I work in libraries, offices and coffee shops, and I enjoy all three for their different vibes and inspiration.
With different environments though come different mixes of distracting noises, and I can’t concentrate well with too much noise.
Chatter, someone on the phone, whispering, coughing, eating noises, clicking keyboards, creaking floors, AC, ventilation, generator, and computer humming, trucks passing by—you name it.
This onslaught of office, dorm, and coffee shop noise takes a toll on almost everyone and makes it hard to focus.
And this is what this post is about: my favorite tool combinations to effectively reduce this daily noise onslaught and improve mental performance.
Don’t get me wrong. I very much enjoy having people around me.
But, I also know that I can work a lot better when I am in control of the noise.
Why it matters that you reduce noise while studying or working in an office
Over the years, multiple studies have found that noise, in particular noise that varies a lot, significantly reduces students’ and professionals’ ability to concentrate.
Noise can negatively affect memory, math, reading comprehension, proof reading, and writing.
Most mental activities students and cognitive workers typically engage in have been shown to suffer under varying-state noise.
Speech noise is the worst, but office noise without speech isn’t benign either.
Banbury and Berry (1998), for example, investigated the impact of office noise and speech on prose memory and mental arithmetic.
When participants were exposed to a mix of office-noise and speech, their memory performance was only half as good as that in a quiet environment.
Mental arithmetic performance declined by almost 30%.
If you are a student, this may be the difference between passing and failing a class.
Now this is one of the largest effects I have seen in any study, but there is a lot of other research pointing in the same direction:
Being exposed to noise that varies and/or speech is mostly bad for studying and office work.
A notable exception from this is white noise, random broadband noise that sounds more or less like a waterfall or a stream of water.
On average, white noise has only a small impact on mental performance, if any. This makes it a good candidate to mask disturbing noise and reduce its variability.
One line of research suggests that white noise may benefit students suffering from ADHD.
As is usually the case with averages though, some people actually benefit from listening to white noise while others are slightly negatively affected!
In any case, you want to be able to control the noise in your environment.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose where we work or study.
Besides, I often choose coffee shops for reading precisely because I enjoy the atmosphere, despite them being noisy places.
(And I frequent them because I need a lot of noise, so that I can test the best approaches to blocking the chatter.)
The most effective noise blocking tools and techniques for studying and office work
What you should know first is this: there is not a single ear defender that can block all noise, so we often have to add some kind of white noise to mask noise peaks.
Office, dorm, and coffee shop noise—speech in particular—can become too loud to be completely cancelled by passive noise isolation (earplugs, earmuffs, etc.) or active noise cancelling headphones alone.
For this reason, most of my favorite tools combine noise reduction and noise masking
- Reduce noise by as much as possible through passive noise isolation and/or active noise cancelling.
- Play white noise (or use a similar constant soundscape) to mask the remainder of the distracting noises that cannot be cancelled.
Noise masking with white noise (and other sounds) works great, if you significantly reduce environmental noise first.
Otherwise you will have to play your masking sound too loud for comfort.
With that being said, these are my favorite tools and tool combinations for blocking out noise in offices, coffee shops, libraries, and dorms:
#1 Over-the-ear active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones)
Currently, I mostly wear over-the-ear active noise cancelling headphones for reading and writing when I am not at home.
ANC headphones use electronics to very effectively reduce low-frequency noise, such as the hum of AC compressors and other machinery that is often used to cool down and distribute the air in cafés and offices alike.
Working in an office day in, day out, we get used to low-frequency background noise—or so we think. But, over the cause of a day this noise background can cause fatigue and additional stress.
When I switch on the noise cancelling function—even without playing any sound—I immediately notice how this noise background disappears, and I feel lighter. This feels great.
Unlike older models, the best modern ANC headphones are also fast at cancelling suddenly occurring sounds; e.g., they also work well against passing vehicles, bass-heavy music and the baritone in voices.
So far, the electronics are only designed to cancel noise frequencies of up to 1000 Hz, so these headphones only actively cancel the deeper parts of speech noise and everyday office noise.
But current over-the-ear ANC headphones also have good passive sound isolation, which helps a lot to reduce noise in general, including speech noise, keyboard clicking, and other higher pitched sounds.
To get rid of the remainder of speech and other office noise, I play white noise or waterfall sounds. I mostly use the app myNoise and equalize the sound so that it is louder at the speech frequencies (500 Hz to 4000 Hz), allowing me to effectively mask the chatter around me.
