Noise Isolation vs. Noise Cancellation Headphones

Noise isolation and noise cancellation. Both are noise reducing headphones, but which one is better? Don’t let the nomenclature of these two technologies stop you from choosing the right headphones for your needs. Take a look at the differences between noise isolation and noise cancellation before shopping.

Though the ultimate goal of both of these technologies is to reduce the amount of outside noise entering your ears, they each go about it in a different way.

Noise Isolation

Noise isolation headphones create a soundproof barrier between the headphone and your ear, effectively blocking unwanted sound waves from entry. Because their efficacy depends on their design shielding your ear from sound leaking in, they’re also referred to as “passive noise cancelling headphones”. While you can find noise isolating over-ear (circumaural) headphones, they generally have some amount of sound leakage, especially when compared to their in-ear counterparts. The reduction in noise in this type of headphones is usually in the 15 to 20 dB range.

The effectiveness of a particular model of in-ear noise isolation headphones is dependent on the fit you are able to establish with your ear, so that should be prime criteria in selection.

Pros and Cons

Noise isolating headphones are less complicated than noise cancellation, making them less prone to damage and malfunction, which can translate to longer life. They also don’t use any batteries, so overall costs will be pretty low.

The holy grail of any headphone is sound quality. Noise isolating headphones have greater audio fidelity in general than noise canceling models. What you make up for in fidelity is usually lost in noise resistance. For instance, noise isolating headphones don’t block out the lowest frequencies. Though they advertise noise isolation, the overall effect is closer to reduced noise.

Noise Cancelling

Wireless noise cancelling headphones work by a microphone in the earcup which measures ambient sound waves and produces a new sound wave that is directly opposite in shape, thus effectively negating external sounds. The effect, when noise is completely cancelled, is one of total silence. The technology for doing this isn’t completely accurate.

Creating that polar opposite of surrounding noises is no exact science and there is potential for noise to intrude upon the artificial silence. Overall, these wireless headphones give the closest experience to complete silence in a noisy setting.

Pros and Cons

With that said, noise cancelling headphones are best suited at cancelling noise. When you add music or sound into the equation, the noise cancelling compromises the audio fidelity. The sound of these headphones is often described as tinny or harsh. It’s a trade-off that some people aren’t willing to make.

With less ambient noise interference, you are able to listen to music at lower volumes, thereby saving your ears from damage. If you’re a fan of jazz, classical, or any other music best listened to at lower volumes, you’ll appreciate this facet of noise cancelling.

Given the noise cancelling mechanism, these headphones are generally more expensive, especially if you choose a wireless model. You also need to factor in the cost of batteries, since even models with cords require them.


Your noise reduction needs play a huge role in what headphones you choose. As you have seen, noise isolation and noise cancelling are two very different beasts. Do you need absolute silence or is it enough to make ambient noise quieter? Is audio fidelity an important factor? If you’re only watching TV at night, you might not need noise isolation/cancellation headphones as external noise is likely to be quite low. On the other hand, if you have a lot of kids running around, or if you live in a busy building, you might consider purchase some. Now that you have the information to make these decisions, your choice should be much easier.

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