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What is active noise cancellation, and how does it work?

Active noise canceling (ANC) is a special technology that uses microphones and electronics to “magically” remove unwanted noise. Learn the details below.

Anc headphones on top of a laptop keyboard
Image: Unsplash

ANC stands for active noise canceling technology that uses microphones to record ambient noise and deafen it before your ears hear it.

It produces a 180-degree phase-inverted sound that cancels the undesirable noise. Headphones constantly monitor background noise with built-in microphones to create the canceling sound.

They record the ambient noise, then send it to the electronics that create the anti-noise by inverting the phase for 180 degrees. 

The headphones then produce the inverted sound with their speakers; before both reach your ears, they cancel each other out. That way, you only hear music from your headphones, not anything else.

Monoprice monolith m1000anc bluetooth anc headphones on desk
Image: Kevin Raposo / KnowTechie

The technology isn’t 100% effective, and some noise is let through. Constant noise like the highway, city noise, traffic, and airplane engine noise is much easier to cancel.

When it comes to quick, sudden noises like a honk of a car or people talking to you, the ANC isn’t good at removing.

Also, cheaper ANC headphones create unwanted noise like hissing or giving you the feeling of air pressure in your ears.

Thankfully, the best noise-canceling earbuds and headphones don’t suffer from this problem. So, if you want to take the best advantage of the ANC, make sure not to skimp on your purchase.

How active noise cancellation improves your daily life and work productivity?

Sony noise-canceling headphones
Image: Sony

Noise pollution is a growing problem in many workplaces and urban areas. ANC can help improve your life and work productivity by removing distractions.

Here are specific examples of how ANC helps improve your life:

Increases well-being and productivity in the workplace

Studies show that ambient noise is a well-known stressor that induces physiological issues like high blood pressure, heart problems, and reduced motor efficiency.

Noise pollution is becoming an increasing problem in industrialized countries and creating more complications than we give it credit. 

You can effectively reduce unwanted background noise by using ANC headphones and improve your well-being and focus for more productivity.

With the popularity of open-space offices, they overlooked the distractions they bring. Being constantly surrounded by people communicating and making noise is often distracting.

Put on ANC headphones, and you create your own little bubble.

Removes stress and social pressure from public places

Room full of people sitting at workstations
Image: Unsplash

Around half the population is categorized as introverts who naturally prefer being alone. We’re not all social butterflies who need constant attention.

And one of the best ways to communicate if you want to be left alone non-verbally is to wear headphones. 

Wearing headphones communicates you’re not looking for interaction. And when you want to enjoy your favorite music on a packed subway commuting home from work, ANC headphones are the best.

They remove ambient noise and let you enjoy your music by yourself without distractions.

Protects your hearing

Long exposure to excessive environmental noise can lead to long-term hearing loss, according to WHO.

They estimate over one billion people, 12-35 years old, are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to loud noise. 

How do ANC headphones help? It’s common for people who listen to music in loud places to increase volume to unhealthy levels.

This is especially common for teenagers, so they can hear the music on a loud commute home.

This leads to creeping hearing loss over time. ANC helps remove the noise, so you can listen to music at a healthy volume. 

What are the benefits of ANC headphones compared to traditional headphones?

Airpods max headphones on table
Image: Matthew Hughes / KnowTechie

The first and obvious benefit is noise reduction

Active noise cancellation reduces background noise and provides a better listening experience in noisy environments. 

While traditional headphones offer some level of passive noise reduction that blocks the ambient noise, it’s not as effective.

Traditional closed-back headphones have good isolation, while semi-open and open-back headphones don’t block much noise.

Most ANC headphones have Bluetooth and additional functionality

In the past, ANC headphones had the electronics in a separate in-line module that was heavy and clumsy to use. 

Older anc active noise cancelling set-up with a purple circle around device
Image: Bose

Today, noise-canceling headphones are, by and large, wireless. They often have built-in electronics and many microphones that you can use for phone calls.

And they come with extra features like a custom equalizer, sound presets, built-in customizable controls, auto-pause function, and quick charging batteries.

You can still get non-ANC headphones with the same features, but it’s less common.

Are there any downsides to using ANC headphones?