Which active noise cancelling headphones do I use?
As for the headphones, I use and recommend the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 (QC35).
They are very comfortable, can be used wireless as well as wired, have excellent active noise cancelling and good passive sound isolation, and I really enjoy their balanced sound.
I have also tried their main competitor, the Sony WH-1000XM3. The shop was kind enough to let me compare them to my Bose until I felt too ashamed to take more of their time. The Sony’s noise cancelling and sound isolation is great, even slightly better than the already excellent Bose’s.
Overall though, I found the difference quite small.
Subjectively, Sony were perhaps a bit better with speech (due to their slightly better sound isolation) and about the same with the subwoofer bass.
I found them also comfortable, a bit less so than the Bose, but almost on par.
In the end, I decided against them because it just wouldn’t have been an improvement and they have two downsides that matter to me:
The sound of the WH-1000XM3 is too bass-heavy for my taste; to me the Bose sound a lot more balanced (they definitely don’t have a weak bass). That’s my subjective preference of course, and you might like the Sony in particular because they emphasize the bass.
More importantly, I often use the Bose with two devices at the same time. For example, I might listen to white noise on my phone then watch an instructional video on my iPad or PC, and then receive a phone call. This works smoothly with the Bose QC35.
Unlike the Bose (and my inexpensive Bluetooth receiver), the WH-1000XM3 can only be used with one device at a time and switching from one device to another is not hassle-free.
Honestly, I don’t understand why Sony made that design decision.
I have subsequently read that there is a way to pair them with a phone for calls only and with a second device for audio only, but that doesn’t cover my use cases. I need to use sound and media and make phone calls as I see fit.
With the QC35, you could even receive calls on both a work and a home cell phone while using either one for streaming sound.
This comparison made me appreciate what I already had.
But hat tip to Sony: their WH-1000XM3 headphones are great noise cancellers.
If you prefer a bass-heavy sound and intend to use them mainly with only one device, they are definitely worth your consideration.
Alternative: At the time of this writing, the wired Bose QC25 were heavily discounted, so if you don’t need wireless (and multi-device pairing), they would be an economical solution with almost the same noise cancelling effectiveness. If you find the price difference to be only marginal I wouldn’t bother though.
Replaceable ear pads are an important point to consider when selecting over-the-ear headphones (and earmuffs) in general
In warmer climates, the ears get sweaty and the pads tend to wear out. They also become less hygienic over time.
These ANC headphones are expensive, so I want to be able to replace the ear pads. Replacement ear pads are available from Bose, and I have already replaced them. It makes them feel like new.
For the Sony headphones, I have seen third-party replacement pads, so they are changeable as well.
Unique strengths of top over-the-ear ANC headphones:
- Best combination of comfort, noise blocking effectiveness, and sound quality
- Great low-frequency noise cancelling
- Also interesting for travelers and commuters
- They get hot outdoors in a warm climate
#2 Passive noise reduction earmuffs
In my opinion, the highest-rated earmuffs are the most effective noise blockers of them all, not only as a hearing protector, but also when it comes to everyday noise.
For low-frequency noise, noise cancelling headphones and foam earplugs perform better, but the best earmuffs shine from the lower-mid-frequencies up to the highest frequencies we can hear.
This is the range in which a lot of everyday noise falls in. People’s voices, car horns, clicking keyboards, eating noises… They all are vastly reduced by passive earmuffs.
At home, I wear a pair of 3M Peltor X5A earmuffs nearly every morning to do my meditation and reading.
When I just want to reduce the noise around me by as much as possible (without playing white noise or music), the X5A are as good as it gets.
So far, noise cancelling headphones don’t outperform these muffs.
If you are looking for an economical solution to block noise while working in an office or studying, give earmuffs a try.
If you are looking for a light solution for yourself or your child, consider the Peltor Optime 98 earmuffs. They are less effective, but still good enough for many situations.
Over time, I have tried a lot of different noise reduction earmuffs for various purposes, and I have written a detailed review introducing my favorite passive noise cancelling earmuffs.
Why are these earmuffs not ranked at number one in my list?
To provide their exceptional noise reduction, earmuffs’ headbands have to exert quite a bit more clamping force than those of noise cancelling headphones.
I can accept this additional headband pressure for several hours and it is not a big issue for me.
