Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work Without Music?

Yes. Noise cancelling headphones can work without music, but be careful which headphones you choose as some are more effective than others. 

If you don’t want to listen to music all the time look for headphones that use active noise cancellation technology as these work well without music.

Using Noise Cancelling Headphones Without Music 

man wearing headphones

The majority of noise cancelling headphones are most effective when you are using them to listen to music too.

This is because the music helps to muffle out the sounds you don’t want to hear making them kinder to your ears (and slightly safer) than normal headphones.

With that said, you can also use some (but not all) noise-cancelling headphones without music.

If you know you’ll be using the headphones without music, look for models that use active noise cancellation. 

Let’s look at how different types of noise cancelling headphones work. 

How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work?

There are two types of noise-cancelling technology and there is quite a difference between the two.

It’s important to know the differences so you can find the best option for your requirements:

Passive Noise Isolation

This reduces the sounds around you and allows you to enjoy your music without needing to crank the volume up.

They tend to muffle ambient noise rather than stop it so they work well in combination with audio such as music or podcasts.

Passive noise isolation headphones come as earbuds or over-ear models.

Both types use the same method of physically blocking the sound to stop it and they both effectively create a tight seal in/ around your ears. 

In summary: Passive noise isolation is great for muffling ambient noise but they are most effective when used with audio.

Active Noise Cancellation

a visual depiction of how active noice cancellation works

This technology works by electronically cancelling out the noise before it reaches your ears.

They are an effective option that were first designed for use by aircraft pilots before later finding their way onto the consumer market.

These headphones are particularly well-suited to cutting off repetitive, long-lasting noise.

This makes them a good choice for eliminating environmental background noise.

The downside is that they usually have a limited range but you can use them with or without music. 

In summary: Active noise cancellation is great for eliminating environmental background noise, particularly if it is repetitive. They are effective with or without music playing as long as they have power.

Using Noise Cancelling Headphones Without Music

do noise-cancelling headphones need music to work

You may have bought noise cancelling headphones only to be disappointed at the amount of noise that still gets through when you pause your music.

This is quite common as the lower cost headphones tend to muffle sounds rather than eliminate them.

Choosing the right headphones for the situation makes all the difference. 

Can I Use Active Noise Cancellation Headphones Without Music? 

Yes, active noise cancellation headphones are the best option when you are not listening to music.

They offer a more sophisticated system than passive headphones and as such are more effective. 

Active cancellation headphones have a microphone that picks up the frequencies of the incoming sounds and then plays the opposite frequency to cancel out the noise.

This clever technique focuses on constant sounds such as the noise of traffic which means they can be less effective against sudden sounds such as voices.  

The key consideration with this type of headphone is that they need power to work (even if you are not listening to music) so they will need to be charged.

They are usually also slightly more expensive than passive headphones.

Due to the way the technology works the headphones aren’t as effective in eliminating sounds that are sudden and infrequent so you may find certain sounds still get through the system. 

Can I Use Passive Noise Isolation Headphones Without Music? 

man using headphones

Yes, you can still use passive noise isolation headphones without music but they won’t block as much sound.

They will still be able to muffle ambient sound so they could be effective if the noise you are trying to block out is relatively low volume.

The good thing about passive noise isolation is that it uses material to reduce the ambient sounds so they can be used without the need for power. 

You will also find many over-ear headphones that have active noise cancellation also feature passive noise isolation by way of the big padded ear covers. 

How to Use Active Noise Cancellation Headphones Without Music 

The set up will vary between different headphones but usually you will need to connect the headphones to your phone with a cable or change the “auto-off” setting.

This is so the headphones don’t automatically switch off or go into a power saving mode when you are using them without music for longer than 5 minutes.

The cable should be included in the box when you buy noise cancelling headphones.  

Changing the settings or having the headphones connected via a cable will keep them switched on.

This allows you to enjoy their noise cancelling abilities while you are not listening to audio. 

Also Read: Best Noise Cancelling Headphones For Working Out

The Downsides to Noise Cancelling Headphones

The majority of noise cancelling headphones work best for frequencies lower than between 1,000Hz – 500Hz which is ideal for engine noise and road noise but means that human speech can sometimes slip through and still be heard.

This is due to the frequency of human voice and the fluctuation in tone.

If you want to block out the sound of a baby crying don’t expect too much of noise cancelling headphones when you are using them without music.

With that said, they’ll work great if you need them to block out the sound of your partner snoring

There aren’t any headphones that can currently block out all sounds so it is worth considering which features are most important to you.

For example, if you love music you may find some active noise cancelling headphones offer reduced audio quality so if that’s a priority you might prefer passive noise isolation.  

Factors to Consider 

When buying noise cancelling headphones, consider the following factors to help find the best option for you:

Power Source 

The best noise cancelling headphones (those that use active noise cancellation) need a separate source of power in order to work.

This means they need to be charged so if you are taking the headphones on a long journey you may need a charger or power bank with you.

It is worth finding out the battery life of the headphones.

Some headphones last significantly longer than others, also consider how long it takes to charge the headphones fully after use. 

Finding Quality Headphones 

As you may have already noticed, different brands and models offer different results.

The quality varies considerably from one product to the next so the best way of knowing which is best for you is to try them or read reviews from others. 

Listening to Music 

No noise cancelling headphones can fully cancel out all noise.

The addition of music complements the noise cancelling power of the headphones quite strongly.

If you’ve noticed your headphones aren’t great at eliminating background noise, playing music or a podcast can help. 

Earbuds Vs Over-the-Head 

noise cancelling headphones in use on public transport

The type of headphone you choose will depend on personal preference.

If you choose an in-ear model then you will need to make sure you get the best possible fit in order for them to be effective in cancelling out outside noises.

As earbuds are smaller in size they are often well suited to putting in your pocket and taking on trips.

Many people find over-ear versions are a very comfortable option as they tend to be well padded and it is easy to adjust them to provide the best fit over your ears. 


No matter how much you pay, no noise cancelling headphones can fully cancel out all noise.

All options work more effectively when music is playing.

The overall effectiveness of the headphones depends on the type you choose and the situation you are in.

We recommend you use headphones with active noise cancellation as these remain effective even without music playing.

They are particularly good for eliminating background noise such as traffic. 

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