Noise Cancelling Vs Noise Isolating Headphones: Which are Best?

If you are looking for a way to enjoy peace in this busy world you have probably looked into noise cancelling headphones.

You may have noticed there are two distinct types of headphones that are designed to eliminate ambient background noise.

Noise cancellation uses noise signals to cancel out unwanted sound (this is great for low, constant sound such as engine noise) while noise isolation uses material and design to stop noise from reaching your ear canal (great for muffling ambient background noise of all types).

noise isolating vs noise cancelling headphones

Noise cancellation headphones require a power supply and are generally more expensive due to the technology they use.

There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion about noise cancellation headphones, many people think the terms are interchangeable but these headphones use very different methods to eliminate background noise.

It’s important to know what the differences are and how this impacts their efficiency so you can find the best option for your use.

In this guide, we will directly compare the two types to help you figure out which noise cancelling headphones are best for you. 

Noise Cancellation 

Noise cancellation is also called active noise cancellation (ANC). This refers to the technique of actively blocking out external noise using specially designed technology.

The process involves a built-in microphone that detects noise and generates a signal that cancels out the incoming noise.

headphones beng worn in a noisy envirnoment

This works to ensure the only noise you can hear is the music you are playing into the headphones, they can also work without music too as they can play the opposite of the ambient noises you are hearing.

Noise cancellation uses a small microphone, a digital signal processor and a battery unit. 

How Do They Work? 

The microphone will pick up sounds from your surroundings, these will be passed to the digital processor for analysis and then the opposite sound wave is generated.

The opposite sound wave cancels out the incoming sound so you do not hear either of the noises.

While this is a very fast and effective method of cancelling out noises, it does have limitations.

If the sound is sudden, random or rapidly changing the headphones are not able to cancel out the noises.

A good example is voices, due to the frequency and rapidly changing sound of human voices the active noise cancellation headphones are generally not able to stop the sounds from seeping through and being heard. 

What Are Noise Cancellation Headphones Good For? 

Active noise cancellation headphones are perfectly suited to eliminating constant background noises such as the drone of an engine, the noise of traffic or the hum of an air conditioner.

noise isolating headphones

If you are commuting or travelling, these headphones are ideal for ensuring you have a peaceful journey. 

Also read:

Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Safe?
Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Hearing?

Noise Isolation 

Noise isolation is also known as passive noise cancellation, this is a simpler method of eliminating sound as it uses sound proofing materials as a way of blocking the surrounding noise.

Noise isolation is based on the headphones physical ability to stop the sound before it reaches your ear.

This is either achieved in the form of thick padding on the ear cups or by sealing the ear canal so noise cannot get through.


Noise isolation does not require battery power to work as it isolates your ear from ambient noise without using electricity. 

How Do They Work? 

Noise isolation works by creating a seal with your ears.

They aim to stop the sound from reaching your ear canal.

How effective they are will depend on how well the seal is formed.

If the headphones are ill-fitting then they will not be as effective as they could be.

As everybody’s ears are different it can be difficult to find the best headphones for you, this is particularly true of in-ear headphones that need to properly fit and be comfortable to work well. 

What Are Noise Isolation Headphones Good For? 

Noise isolation headphones block out all ranges of noise equally. They don’t impact the sound quality you are experiencing and they don’t need power to work.

man using headphones

They are good for use in most environments as they will efficiently muffle ambient noise and allow you to better concentrate. These headphones tend to be most effective when you are also listening to music through them.

If you are spending time in places where there are lots of sudden or high-pitched sounds you will find noise isolation is more effective than noise cancellation. 

Which Is Better? 

As you can see, noise cancellation and noise isolation work in very different ways. Both types have their own pros and cons.

Generally speaking, noise cancellation is more effective but it depends on the situation.

The two types of headphone offer different features which may sway your decision as to which is best suited to you: 

1. Sound Quality 

Noise isolation doesn’t generate any sound waves which means the sound quality you experience through the headphones is truer to the original sound.

Due to this, noise isolating headphones are generally preferred by sound engineers as they can hear the sound how it is meant to be heard.  

man wearing headphones

As noise cancellation uses sound waves to cancel out incoming noises this can interfere with sound quality.

This tends to be more noticeable in budget noise cancellation headphones so if you want to get the benefits of active noise cancellation without the loss in quality, look at premium headphone models.

It is worth noting that some people can hear a slight buzzing noise in noise cancellation headphones which can also impact your listening experience. 

2. Portability 

Noise cancellation headphones require battery power to work, if the battery runs out then the headphones won’t work for noise cancelling.

This means they need to be charged regularly and you may need to take a charger or power bank with you when you are going to be using your headphones a lot.

On the other hand, noise isolation headphones do not require any power so are well suited to being used for long periods of time and in places where you may not have access to electricity.

man wearing headphones

They can be large in size but you can find noise isolation headphones of all sizes so you should be able to find a smaller pair if you plan to do a lot of travelling with them. 

3. Design & Comfort

Noise isolation headphones tend to be larger as they use padding to stop sound from reaching your ear canal.

However, you can find smaller in-ear versions which are more lightweight.

Wearing in-ear headphones of any type can cause discomfort, particularly if they do not fit properly and you wear them for a long period of time. 

4. Price 

Noise cancellation is more expensive than noise isolation headphones.

The extra cost is worthwhile if you will be using the headphones to eliminate constant background noise such as the sound of trains, planes or traffic.

If you want to block out sudden loud noises such as gunshots or people shouting then noise cancellation won’t be effective so it may not be worth paying the extra money for this technology. 

Noise isolating headphones are simpler and as a result, are often a lot cheaper.

The most important thing about these headphones is finding a model that fits your ears well as that plays a big role in how effective the noise isolation will be. 

Also Read: 5 Best Noise Cancelling Headphones For Working Out

Noise Cancelling Vs Noise Isolating: The Verdict 

Both of these headphone types have their advantages and disadvantages. They use very different methods of stopping background noise and both are effective in their own right.

We’d recommend noise cancelling headphones if you have a constant, low frequency noise that is bothering you, for example, the sound of the bus engine when you are commuting to and from work.

If you are spending a lot of time in places where there’s a range of noises including loud, random sounds then we’d recommend choosing noise isolating headphones.

The best noise cancellation headphones for you comes down to personal preference.

If price isn’t an issue you can even find headphones that combine both methods to give you the best of both worlds. 

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I'm Dan, I live very close to an internationally famous stadium which generates an awful lot of noise that I'd rather block out.

This is my place to document what I've learnt on my soundproofing journey.