You Don’t Really Need Noise Canceling Headphones

Just about every month I get an email, tweet or text message with the question, “What is the best noise canceling headphone for me?” This is especially true around the holidays and the beginning of a school year when people are traveling or hoping to actually start studying.

Noise canceling headphones are designed for use on airplanes. As such, they are set knock out frequencies 400-3,000 hertz. The headphones use a microphone to measure the ambient noise, a microprocessor simultaneously tells the speakers in the headphones to create the opposite phase of the same frequency.

An in-ear headphone will almost always sound better and provide more noise-isolation without degrading your listening experience. They are also cheaper, more portable, require no batteries and can fit so comfortably that you forget you’re even wearing headphones. I will provide a post of my recommended in-ear headphones soon.


This is great on an airplane or a car where the audio it is canceling is focused on those frequencies as they drone on. This type of noise canceling isn’t as effective in less predictable situations like coffee shops with clanging dishes, overhead music, conversation and espresso machines as background noise.

Sound degradation

Another reason noise canceling headphones aren’t always the best answer is the degradation in sound quality. People think that since they paid $300 for their noise canceling headphones, they should sound $200 better than their Sennheiser HD 448. Sadly this isn’t the case. Most of that money goes into the microphones and sound processors used for noise cancelation. You’re still getting $100 quality sound (which can be really awesome sound) but you’re not getting $300 sound.

Add on to that the negative effects of noise cancelation. Think of noise canceling like a food. Removing ambient noise with active noise cancelation is like taking the fat out of a cheese cake. Yes it looks like a cheesecake but it tastes flat and unsavory. Audio suffers the same fate. Processing, and especially over-processing, ambient noise reduction can dramatically degrade sound quality. Some headphone makers will boost frequencies to compensate for this, like adding extra sugar to un-ruin a fat-free cheese cake. But now you have another problem like boosted bass.


Another silly problem with most noise canceling headphones is that when the battery dies in your headphones, so does the sound. When Klipsch released the Mode M40 noise canceling headphones, one of the key selling points was the they worked with or without the battery. If you’ve got a set of Bose Quiet Comfort headphones die after 20-30 hours of use and backup batteries are pricey at $50 each.

More and more headphones are being made to work with over-the-counter AAA and AA batteries which helps in this problem. Other companies like Klipsch are incorporating a passive passthrough in the case that the batteries die and you’re unable to recharge or purchase new ones at the moment.

These batteries and processors also increase the weight which can be annoying after a while. Plus their passive noise canceling (pressing around your ears) grows uncomfortable on long flights.

These are things you should consider before investing in noise canceling headphones.

If you still want in on the noise canceling game, check out my recommended noise canceling headphones. I’ve broken them down in a post coming very soon.

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