I have been able to achieve excellent noise reduction results by combining the economical Life Q30 noise cancelling headphones with two types of foam earplugs. This is what this post and the next one are about.
The Soundcore Life Q30 are budget ANC headphones (test and review) that punch way above their price when it comes to low frequency noise reduction. They are not nearly as good at subduing mid frequency noise, but hey—that’s where foam earplugs shine.
When I want the best of both worlds (e.g., against barking dogs, construction noise, loud snoring, crying toddlers on an airplane), I consider wearing noise cancelling headphones over foam earplugs.
Since earplugs distort and muffle sound, this is not a solution for listening to music, but I do at times add some white noise (e.g., waterfall or rain sounds) to mask disturbing noises that might still make it through.
Important: This post and all results shown are experience reports in the context of noise annoyance reduction in everyday life, not hearing protection! These ANC headphones have no noise reduction rating and are not tested or marketed as a hearing protector!
What’s the general idea here?
ANC headphones that are worth their salt are good at reducing lower frequency noise, and they can do it with the flick of a button.
Earplugs, on the other hand are very effective at reducing mid- and high-frequency noise. Inserted deep enough, they could in principle also do well again low frequency noise, but they often don’t:
Many people don’t achieve the deep seal necessary for good low frequency noise reduction. Many of my readers struggle with this. Others find deeply inserted earplugs simply uncomfortable.
A while ago, I did a post in which I reported on the huge improvements I was able to achieve by combining premium noise cancelling headphones with foam earplugs.
But how about using inexpensive budget ANC headphones, such as the Life Q30 over foam earplugs instead?
I tested two different earplugs underneath the Q30:
- Mack’s ThermaFit (review): these are cylindrical PVC earplugs and one of my favorites for low frequency noise (LFN) reduction.
- Hearos’ Pretty in Pink (review as part of earplugs for smaller ears): these are tapered PU earplugs and a good all-rounder. Well-inserted, they do even a bit better against mid-frequency noise than ThermaFit. However, with these, I find it difficult to get close to ThermaFit’s LFN reduction.
I plan to report on Q30+Pretty in Pink in a second post. Stay tuned for part 2.
Noise reduction results Q30 in combination with Mack’s ThermaFit
I tested noise reduction against pulsed noises at increasing frequencies (1/3rd octave steps) using my own ears. In the following chart, the higher the line at a particular frequency, the more noise reduction at that frequency.
The blue line shows the performance of the combination Q30 and ThermaFit, the red line that of the earplugs alone and the green line that of the Q30 headphones alone.
See that blue mountain rising from 125 to 1250 Hz: In this range, I am getting from 45 to 50 dB attenuation by combining the Q30 with these earplugs, which is fantastic.
Most dogs’ barking, a large part of snoring, human speech and shouting, construction noise, larger vehicle horns, etc. all will be a lot quieter than if you used earplugs (red line) or headphones (green line) alone.
I am not aware of any single tool that can get you even close to this amount of noise reduction.
Note: Maybe a military flight helmet with ANC could, but you wouldn’t like the price.
Even against higher frequency noise from 1250 to 5000 Hz (e.g., crickets, smaller vehicle horns, some smaller dogs, higher pitched parts of speech), the combination outperforms.
Beyond 5000 Hz, there was no benefit in my tests.
Now let’s turn to low frequency noise (LFN) <=125 Hz. Think truck rumble, bass noise, stomping, low-pitched hums.
Here the ANC of Q30 alone reduced noise somewhat more effectively than the combination. Moreover the earplugs alone also fared at least on par with the combination.
Mind you, the difference wasn’t large and the performance against LFN for the combination was still very good.
But if LFN is all you need to reduce, you are slightly better off by using only the Q30 or the ThermaFit (if you can get a deep fit).
On the other hand, if your neighbor is having a party, you are likely not only dealing with LFN (the music bass). You will also hear guitars, shouting and laughing. In that case, the combination will perform a lot better.
Why was the combination not more effective in the LFN range than the headphones alone?
It may surprise you, but low frequency noise reduction performance actually improved when the Q30 ANC was turned off!
The ThermaFit earplugs in my ear canal interfered somewhat with the electronic noise cancellation of the Q30.
So ANC made matters worse in that range. Toggling back and forth, I could clearly notice the difference.
Let’s take a closer look at overall performance with ANC off.
What happens when you turn off the ANC on the Q30?
In the following graph, I have added the noise reduction (black line) when using the Q30 with ANC switched off, again together with ThermaFIt earplugs.
In essence, you are combining passive closed-back headphones (= very light, comfy earmuffs) with foam earplugs.
As you can see, the black line (Q30 off + ThermaFit) is still higher than the red line (ThermaFit alone) for most of the tested range.
In particular from 300 to 5000 Hz, even with ANC off, I am getting noticeably better noise reduction by wearing the combination rather than the earplugs or headphones with ANC on alone.
Tip: If you have decent passive over-ear headphones lying around, they too could provide a benefit in the range from 300 to 5000 Hz compared to wearing earplugs alone.
But, having ANC turned on (blue line), adds a lot more: For noise >125 Hz to about 800 Hz there was a huge benefit of having the Q30 ANC.
(See that huge area between the blue and the black line in that range.)
So for most use cases you will want that ANC, not only the passive muffling of the ear cups.
From 1000 Hz to 8000 Hz, it made no difference whether I turned ANC on or off. Noise reduction was entirely due to the passive isolation provided by the Q30 cups-earplugs combination.
As mentioned earlier, for LFN<=125 Hz, turning off ANC is a bit better than leaving it on.
With ANC off, the overall performance in the LFN range is guided by the performance of the earplugs (red line) but the ear cups of the Q30 seem to add a little bit.
Also note that the ThermaFit all by themselves do very well against LFN; otherwise the performance of passive headphones + earplugs in that range would be poor.
You need either very effective earplugs or ANC against LFN.
Do the best ANC headphones alone outperform the combination of Q30 ANC plus earplugs?
In the following chart, I have added the Sony WH-1000XM4 (yellow line), which are still my reference for ANC headphones. As can be seen they are substantially more effective than the Q30 (green line) alone.
Moreover, for LFN <=125 Hz, the XM4 perform better than both the Q30 and the combination. So against trucks, music bass, LFN hums, etc., if you’ve got the coin, the Sony will give you more.
For the rest of the frequency range up to 5000 Hz, however, the combination of Q30 and ThermaFit provides a lot more noise reduction than the Sony headphones alone. Beyond 5000 Hz, there was no difference.
Note that you can also combine the Sony XM4 with earplugs with great results. I tested that a while ago.
The point in this post is to help people on a budget.
For a fraction of the price you can get substantially more overall noise reduction with the combination of Q30 and earplugs than you would with current premium ANC headphones alone.
This concludes part 1 of Q30 + earplugs.
It is also more effective than the Sony WH-1000XM4 alone, my current ANC reference, except for LFN <= 125 Hz where the Sony still have an edge.
The caveat is that music won’t sound good when played via the Q30 through foam earplugs.
But, if you are a back sleeper looking to rest next to a pesky snorer or in a loud city apartment, this solution might help you out and won’t break the bank.
In part 2 (coming up), I will be looking at the Q30 in combination with Hearos Pretty in Pink.
These tapered PU foam earplugs are good all-rounders. At a comfortable insertion depth they are however not nearly as effective against low frequency noise as Mack’s ThermaFit, at least in my ears.
I think this is what many people experience experience with tapered PU foam earplugs at a normal insertion depth.
We shall see how they fare when combined with the Q30.