Let’s talk about noise cancellation – it’s a feature common to earbuds, earphones, and headsets.
But there are two kinds of noise cancellation – active and passive.
What’s the difference?
Which is better?
How does it work?
That’s what we’ll discuss in this review.
We’ll also talk about noise reduction techniques used with microphones.
All these things are critical to getting a good music and phone call experience on wireless earbuds.
Here’s some great products the incorporate noise cancellation:
Passive Noise Cancellation
Passive noise cancellation is a simple, robust, and cheap method.
In it’s simplest form, it is a physical barrier between unwanted external sounds and your ear canal.
The ear tips on the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air earbuds are a good example.
These earbuds include soft, flexible silicone tips. They are provided in five different sizes.
You choose the tip that is the right combination of comfort and sound-proofing – and you are all set.
It has a significant effect in that you hear more of the music or phone call – and much less of unwanted external noise.
An added bonus of the ear tips – the tight fit helps to ensure the earbuds stay firmly situated in your ears.
The downside to these is that some people do not find them comfortable.
Usually this can be remedied by ensuring you are using the right tip size.
There’s one more benefit to passive noise cancellation – it doesn’t require any extra electrical power.
- Graphene-Enhanced Sound: Pioneering audio technology delivers highly accurate sound with superior clarity.
- Crystal-Clear Calls: Listen and talk through both earpieces. Noise-cancelling microphones eliminate background noise and enhance voice pick-up for flawless communication
- Leading Playtime: Get up to 5 hours of music from a single charge. The charging case takes the total playtime to 20 hours.
- Integrated Touch Control: Use the earbuds to play, pause, and skip music and answer calls on-the-go.
- What You Get: Liberty Air true-wireless earphones, charging case, XS/S/M/L/XL EarTips, 60 cm micro USB cable, user manual, 18-month warranty, and friendly customer service.
Let’s move on.
Active Noise Cancellation
Passive noise cancellation blocks sounds before they arrive at your eardrum.
Active noise cancellation actually uses sound waves to counter-act and “cancel out” unwanted sound.
This is an advanced technique – enabled through modern technology and low-power computer chips.
In order to do this, the earbud or headset must have a microphone to pick up the external sounds – things like the hum of a jet engine and other continuous noises are blocked out quite well.
Thanks to digital signal processing that is done with chips in the earbud, a sound wave is transmitted through the speaker to counter-act the unwanted noise – whilst still playing the sound you want.
Does this sound magical?
Indeed, a good set of noise cancelling headphones are pretty amazing.
But, there are a few trade-offs.
For one, this tech is more expensive than passive noise cancellation.
It also requires a battery or some other form of power – to power that computer chip that is doing all the signal processing.
Lastly, active noise cancellation really works best when it can be paired with passive noise cancellation.
For example, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, Noise-Cancelling (Buy on Amazon) aren’t earbuds obviously – but this is the gold standard for a portable, noise-cancelling headphone.
As you can see, they are expensive.
But the combination of the over-the-ear ear muffs, which utilize a nicely padded foam ring passively block sound from your ears.
- Three levels of world-class noise cancellation for better listening experience in any environment
- Alexa-enabled for voice access to music, information, and more
- Noise-rejecting dual-microphone system for clear sound and voice pick-up
- Balanced audio performance at any volume
- Hassle-free Bluetooth pairing, personalized settings, access to future updates, and more through the Bose Connect app
But when you add in the active noise cancellation the experience is even better.
These are great for travelers – they can turn a noisy airport lounge, gate, or elsewhere into a pleasant listening environment.
Are they worth the expense?
I absolutely believe they are – I’ve traveled with a pair for over 10 years – they are worth their weight in gold when you are trying to listen to music, or watch a movie on an airplane.
That because the continuous drone or hum from the jet engines is quite loud – and that’s the sort of noise that these devices block so effectively.
Let’s look at an earbud option.
The Sony WF-1000XM3 Earbuds (Buy on Amazon) are a great choice – but expensive.
They combine both active and passive noise cancellation – in a very streamlined form factor.
If you want the best noise cancelling earbud – this is it.
- Industry leading noise canceling with HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1e
- 24bit Audio signal processing delivers dramatically improved sound quality
- Battery life up to 24 hours with carrying case (with 10min quick charge for 90min of play time
- Truly wireless design with uninterrupted L/R simultaneous Bluetooth transmission
- Smart listening by adaptive sound control automatically switches to ambient sound mode based on your activity
What about Apple’s AirPods?
