How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?

noise cancelling headphones

Imagine a world where you can turn down the volume of noisy streets, loud neighbors, and all other unwanted sounds with just a pair of headphones.

That’s what noise cancelling headphones do. They act like magic ear muffs helping you to hear only what you want, whether it’s music, a podcast, or silence.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how these amazing headphones work and explore how they can quiet the noise around you and make listening to your favorite sounds tracks better.

The Evolution of Noise Cancellation Technology

Noise Cancellation Technology

The history of noise cancellation technology tells us about the continuous innovation, moving from basic passive techniques to sophisticated active noise control and beyond.

  • Early Beginnings and Passive Noise Isolation: The initial steps toward noise cancellation were made with passive noise isolation methods. These methods relied on physical barriers, such as ear padding, to block out external sounds.
  • Active Noise Cancellation (ANC): The development of ANC represented a significant leap forward. Early ANC systems were bulky and primarily used in aviation. Over time, these systems were miniaturized and refined for consumer headphones, offering users a way to escape from the noise of their environments.
  • Digital Signal Processing (DSP): The introduction of DSP into noise cancelling headphones allowed for more precise control over sound. DSP technology enables headphones to analyze and adjust to the noise environment in real-time, providing an ever-improving listening experience.
  • Integration with Smart Devices: As we move forward, ANC technology is becoming more integrated with smart devices and ecosystems. This integration allows for seamless control over what we hear and how we interact with our audio environments, paving the way for innovations such as context-aware soundscapes and intelligent earbuds that adjust to our needs automatically.

Understanding Sound and Noise

Think of sound like ripples in a pond. When you drop a stone into water, waves spread out in all directions. Sound works similarly, but instead of water, it travels through the air and reaches our ears. This is what we call sound waves.

Noise is the sound we don’t want to hear, like the roar of traffic or a loud drill. It can distract us or even make it difficult to hear the sounds we want to hear.

There are two main kinds of noise we talk about when we look at how active noise cancelling headphones work:

  • Ambient Noise: This is the background sound all around us. In a city, this could be cars and buses moving about. In an office, it’s the hum of computers and people chatting. It’s not always loud, but it’s always there.
  • Unwanted Noise: These are the sounds that interrupt or bother us. This could be someone yelling on the phone next to you or the constant buzz of an air conditioner. These sounds can make it difficult to focus or enjoy your music.

Low Frequency vs. High Frequency

When it comes to noise-cancelling headphones, not all sounds are treated equally.

The difference between low frequency and high frequency sounds plays a crucial role in how effectively these devices can create a peaceful listening environment.

low frequency and high frequency sounds
  • Low Frequency Sounds: These are deep, bass-like sounds, such as the rumble of an airplane engine, the thudding of construction work, or the hum of an air conditioner. These sounds have longer wavelengths and are where noise-cancelling headphones excel. ANC technology effectively identifies and neutralizes persistent, monotonous noises, significantly reducing their impact on the listener.
  • High Frequency Sounds: Higher-pitched noises, like the ringing of a telephone, the chatter of people talking, or the clattering of keyboard keys, have shorter wavelengths. While noise-cancelling headphones can diminish some of these sounds, achieving complete cancellation with ANC alone is often difficult. This is where the headphone’s physical design and materials, known as passive noise isolation, play a crucial role in blocking out sharper, more erratic noises.

Understanding this distinction is key to setting realistic expectations for what noise-cancelling headphones can achieve.

While they can significantly reduce low frequency noises, making environments like airplane cabins quieter, they may not eliminate high frequency sounds entirely.

However, they can still can fulfill the purpose allowing you to enjoy your music, podcasts, or silence with fewer distractions.

How Can We Deal With Noise?

One way is to use active noise cancelling headphones. They’re special because they don’t just block noise like earplugs. They listen to the noise around you and make a sort of “anti-noise” that cancels out the sound waves from the noise.

This way, they can turn down the volume of the world around you without covering your ears with something thick and bulky.

By exploring how sound and noise impact our daily lives and the innovative solutions available today, we can better appreciate the technology behind noise cancelling headphones and how they enhance our listening experience.

Additionally, when producing or recording the sounds that we eventually listen to through our headphones, it’s essential to use the right equipment, notably understanding the different types of microphones, which can significantly affect the quality of the audio captured.

The Science Behind Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise cancelling headphones are a marvel of modern engineering, blending the principles of acoustics with sophisticated electronics to create an almost silent listening environment.

Noise Cancellation Headphones

The technology behind these devices can be divided into two main parts:

Passive Noise Isolation and Active Noise Cancellation (ANC).

  • Passive Noise Isolation relies on the physical design and materials of the headphones to block out sound. This can include the shape and fit of earbuds or the padding around over-ear headphones. While it is effective to a degree, especially for higher frequency sounds, it doesn’t actively cancel out noise.
  • Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) takes a more proactive approach. It uses built-in microphones to listen to the surrounding environment and then produces sound waves that are the exact opposite (in phase) of the unwanted noise. This process, known as destructive interference, as it effectively cancels out the noise before it reaches the listener’s ear.
    1. Tiny Microphones: These are strategically placed on the headphones to capture all external sounds accurately. The microphones are the first step in the ANC process, continuously sampling the ambient sound to provide real-time noise cancellation.
    2. Destructive Interference: The core principle behind ANC and destructive interference, occurs when two sound waves of the same frequency and amplitude but opposite in phase meet. This interaction results in the waves cancelling each other out, leading to a reduction or elimination of the perceived sound.
    3. Phase Inversion: This is a technique used to create the opposite sound wave (or anti-noise) needed for destructive interference. The headphone’s electronics invert the phase of the captured noise and play it back through the speakers, effectively neutralizing the noise before it can interfere with the desired audio content.

