models and over-ear models are in the middle when it comes to the effectiveness of PNC measures. The passive isolation is least effective with on-ear headphones.

Hybrid noise cancellation as a further optimization

The hybrid version goes a little further. The microphone that picks up the surroundings is usually placed inside, very close to the ear. In this way, it picks up the sound as the listener perceives it. Active Noise Canceling then erases the unwanted secondary sound. By combining two microphones, the noise reduction is further improved.

Hybrid noise cancellation is currently only available in very expensive headphones. As everywhere, however, the components are becoming cheaper and cheaper. It is therefore to be expected in the near future that inexpensive headphones will also be equipped with this technology.

Noise reduction – through isolation or through technology?

Many listeners prefer passive isolation instead of technical sound influencing. Because, especially with inexpensive headphones, there are often problems with the sound quality if they are equipped with ANC.

When active noise cancellation kicks in, there is often a hissing sound in the heights. The reproduction of the bass is also affected. They become weaker and in some cases even inaudible. But these problems only occur with particularly inexpensive models.

Even so, they sound acceptable to the average listener. High quality ANC can sound great and also provide great audio quality.

The passive reduction, on the other hand, has no particular influence on the sound quality. Rather, it often improves the bass reproduction and convinces me with clear highs, especially with in-ear headphones.

And the passive isolation doesn’t need any electricity! Many do not like constant charging. You always have to keep an eye on the battery, passive reduction is much more convenient. Simply put it on, make sure it is correctly seated, and you can listen to music in peace.

Noise-isolating headphones are also significantly cheaper. Because they don’t use any special technology, you don’t have to spend that much on these models. Very good headphones with passive isolation are available for less than 50 euros.

Many music listeners don’t want to spend that much on headphones. ANC models are expensive without necessarily providing better sound quality. In addition, many regularly replace their old headphones, and each time spending a lot more than necessary makes no sense in the long run. For the price-conscious listener, headphones with passive reduction are therefore much more sensible, and many also choose these devices.

Practical uses of the noise canceling headphones:

  • The use of noise canceling is now widespread in the following situations:
  • Anyone who flies around a lot in the world really appreciates the suppression of annoying noises. Whether on short domestic flights or on long-haul flights from one continent to another.
  • This is often uncomfortably loud on public transport. Noise attenuation is therefore particularly useful in buses and trains.
  • With noise reduction, those who often walk are independent of the environment and can concentrate better on the music.
  • The method also has clear advantages in the fitness center, where the noise level can become unbearable. And the athlete stays focused on his exercises.
  • Everyone in the office wants to hear their own station. Or everyone is talking at once. With noise cancellation, the unrest stays outside and productivity is even improved.

The best headphones with noise canceling

If someone wants to buy a new pair of headphones, the following questions arise: What can the item cost, which type should it be, and for what purpose will it be used in the future?

You can choose from the familiar headphone types:

  • Over-ear headphones
  • In ear headphones
  • On-ear headphones

The best over-ear headphones with noise canceling

There are three models to be mentioned here that face tough competition. This is first the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, followed by the Sony WH-1000XM3, and finally the PXC 550 from Sennheiser. If you want to choose the best noise cancellation, take the Bose headphones. If you prefer excellent sound quality, you can choose either the Sony model or the Sennheiser headphones.

In-ear models with noise cancellation

The Bose QuitComfort 20 is currently the best choice. There is also a large selection of manufacturers and model variants offered, whether wired or wireless via Bluetooth. The often low battery capacity must be considered, which can be a problem on long-haul flights. The engines of an aircraft in the cabin can always cause noise pollution of 80 dBD.

The advantage of this type of headphones is that they are very small and easy to stow away.

Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear headphones (acoustic noise canceling, suitable for Apple devices, 3.5 mm jack plug, 1.32 m cable length) black

Ideal for iPod, iPhone and iPad; Active equalization ensures lively sound with digital sound quality
249.95 EUR −120.95 EUR 129.00 EUR



Apple AirPods Pro

Active noise cancellation for immersive sound; Transparency mode to hear your surroundings and to be able to react to them
279.00 EUR −96.00 EUR 183.00 EUR

Studio headphones and noise canceling?

Sorry for the clear answer: The best studio headphones with NC simply do not exist because the highest audio quality is essential in the recording studio. And that is simply not achievable with ANC.

If you are interested in studio headphones, look at the Sony MDR-7506, the Status Audio CB-1, also the Beyerdynamic model, the DT 770 Pro, and also take a look at the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X wired.

All of these headphones are great and meet the highest demands. But none of them are equipped with ANC.

Sony MDR-7506 studio headphones closed

Dynamic, closed, 10 Hz-20 kHz .; 40.0 mm plug made of neodymium .; Impedance: 63 ohms, sensitivity: 106 dB / W / m.
99.00 EUR

beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm over-ear studio headphones in black. Closed construction, wired for professional recording and monitoring

Closed over-ear headphones ideal for professional recording and monitoring; Hard-wearing, long-lasting and robust workmanship; Made in Germany

159.00 EUR −52.05 EUR 106.95 EUR

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x DJ headphones for studio, black

45 mm driver, neodymium magnet system and CCAW voice coils; 90 degree swivel ear cups for easy one-ear monitoring; Collapsible
129.00 EUR

Final remark

Headphones are always a sensitive issue. And a very personal one. Every listener has their own special expectations, and every style of music has different requirements. Headphones are basically bass-heavy compared to speakers. Nevertheless, models are offered that additionally raise the bass range. For party-goers this sound pattern seems to be the best, studio freaks turn away with a shudder.

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