During celebrations like New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, and 4th of July, it is almost impossible to escape firework shows.
Besides, most people, including myself, enjoy the spectacle.
Fireworks are beautiful, but they can get really loud.
You may have heard that active noise cancelling headphones are particularly good against low-frequency noise, and the “booms and bangs” in larger fireworks definitely contain a lot of low-frequency energy.
So are noise cancelling headphones a good idea to protect from firework noise?
Depending on where you live, as a spectator, you may be exposed to peak noise levels of >135 decibels (LC-peak), even when the fireworks are just ignited by nearby residents.
According to the Japanese study Noise and low-frequency sound levels due to aerial fireworks, at a professional fireworks launch site, the low-frequency noise level can be substantially higher and exceed 150 decibels.
A peak noise level of 135 decibels calls for the use of a hearing protector and unfortunately, consumer noise cancelling headphones are not designed or rated as such.
As a wearer, you cannot be sure how effective a particular headphone model is against loud impulse noise, so as a general rule: active noise cancelling headphones are not recommended as a hearing protector against firework noise.
Moreover, low-frequency noise protection isn’t enough. Fireworks also contain substantial energy in the mid-frequencies.
Active noise cancelling headphones perform significantly worse than good hearing protection earmuffs against mid-frequency noise and typically also worse against high-frequency noise.
To protect your hearing from fireworks, use foam earplugs or hearing protection earmuffs with a high noise reduction rating
If you want to maximize protection, use both earplugs and earmuffs. This is called doubling-up.
Fireworks create plenty of low-and-mid-frequency noise. Whistling is high-frequency noise.
Deeply inserted foam earplugs can be somewhat more effective than noise reduction earmuffs against the low-frequency parts of fireworks noise. For mid-frequency noise, earmuffs are as effective.
But, for many people it is more difficult to achieve a reliable seal with earplugs than with earmuffs. If the seal is insufficient or shallow, earplugs provide too little protection.
For this reason, if you want to rely on earplugs, select them well in advance of an event and practice earplug insertion.
As for earmuffs, depending on how close I am to the fireworks, I find earmuffs with an NRR of at least 27, e.g., the 3M Peltor Bull’s Eye (more spacious for large ears) and the Peltor X4A (smaller ear cup openings but lighter) a good compromise.
For more information on these earmuffs check these posts:
If you can put up with bulkier earmuffs, as a single protector, NRR-30 earmuffs would give you even more protection.
Note: Ultimately I don’t know how close you are going to be to the fireworks. If in doubt get further away and consider doubling-up by wearing earplugs underneath your muffs. In conjunction with properly sealing earplugs, the performance of the suggested NRR-27 and NRR-30 muffs should be comparable.
Personal experience with active noise cancelling headphones and fireworks
The following is not a recommendation to use headphones, merely a personal experience report.
I have used ANC earbuds (1More ANC Pro) and ANC headphones (Sony WH-1000XM3 and more recently WH-1000XM4) at home during fireworks events that were perhaps 1 km away.
Subjectively both the earbuds and the headphones worked quite well. They significantly reduced the “bangs” and other firework noise. Unsurprisingly, the Sony over-ear headphones performed better against the mid-frequencies than the earbuds.
About a year ago, by coincidence, I happened to be much closer (perhaps 100 m) to an event but had no earmuffs or earplugs with me. On that occasion I did, however, have a pair of Sony WH-1000XM3 in my day pack, so I put them on. Again, they did significantly reduce the firework noise.
Many people belief that ANC headphones mainly work against constant droning sounds, but not impulse noise.
Contrary to this, my subjective experience has been that some ANC headphones (not all) actually appear to perform pretty well against impulse noise.
Nevertheless, consumer ANC headphones vary widely in their noise reduction effectiveness.
And, regardless of how effective the headphones appear, unless a model becomes available that has been tested and rated specifically against fireworks noise (or other explosive noises), you can’t be sure the electronics are indeed capable of reducing this type of noise to a safe level.
- Some active noise reduction algorithms become unstable when tasked to cope with loud impulse noise while others are being developed to deal with this type of noise.
- Active noise reduction is used in some military headsets.
Mesmerizing firework festivals (Japan) that also happen to contain plenty of noise
Recently, I came across this fireworks video by Aqua Geo Graphic. I couldn’t stop watching.
To appreciate the sound, I recommend using headphones.
Use rated safety earmuffs or/and earplugs to protect yourself against loud firework noise and keep as much of a distance as possible.
While some consumer active noise cancelling headphones appear to work quite well against low-frequency impulse noise, you can’t be sure they are really fast enough and won’t be overwhelmed by loud impulse noise.
Moreover, in the mid-frequency range, even the best current consumer ANC headphones are weaker than good earmuffs.