There are a couple of downsides of ANC headphones to consider:

ANC uses more power, thus lowering overall battery life per charge

All headphones that have active noise cancellation have two levels of battery life. One with ANC on and the other with ANC turned off.

The first one is always lower because it takes more power to run the technology. 

The difference can sometimes be as big as ten hours, while for noise-canceling earbuds, it’s less. For example, EarFun Air pro 2 last seven hours without ANC and around six hours with ANC.

ANC headphones often cost more money

Noise cancellation is a premium feature people are willing to pay for. The best noise-canceling headphones from Sony, Bose, and Beats often cost over $300 and up to $500.

Prices for ANC earbuds are similarly higher, but you can get them for as low as $50.

Lower-quality ANC headphones often change the sound quality

The problem is that sound quality changes when you turn on the ANC.

This is common in cheaper headphones that don’t have the best noise-canceling technology, and the manufacturer has taken too many shortcuts. 

To avoid this, pick only the best-tested budget headphones that don’t have that problem.

Also, it’s not uncommon for even more expensive ANC headphones to have this problem, so knowing what you’re buying is essential.

Does noise cancelling hurt ears?

Sony wh-1000xm3 headphones on a guy in a plane
Image: Sony

Some people report feeling nauseous when listening to headphones with ANC.

The reason might be that the ANC headphones produce low-frequency waves that stimulate hair cell receptors in the ear, which communicate to the brain that you are moving.

But because your eyes are static, it creates a conflicting situation that results in dizziness and nausea. 

Ultimately, it’s important to know that ANC can’t hurt your ears and that it’s only temporary if you’re feeling dizzy.

If you frequently feel sick after wearing ANC, you should test using less powerful headphones or avoid ANC.

How do you choose the best pair of ANC headphones for your needs and budget?

ANC headphones can be a great investment if you want a better listening experience and want to drown out background noise.

But with all the options on the market, how do you choose the best pair for your needs and budget?

Here are a few tips:

Decide what type of headphones you want

There are different types of ANC headphones on the market. 

  • ANC earbuds are lightweight and portable but don’t offer the longest battery life or comfort. 
  • Over-ear headphones usually offer better comfort, but they can be bulky and not portable. Plus, premium headphones cost more money than premium earbuds.

Consider your budget

ANC headphones can range in price from around $50 to $400. Decide how much you’re willing to spend and stick to it.

The high-end headphones can be much more expensive even though their performance is marginally better.

You can get decent headphones for around $100 that will do the job, while $300 headphones might be only slightly better, and not three times.

Do you need water protection?

Earbuds in water
Image: Unsplash

If you plan on using your ANC headphones in the gym or outside, it’s good to have some water resistance.

Generally, the higher the IPX rating, the better the water protection. Look for minimally IPX4 if your headphones will be exposed to sweat.

IPX6 and IPX7 are even better, as you can wash the headphones underwater, and they can even survive an accidental drop in water.

What features do you want?

Do you want to be able to control how aggressive ANC is? Only the best premium headphones come with this feature. But maybe you have other less demanding must-have requirements like:

  • An equalizer
  • Sound presets
  • Customizable controls
  • Adaptable ANC
  • Support for high-res Bluetooth codecs (LDAC, aptX HD)
  • Auto-pause feature when you take the headphones off your head
  • A quality microphone for calls
  • Long battery life with quick charging
  • A nice design
  • A wide choice of ear tips in case of earbuds

These are just common examples of features you can look at.

Now, you probably won’t find one pair of headphones that has it all for the price you want, but by weighing the choices, you can come to the optimal headphones for your needs.

Try them out or check tests

Once you’ve narrowed down your options, try out different pairs in your local store if you have the option. Or read the tests of ANC headphones to see which ones you like the best.

Most stores have a generous refund policy, so if you don’t like them, you can always send them back for a refund.

The verdict on why use ANC?

Apple airpods pro
Image: KnowTechie

ANC headphones have become more popular in recent years, and for good reason. They offer many benefits over traditional headphones, from improved work productivity to reduced stress levels. 

However, before purchasing, you should be aware of some downsides to using ANC headphones.

By understanding the different features and options available, you can find the best pair of ANC headphones for your needs and budget. 

So, are your next headphones going to be ANC? Check out the reviews below.

Have any thoughts on this? Carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

Editors’ Recommendations:

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