In recent months, I have focused on using noise cancelling earbuds as my go-to noise reduction tool during the day. My ears are already itching.
Before that, I tested an almost excessive amount of inexpensive, reusable push-in earplugs, including many moderate-noise reduction earplugs (Hi-Fi earplugs) for dampening irritating noises while commuting, exercising, walking around town, shopping, and sitting in cafés.
To wrap this up, I’d like to compare earplugs and buds based on my experiences and test results in a big, busy city.
This article goes into the nitty gritty details to help you decide when to deploy which for your noise sensitivities.
I will also be commenting on issues such as hearing your own voice or eating sounds as unnaturally loud or distorted when you have your ears plugged.
Obviously, if your focus is on playing music or answering calls, earbuds will get your there while your typical earplugs won’t, at least not without adding bone conduction headphones.
But if you don’t need sound; shouldn’t you just get the more economical and discreet earplugs in that case?
Let me start with something that quite often bothers me when plugging my ears: the occlusion effect.
Occlusion effect vs wearing comfort with earplugs and ANC earbuds
Both earplugs and earbuds that plug your ear trap sounds coming from within your own body and can make them louder than they would be with an open ear.
This includes your own voice, chewing sounds, walking sounds, and even your own heartbeat.
As a rule of thumb, the shallower the seal of the earbud/earplug, the less ear canal pressure but the more unwanted amplification of body-generated sounds you’ll get.
With passive earplugs, I can reduce and potentially even eliminate the occlusion effect by inserting the plugs deeper into my ear or, if necessary, choosing a type that can be inserted deeper.
I have some earplugs that I can insert just right to eliminate the occlusion effect and still be comfortable. With others, I am left with a “bassy” voice and at times a pounding heart.
Read the post on my favorite earplugs against noise sensitivity and sensory overload for details and my preferred models.
But what if you can’t tolerate more deeply-inserted earplugs? Or, like me, need a break from earplugs at times?
Most active noise cancelling earbuds (ANC earbuds) seal your ear close to the entrance and hence exert very little canal pressure.
But at that comfortable, shallow insertion depth, they too are prone to a strong occlusion effect.
Indeed, with ANC off, you can even use that effect to test whether your buds properly seal your ear, i.e., you are using the right-size ear tips.
(Repeatedly say “boom, beak” and adjust the fit/swap out the tips of your earbuds until “boom” really does sound boomy.)
Fortunately, once you turn on active noise cancellation, good ANC earbuds have a trick up their sleeves: they “listen” to sounds in your ear canal and electronically cancel them.
Typically, these earbuds have at least four microphones. Two of them face outward to detect and cancel environmental noise. Two more mikes face inward and detect noise within your ear canal.
This includes the remainder of sounds coming from outside, as well as sounds coming from within your own body.
So while offering a very shallow seal, these earbuds can get away with it:
They electronically “cancel” the boomy voice, eating noises, and even the sound of your heart.
Don’t get me wrong: your voice isn’t going to be gone. ANC isn’t perfect and it doesn’t work on higher frequencies.
But it is precisely the lower frequencies that get amplified when you plug your ears. With excessive bass removed, everything sounds more natural again.
So how about noise reduction?
In the following we are using the earbuds and earplugs depicted above as examples.
As a rule of thumb, good noise cancelling earbuds should be able to block as much noise as moderate-strength (!) earplugs, except for low frequency noise.
Against low frequency noise (trucks, music bass, large HVAC systems, etc.), ANC earbuds are generally more effective at the same insertion depth.
Note: Many of the earplugs marketed for noise sensitive people are moderate-strength/Hi-Fi earplugs.
Some earplugs with a high noise reduction rating, like 3M Push-Ins (blue-yellow in the image above), can block a lot more low frequency noise than moderate-strength earplugs—almost as much as the best ANC earbuds—but they also tend to block a lot more of everything else—which is often too much.
Moreover, when it comes to low frequency noise, with earplugs, getting the fit right is crucial while ANC earbuds are a lot more forgiving.
With a suitable noise cancelling earbud, you can get a moderate-strength earplug + added low frequency noise cancellation, which is particularly helpful along roads with heavy traffic and in coffee shops and malls with obnoxious HVAC systems.
In terms of absolute noise blocking performance, high-NRR earplugs are hard to beat with earbuds (see charts below for details). They are good for when you want to isolate yourself as much as possible (and for hearing protection or sleeping).
But, these earplugs may be too effective for walking around town or staying in touch with your environment in general.
