Travel tips: How to choose and use noise-canceling headphones

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Maybe it's time for a set noise-canceling headphones, amirite?
Maybe it's time for a set cable-canceling headphones, amirite?
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Noise-canceling headphones are fantastic. They cut down on traffic noise, airplane rumble and even — to a certain extent — the racket from that never-ending construction work across the street. Not only is life more pleasant without this noise pollution, but less background noise is also healthier for your ears.

Because you’re not trying to drown out the ambient noise with your music, you can set the volume lower, thus preserving your hearing (as well as your sanity).

Today we’ll see how to choose from the different kinds of available noise-canceling headphones, and how to use them. What this won’t be is a buyer’s guide — although I do have some recommendations based on personal use.

Two kinds of noise cancellation: passive …

There are two ways to reduce background noise. One is passive. You just use thick, well-sealed headphones or earbuds to stop the noise from entering your ear. This is actually a great option for noise cancellation. I have an old pair of Sony earbuds that prove perfect for walking in the street, because they seal my earholes up so well.

These Sony XBA-C10s are fantastic, but long-discontinued.
These Sony XBA-C10s are fantastic, but long-discontinued.
Photo: Sony

The downside of passive noise blocking is that you have to get a good fit. Over-the-ear headphones need to sit tight over your ears, and the seal can be spoiled by thick-armed spectacles or sunglasses. Larger ear cups can be better than smaller in this case.

Take a look at ear defenders to see the ultimate in noise-blocking tech. The popular and well-regarded 3M Peltor X5A, for instance, comes with a large cup opening big enough to allow the entire outer ear to fit inside. (It’s also deep enough that your ears feel like they have some space.) But really, it depends on the shape of your ears and head. Try various models to be sure.

If you can get a good fit (try turning earbuds upside-down, and make sure you test different-size tips to best fit your ear), then passive noise-blocking headphones can be every bit as good as active tech. Plus, they offer the advantage of being battery-free and generally cheaper than active noise-canceling headphones.

So could you just buy a cheap pair of ears defenders and wear them over your AirPods? Yes and no. That certainly works in theory. But in practice, the act of putting on the big earmuffs typically will knock the AirPods out of your ears. I know, because I’ve tried it.

… and active

Active noise cancellation is where the headphones contain a computer and a microphone. They sample the ambient noise, then create an exact copy of it, only out of phase. Here’s a picture to show you how it works:

Active noise cancellation: Science in action!
Science in action!
Photo: CC Marekich/Wikipedia

It’s pretty wild. That’s some high-school physics happening in real life right there. Amazingly, it’s possible to take a copy of the street noise, invert it, and then play it back so that it almost entirely cancels out the original noise. Active noise-canceling headphones also use some passive blocking to do their job.

However, there are several disadvantage to active noise-canceling headphones. One is that the processing can adversely affect the actual music. With better models, though, this should prove unnoticeable (especially if you’re streaming MP3s over Bluetooth). The other big downside is price. A good pair of noise-canceling cans costs a lot more than a good pair of passive headphones.

Extra gimmicks

The only bad thing about the Sony WH-H900N headphones is the name.
The only bad thing about the Sony WH-H900N is the name.
Photo: Sony

Active noise canceling brings some other advantages, too, thanks to the headphones’ microphone(s) and on-board processor. One is that you can usually use them to make phone calls. Another is that they can reduce wind noise. The Sony WH-H900N has this feature, and it’s miraculous. You lose a little bit of noise canceling when you switch it on — traffic will sound louder — but the swoosh of wind rushing past the headphones is reduced or eliminated.

Do they really cancel noise?

In reality, noise cancellation is actually more like noise reduction. It never cuts out all background sound. But that’s fine. It’s good enough to prevent ear fatigue on long flights, and to reduce traffic or metro/tube/bus noise enough that you can actually hear your podcasts without cranking up the volume all the way.

For years, I felt happy with the Sony XBA-C10 earphones (pictured above). In fact, I still am. I keep them in my bag at all times. But these days, I find it uncomfortable to stick things in my ears. So now I use the aforementioned Sony WH-H900N headphones instead. They’re less convenient, but they’re more comfortable. Plus, they sound better.

AirPods are the worst outdoor headphones

AirPods don’t cancel or block noise, but I’ll mention them here because they’re so bad. I love the convenience of AirPods. Nothing can beat a tiny, always-charged, always-in-your-pocket gadget. And the sound isn’t bad. But I can only use them at home.

Outside, they are so drowned out by ambient noise that they are almost inaudible, even when cranked. On the metro, they’re useless. And in the street, traffic drowns out music and makes podcasts hard to hear. So, for me, my super-expensive wireless earbuds are used only at home, where it’s quiet enough to hear them. I guess at least the battery will last for more than two years.

Should you buy noise-canceling headphones?

You probably should. While you probably don’t need high-end (and expensive) active models, the health and comfort benefits of noise-canceling headphones are well worth the downsides. If nothing else, make sure your next headphones are either well-sealed over-the-ear types, or earbuds that can plug up your ears against ambient noise.

For further reading, and for some recommendations, check out Wirecutter’s excellent article on noise-canceling headphones.