They are a hot-seller – but they do not incorporate active or passive noise cancellation.
(The newest AirPods Pro DO have active noise cancellation though.)
They do use noise-cancellation techniques for the microphone though.
Let’s talk about that next.
If you are going to use earbuds for phone calls – there are two perspectives to a crystal-clear phone call.
First, you’ll benefit from the passive or active noise cancellation we talked about above.
But the microphone on the earbuds should have some form of noise-cancellation or noise-reduction as well.
Ever had a call with someone in a crowded room?
Could you hear every conversation from people 10 feet away?
That means there was no noise-cancelling microphone in use.
This is another feature enabled by today’s high powered, but small, computer chips.
A noise cancelling microphone can pick up the external sounds as compared to what’s coming from your voice – and only transmit the correct sound.
Some earbuds, like the Apple AirPods (Buy on Amazon) use dual beamforming microphones to enable this.
It’s a long explanation – but long story short – they do a great job.
- Automatically on, automatically connected
- Easy setup for all your Apple devices
- Quick access to Siri by saying “Hey Siri”
- Double-tap to play or skip forward
- New Apple H1 headphone chip delivers faster wireless connection to your devices
There are some other benefits to using Apple AirPods.
They let you use Siri, they have amazing touch controls, they intelligently pause music when you take them out of your ears, and more.
They also work seamlessly with all your Apple gadgets: iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, or Mac, and more.
So, despite the fact they have no active or passive noise cancellation for listening – they are still a popular choice.
Lastly, we should mention – those Anker Soundcore Liberty Air earbuds we highlighted earlier – those have noise cancelling microphones as well – at a much cheaper price point.
It’s described as “Dual Mic Uplink Noise Reduction”.
Overall it is the same technique as in the Apple – use two microphones so the chip within can separate your voice from other sounds.
Downsides of Noise Cancellation
Everything isn’t rosy with Noise Cancellation.
It can reduce your awareness of your surroundings.
This can be dangerous if you are jogging.
It can make it impossible to hear conversations around you – and this might be an issue in the workplace – or at school.
But, there are some new features coming soon that will help with this.
The Apple AirPods Pro will have a Transparency Mode.
This neat feature will use outward facing microphones to allow ambient sounds and conversations in.
What’s better – it will be very easy to switch from total noise isolation to transparency mode easily.
We look forward to testing that new feature when the AirPods Pro are released later this month.
(The soon to be released Amazon Echo Buds will have a similar feature called “passthrough mode”.)
Let’s round out this discussion with one more topic.
You’ll also run across Noise Reduction Headphones, like the AmazonBasics Noise Reduction Safety Earmuffs (Buy on Amazon).
These are mostly meant for workplace and industrial environments.AmazonBasics Noise Reduction Safety Earmuffs Ear Protection, Solid Black
They are an over-the-ear form factor and designed to use passive noise cancellation to stop dangerous sound levels from reaching your ears.
Hence, they are big and bulky – because this is meant for stopping dangerous levels of sound – like gunshots, jet engines, industrial equipment, and more.
These devices require no battery.
Electronic Noise Reduction is similar – but includes microphones to pick up normal sounds like conversations, etc. and block out dangerous sounds.
These work with battery power and a computer chip to very quickly cut-off the microphone when a loud sound happens.
This way you can carry on a productive conversation – without exposing your ears to injury.
This Howard Leight model (Buy on Amazon) is the gold standard at the shooting range.Howard Leight by Honeywell Impact Sport Sound Amplification Electronic Shooting Earmuff, Classic Green (R-01526)
I can attest these work well.
Noise Cancelling Earbuds – In Summary
Modern technology has bestowed upon us the best products ever for listening to music and making phone calls on the go.
Passive noise cancellation is a simple (and cheap!) technique that provides a seal to block any external noise from entering your ear canal.
With a tight fit, it is reasonably effective.
But under the right conditions active noise cancellation can provide great benefits.
By cancelling out unwanted sound, active noise cancelling headphones can provide a peaceful listening experience even in the noisiest of environments.
And when you combine both techniques together – you get the best results.
Noise cancelling microphones also help transmit your voice clearly and without disruption in a phone conversation.
Lastly, for shooting and industrial safety, you want an electronic noise-reduction headset or safety ear-muff which can shut off external sounds quickly for ear protection.
When shopping for wireless earbuds it’s also important to understand the liquid protection IP ratings as well.
Last update on 2019-11-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API