High-NRR earplugs also block more of the consonant sounds than most earbuds and earplugs designed for noise sensitive people do. This interferes with speech intelligibility.
Take a look at the following chart:
The green line represents the noise reduction I am getting with Vibes, one of my favorite moderate-strength earplugs for everyday noise reduction.
Note how the curve is fairly flat up to about 5000 Hz. These earplugs strike a good balance and don’t excessively muffle human vocal and consonant sounds.
The blue line represents the Bose QC earbuds 2 adjusted to a moderate noise cancelling setting (Walk mode, Quiet – 3).
Compared to Vibes, there is a welcome hump in low frequency noise reduction up to 100 Hz (just enough to quieten the trucks). Otherwise, set to “Quiet-3,” the Bose behave similar to Vibes up to 5000 Hz.
The Soundcore Space A40 (red line, max ANC) are good budget noise cancelling earbuds. Thanks to their ANC, low frequency noise up 160 Hz is also more effectively reduced than with Vibes.
Otherwise they too offer moderate noise reduction. There is a noise reduction hump from 1250 to 3000 Hz, which does include consonant sounds, so speech intelligibility is somewhat negatively affected compared to Vibes and Bose. Overall though, I am happy with the noise reduction provided by the A40.
Finally, we have 3M Push-Ins (yellow line), one of my favorite daytime high-NRR earplugs. They don’t have to be rolled-up and are very easy to insert.
Note how much more noise Push-Ins block across the frequency range compared to moderate-strength ANC earbuds and moderate-NRR earplugs.
These are excellent earplugs and absolutely worth trying, given their low price.
Their flat noise reduction curve even makes them a good candidate for attending a rock concert or exercising in a gym when they play their sound system way too loud.
But they will also isolate you a lot more from your environment (e.g., city traffic), reduce situational awareness, and make it hard to understand people who speak at a normal volume.
This discussion wouldn’t be complete without comparing the Bose QC earbuds 2 in Quiet mode (black line, max noise cancellation) to 3M Push-Ins (yellow line):
Set to maximum noise cancellation, the QC earbuds are getting pretty close to 3M Push-Ins. Against low-frequency noise, the Bose earbuds are somewhat more effective but the earplugs are no slouch, while against lower mid frequency noise the earplugs outperform. Above 800 Hz one could call it a tie. For reference, I have again included Vibes (green line).
So for everyday noise reduction, the Bose can be more like Vibes (moderate noise reduction) and they can be almost like 3M Push-Ins (high noise reduction). But this is as good as it currently gets with earbuds.
These very economical, easy-to-use push-in earplugs (NRR 28) can give you a noise reduction that is at least as good as that of the currently most effective noise cancelling earbuds.
Note: In particular against mid and high frequency noise, many roll-up foam earplugs (NRR 29-33) are even more effective.
There is no free lunch though: to perform well, these plugs have to sit a lot deeper in the ear than the earbuds and they exert more pressure. I find them comfortable but not “Bose comfortable.”
Note: This discussion applies to everyday noise reduction, not hearing protection. Most earbuds do not have a noise reduction rating.
Adjustability to match different environments
Many modern noise cancelling earbuds allow you to toggle between noise cancellation and transparency mode on the earbuds.
In transparency mode, the earbuds pick up external sounds via their microphones.
Often I keep moderate noise cancellation as my default mode, but when I have to navigate traffic or walk along a road without a sidewalk I switch to transparency mode to get more situational awareness.
I might also turn on transparency when ordering at a counter or paying at a supermarket checkout.
My current reference ANC earbuds even allow me to finely adjust the noise reduction strength with a slider and define presets (e.g., max, moderate, full transparency), accessible via long-tapping the buds.
In contrast, with almost all earplugs you get only one noise reduction strength, which, if you picked according to your requirements, will likely work fine most of the time. At times, however, you may want to hear more/less of your surroundings.
There are a few passive earplugs that offer two levels of noise reduction, one of them being Loop Experience:
In the Pro/Plus edition (and as an add-on) these earplugs come with “Mute,” a rubber ring you can insert to cover the acoustic channel, giving you about 5 decibels more noise reduction.
This works OK but you have to take out the earplugs to put in/take off the ring. This is obviously not nearly as flexible as toggling between ANC and transparency mode.
Still, you could use them without “Mute” when you want to chat or need more situational awareness and with Mute when you want to focus.
But note, even with Mute inserted, Loop don’t turn into high NRR earplugs.
Are they discreet and are you allowed to use them?
Some earplugs, in particular those with a transparent stem, are barely noticeable in the ear.