ANC technology doesn’t stay the same; it changes and adjusts instantly to the different sounds around you.

This ability to adapt is important for handling different noise levels, like the constant noise on a plane or the occasional talking in a café.

Beyond Noise Cancellation: The Impact on Sound Quality

While noise cancelling headphones excel at minimizing unwanted external sounds, their impact on the actual sound quality of the music or audio content can vary.

The way noise cancellation affects sound quality is important for both music enthusiasts and casual listeners.

If you’re considering using noise-cancelling headphones to fully immerse yourself in music, you might be intrigued by the surge in popularity of Lo-Fi music, known for its calming and nostalgic sound.

Noise Cancellation Technology
  • Maintaining Audio Integrity: High-quality noise cancelling headphones strive to preserve the integrity of the original audio signal. However, the process of generating anti-noise signals can sometimes affect the clarity and depth of the audio. This is most noticeable with complex musical compositions where subtle nuances matter.
  • Technological Advances: Advances in ANC technology have significantly reduced these audio quality issues. Modern ANC headphones use sophisticated algorithms to minimize the impact on sound quality while effectively cancelling out background noise. These advancements ensure that the music remains as true to the original recording as possible.
  • Sound Quality vs. Noise Cancellation Trade-off: Some listeners might notice a slight difference in sound quality when ANC is activated versus when it is off. Manufacturers continue to refine their technologies to minimize this trade-off, aiming to deliver both excellent noise cancellation and superior sound quality.

Selecting Your Ideal Noise Cancelling Headphones

Choosing the right noise cancelling headphones involves considering several factors beyond just the level of noise cancellation.

It’s about balancing your audio preferences, comfort, lifestyle needs, and budget to find the perfect match.

noise cancelling headphones
  • Types of Headphones: Decide between in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear models. In-ear models are compact and great for travel, but some may find them less comfortable for long periods. Over-ear headphones usually offer the best noise cancellation and sound quality, but they’re bulkier.
  • Battery Life: Active noise cancellation requires power. Look for headphones with a battery life that suits your daily needs, especially if you travel frequently or forget to charge your devices often.
  • Additional Features: Modern ANC headphones come with a variety of features, such as Bluetooth connectivity, touch controls, and access to voice assistants. Consider which features are most important to you.
  • Price Range: There’s a wide range of prices for noise cancelling headphones. While more expensive models often offer superior sound quality and noise cancellation, there are also many budget-friendly options that perform admirably.

If you’re torn between investing in noise-canceling headphones or headsets, it’s essential to understand the distinctions between the two. While noise-canceling headphones prioritize immersive sound experiences, headsets often cater to gamers’ communication needs alongside audio quality. This choice ultimately depends on your usage scenarios and preferences.

Noise Cancelling: Open vs Closed Headphones

When selecting noise cancelling headphones, one key distinction to understand between open-back and closed-back headphones is the designs. This choice significantly impacts how you experience your audio and interact with the environment around you.

Open vs Closed Headphones
  • Open-Back Headphones: Open-back headphones allow air and sound to pass freely through the ear cups. This design can create a more natural and spacious sound, often preferred by audiophiles for critical listening. However, it significantly reduces the effectiveness of noise cancellation, as external sounds can easily interfere with your audio.
  • Closed-Back Headphones: These are designed to isolate the listener from the outside world completely. The closed design prevents sound from entering or escaping the headphones, enhances noise cancellation and allows for a more immersive listening experience. However, some listeners find that this design can create a sense of pressure in the ears and may lead to audio fatigue over time.
  • Hybrid Designs: Some manufacturers offer headphones that attempt to bridge the gap between open and closed designs, offering adjustable acoustic settings that let users tailor their listening experience according to their preferences and environment.

Deciding between closed and open-back headphones boils down to where you’ll use them and what matters most to you.

Closed-back headphones are perfect for noisy places and when you need privacy. On the other hand, open-back headphones shine in quiet spaces, letting you fully enjoy their sound quality without outside distractions.


Noise cancelling headphones are more than just regular headphones. They don’t just play music; they also turn down the noise you don’t want to hear. Whether you’re flying, in a busy office, or just at home trying to relax, these headphones can help you find your peace.

With technological advancements, these headphones will only get better at giving you a clear, quiet space to listen to your favorite sounds, thereby being able to hear every note of your music.

For more information on audio technologies and the latest trends in sound equipment, feel free to visit us on SoundHub.


1. How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?

Noise cancelling headphones listen to the noise around you and create a special sound that’s the exact opposite, or “anti-noise.” When these two sounds meet, they cancel each other out, making everything quieter. This lets you enjoy your music or silence without being disturbed by noisy surroundings.

2. What’s the Difference Between Active Noise Cancellation and Passive Noise Isolation?

Active noise cancellation (ANC) uses technology to listen to the noise outside your headphones and then cancels it out with anti-noise. Passive noise isolation, on the other hand, simply uses the materials of the headphones to block out sound, like how earplugs work.

3. Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Block All Types of Noise?

Noise cancelling headphones are great at reducing low, constant noises, like the hum of an airplane engine or road noise. However, they might not completely block sudden, loud noises, like someone shouting nearby.

4. Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Worth It?

If you find yourself often in noisy places and want to focus or relax, noise cancelling headphones can be a great investment. They can help you listen to music, podcasts, or silence without being distracted by the surrounding noise.