But over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones are just more comfortable for long-time wearing while still providing good noise isolation.
Also, I really enjoy the absence of this low-frequency underbelly that permeates virtually every place in a city, including offices and coffee shops.
And for this, noise cancelling headphones are superb, significantly better than muffs.
Finally, while you can wear small speakers or earbuds for white noise and podcasts underneath your earmuffs, it doesn’t sound good enough for me when listening to music.
So when doing cognitive work during the day, I currently mostly wear noise cancelling headphones and augment their performance with white noise and water sounds.
But in terms of overall noise reduction alone, these muffs are great!
Earmuffs and white noise
As I just mentioned, you can also combine passive earmuffs white noise with to block out loud chatter and other noises. Wear earbuds underneath or get some flat headband speaker inserts to boost their performance. I find the sound quality good enough for listening to podcasts and audiobooks, but wouldn’t enjoy music very much.
Unique strengths of the best noise reduction earmuffs:
- Best overall noise reduction of all solutions for people who don’t want to play any sound
- Easy to put on and take off
- Inexpensive; best bang for the buck
- The headband exerts more pressure on the head than headphones do
- The best ones are bulky
- Playing white noise requires using speaker inserts or wearing earbuds
- Low-frequency noise reduction not as good as that of active noise cancelling headphones and earplugs
- They get hot outdoors in a warm climate
#3 Earplugs together with bone conduction headphones
Foam earplugs are great at reducing noise across all frequencies, and they are very compact and cheap.
However, for blocking speech noise, office noise, and other everyday noise I have always found earmuffs somewhat more effective.
But when it gets hot, both over-the-ear headphones and earmuffs get hot and sweaty.
A while ago, I started experimenting with bone conduction headphones. These have small transducers (a special kind of speaker) that sit in front of your ears and transmit sound through your skull into your inner ear.
The great thing is that you can wear earplugs to reduce external noise and still listen to sound using these bone conduction headphones.
For me this was the missing piece of the puzzle with respect to earplugs:
You can play white noise and other masking sounds to get rid of speech and other noises while wearing standard earplugs.
You can also take calls and listen to audio books or music while shutting out the environment.
Aftershokz also have a Bluetooth version, which might be interesting if you don’t have a headphone jack or just don’t want any wires at all (e.g., want to use them a lot for running).
As for earplugs, you can choose any type of earplug that works for you.
I often use the Flents Quiet Please (I find them very comfortable) with my bone conduction headphones, but other earplugs work just as well.
The combination of earplugs and bone conduction headphones is a very effective, versatile, and compact noise blocking solution you can use in an office, a café, and while traveling.
This also works very well outdoors and when it is hot.
However, I wouldn’t plug my ears 24/7.
Because I often use earplugs at night, I favor an over-the-ear solution during the day.
Unique strengths of bone conduction headphones together with earplugs:
- Earplugs together with bone conduction headphones together are very effective noise blockers and maskers for all frequencies
- You get to choose/use your favorite earplugs
- Very compact
- Also interesting for travelers, runners, cyclers, and other active people
- You have to stick something in your ear
- Foam earplugs require some practice and time to put in and remove
- The sound quality is decent, but not for audiophiles
#4 Noise isolating in-ear earphones
These in-ear earphones come with special noise-isolating ear tips, mimicking earplugs but with a channel to let sound pass through.
Typically you get to choose between memory foam and triple-flange ear tips.
They are excellent noise blockers for noise across the whole frequency range and you can play white noise to mask whatever remains from your office or dorm noise.
Some of them even have a noise reduction rating, which makes them usable as a hearing protector.
To get their excellent sound isolation, they have to form a deep seal in your ear canal which makes them somewhat more difficult to fit and remove.
Personally, I find it challenging to get a comfortable seal with most of the provided ear tips. With triple-flange ear tips, I tend to get a good seal but the wearing comfort leaves something to be desired. Memory foam ear tips, on the other hand, are more comfortable, but with most I don’t get a good seal.
But everyone’s ear is a bit different: for other people, noise-isolating earphones work great and that illustrates the crux of the matter:
For each model, there is only a limited number of different-sized ear tips available (often three different sizes).
If one of them fits you comfortably, you have got yourself a great-sounding noise-blocking solution for your office or coffee shop. If not you have to experiment with third-party tips (if available) or are out of luck.