If you are working in a restaurant or bar, or as flight attendant, light or moderate strength, discreet earplugs may be acceptable to your employer.
Even the smallest true wireless earbuds are a lot more visible.
Chances are your employer won’t allow them, at least not if you are serving customers. Besides, I would feel uncomfortable using earbuds when talking to a customer.
Also, if you or your child struggles with excessive noise in the classroom, it’ll be much easier to convince the teacher that they want to wear light earplugs than noise cancelling earbuds.
Note: given how flexible some ANC earbuds are when it comes to noise reduction, they could provide some unique benefits when it comes to classroom use.
Finally, during exams earplugs (and earmuffs) are often acceptable (and in some cases even provided), but you’ll have a hard time convincing the proctor that you want to use your earbuds.
Walking vs running impact sounds
Walking sounds are partially related to the occlusion effect.
But, in particular when you run, there is also something else at work: The impact changes the shape of the ear canal and moves the earbud / earplug in the canal. Sometimes the seal even breaks. You could get loud thumps with both earbuds and earplugs.
Personally, I find it more challenging to run with noise cancelling earbuds than with earplugs. The ANC works well to reduce normal walking sounds, but I often get very loud thumps when I jump or run:
When the seal breaks due to my feet hitting the pavement or treadmill, the noise cancelling function of most earbuds I have tried can’t cope.
Using foam tips (e.g., Comply) can help, but they are much less durable when I sweat and expensive to replace.
Some people seem to be perfectly able to run with silicone tips and ANC enabled, so you could give it a try.
I hope to find a better solution, but as of now it is better for me to turn ANC off. Unfortunately, some earbuds, such as the Bose, don’t allow you to do that. (Moreover, with ANC turned off, the normal occlusion effect comes back.)
In contrast, with quite a few well-inserted earplugs I have no issues running on a treadmill.
If you don’t intend to listen to music or audiobooks in the gym but just want to reduce outside noise and excessively loud music, read my article on earplugs that work well for exercising.
Noise masking to cover obnoxious sounds
Noise reduction can only get you so far.
I find the sounds of someone blaring into their phone at a neighboring table or smacking their lips next to me hard to reduce enough for comfort, in particular once they start annoying me.
With earbuds, I can play a fine-tuned masking sound (e.g., waterfall, rain sound, pink noise, etc.) to cover these aggravating noises or at least distract me. A little background noise can go a long way.
If you have tinnitus, you may find it to be more pronounced when wearing earplugs or earbuds without playing sound:
External noises that would help to mask the tinnitus are now being reduced.
A masking sound can reintroduce background noise in a controlled way.
If you prefer earplugs over earbuds but still want added white noise, there are two solutions I don’t want to omit:
- You can use your earplugs and play your masking sound via bone conduction headphones, such as Aftershokz OpenMove. I find the sound quality OK for masking sounds, audiobooks, and background music. For enjoying music, I definitely prefer earbuds.
- Earplug headphones such as the in-ear monitors by Etymotic Research, e.g., the Etymotic MK5 (budget model, review) and the ER2XR (review). Using deep-insertion, they are very effective even at blocking low frequency noise and they sound good. However, these monitors block a lot more noise than moderate-strength earplugs/earbuds. They can seriously isolate the wearer (!) and don’t have a transparency mode. They are also more of a hassle to insert and remove.
Not everyone likes active noise cancellation
Some people are sensitive to active noise cancellation. They may, for example, perceive the workings of ANC as unpleasant pressure changes, even when there are none.
Some folks call this “eardrum suck.”
I notice the difference between different ANC strengths but only experience “eardrum suck” as somewhat of a problem when I have the flu or a serious cold.
In my experience, in particular adaptive active noise cancellation, where the ANC strength and/or focus can change automatically in response to noise changes in the environment, can lead to the perception of “eardrum suck.”
For example, with the AirPods Pro 2, the adaptation can at times be quite noticeable. When I am well, I am OK with the changes and the adaptation can provide performance benefits.
But I would want to be able to switch to a traditional, fixed noise cancellation mode that locks in ANC strength and focus when necessary.
(With the Pro 2 and some other headphones this is currently not possible.)
Also, in quieter settings with intermittent louder noises, earbuds with a good fixed-strength noise cancelling mode tend to perform more predictably.
This makes it easier to get used to the ANC function and get relief from stressful noises.
If you find the ANC of your earbuds unpleasant, see whether you can turn off adaptive mode or reduce noise cancelling strength.
When considering new earbuds, I preferably opt for a model where I can turn off adaptive mode.
This brings us to the end of this post.
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Have a great day.