In contrast, with foam earplugs, there are so many different styles available that it is easier to find a pair that fits and seals the ear canal well. Also, the best foam earplugs still slightly outperform the best ear tips and they are cheap.
This is why in my list the combination of foam earplugs and bone conduction headphones is ranked higher as a noise blocker for working in an office or studying.
In terms of sound quality alone, at the same price-point noise-isolating in-earphones are significantly better than current bone conduction headphones. If you need something for critical listening and don’t want-over-the-ear headphones, consider in-ears.
Unique strengths of noise-isolating in-ear earphones:
- The best noise-isolating in-ear earphones are effective noise blockers for all frequencies
- Very compact
- Depending on the model, good sound quality
- You have to stick something in your ears
- You depend on the ear tips the manufacturer supplies. There is a risk that they might not seal properly or become uncomfortable
- Replacement ear tips usually don’t come cheap
#5 In-ear active noise cancelling headphones
Here I am mainly commenting on the Bose Quiet Comfort 20 in-ear active noise cancelling headphones, which by many reviewers are to this day considered the best in-ear ANC headphones on the market.
I use them often when I feel it is too hot for over-the-ear headphones and earmuffs.
In a nutshell: Their ability to cancel low-frequency noise and their wearing comfort are great.
Unlike noise-isolating earphones and earplugs that need to go deep into your ear, the QC20 feature StayHear+ tips, very soft silicone ear tips that only seal the ear canal entrance.
Because of these ear tips, they truly are a separate category: they don’t get hot and there is no pressure on the head and no pressure in the ears.
And yet, their electronics cancel low-frequency generator and compressor noise and traffic rumbling very well and they also provide a very decent >20 decibel sound reduction for the middle and higher frequencies.
If what bothers you is low-frequency noise or moderate background noise, these are perhaps the most comfortable solution that actually works. And they sound good as well.
But, as far as office or coffee shop noise is concerned, they don’t block nearly enough of louder speech noise, clicking keyboards, steaming espresso machines, etc…
If you are looking for good speech blockers, you may be disappointed. You just hear too much of that mid-frequency range with the QC20.
You can, of course, play white noise or music but it has to be played fairly loud to mask the chatter.
Despite this weakness, I find myself using the QC20 a lot when I sit in hotter places or outside where my big headphones and earmuffs are just getting too sweaty.
So in terms of how often I use them, they would come in at number two or three.
Unique strengths of these in-ear active noise cancelling headphones:
- The most comfortable solution: there is nothing covering your ear and virtually nothing in the ear as well
- Great low-frequency noise blocking
- Good sound quality
- Also good for travelers and commuters who want to get rid of that low-frequency background noise that permeates our cities.
- Not enough mid-frequency noise reduction for speech and clicking keyboards (masking sound has to be played too loud for my taste)
- They are wired and the control module can get in the way (as with the bone conduction headphones, I use them mostly with a Bluetooth receiver these days)
I find all solutions introduced in this post, except for the in-ear noise cancelling QC20, effective office and coffee shop noise blockers.
If money is not an issue and you need a good all-round noise cancelling solution for an air-conditioned place, I would go with good over-the-ear active noise cancelling headphones and use white noise to mask any remaining noise. ANC headphones provide a great package in terms of noise isolation, wearing comfort, and sound quality. They are also great for traveling.
If you need something effective and economical and don’t usually want to listen to white noise or music, the best earmuffs offer the best overall noise reduction of all solutions. They are a bit bulky and a bit less comfortable but they offer a great bang for the buck. Should you still be bothered by the noise around you, you can use speaker inserts or earbuds to play white noise.
Wearing over-the-ear headphones or earmuffs has another advantage:
People who see you having your ears covered are less likely to interrupt you just to have a chat.
Furthermore, you can believably pretend not to hear the person who addresses you.
On the other hand, if you need something compact, are more of an earplug-type of person, or work in a hot environment, bone conduction headphones together with foam earplugs are my favorite solution. You choose your favorite foam earplugs, stream white noise through the headphones, and voilà you have banned these intruding noises. This solution also works well for travelers.
I use earplugs at night and hence prefer to keep my ears un-plugged during the day. For this reason, I tend to go with over-the-ear solutions during the day unless it gets too hot.
If you are mainly bothered by low-frequency noise rather than chatter and happy with a moderate overall noise reduction, the in-ear QC20 are the most comfortable solution of them all.