Yes, many active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones) work without music, and in fact, there are some unique benefits of using them without music. I’ll get to these benefits in a minute.
For most ANC headphones to cancel noise, you just need to turn them on.
This engages the active noise cancelling electronics: the headphones use several microphones to listen to the noise around you and create “counter waves” to cancel out that noise.
Currently, active noise cancellation by itself works best for the bass frequencies, not too well for mid frequencies, and not at all for high frequencies.
For the higher mid and treble frequencies, active noise cancelling headphones rely completely on the passive noise isolation of their ear cups. For these frequencies they perform nearly the same regardless of whether you have turned them on or off.
This passive noise isolation for the mid and treble frequencies is actually quite good in some models—in essence these headphones are light comfortable earmuffs—but it is not as good as that of heavy-duty hearing protection earmuffs or foam earplugs.
What do you get from good active noise cancelling headphones when you don’t play music?
In a word, the bass will be almost completely gone, but babies, people, vehicle horns, screeching brakes, etc. will only be somewhat reduced. The higher treble frequencies will generally be muffled quite well (through the ear cups).
Having used state-of-the-art active noise cancelling headphones for several years now, I have come to greatly appreciate their ability to significantly reduce the low-frequency noise background that permeates our cities.
In the past I didn’t realize it, but this “concerto of machines” is virtually everywhere, and it is fatiguing.
How does it feel when the bass frequencies of environmental noise are absent?
If you walk along a busy road (on the sidewalk of course), the rumbling of trucks and droning of engines will be nearly completely gone. Big buses and trucks and cars all seem to be reduced to tiny vehicles with very small and quiet engines.
By the same token, if you happen to sit on one of these buses, you will enjoy much less or even no droning engine noise.
Exercise caution though: Walking along small streets with no sidewalk, I have at times been surprised by cars coming from behind. I did not hear them at all. Now I don’t wear ANC headphones anymore if a street doesn’t have a sidewalk.
Sitting in a coffee shop or office, the HVAC system will have disappeared. You will also be missing the bass from an audio system playing music.
In downtown areas, coffee shops often have areas where resonances (caused by heavy traffic or generators) make it unpleasant to sit. Wearing active noise cancelling headphones, you will mostly find these resonances to be gone.
Flying in an airplane, the droning air-cabin noise will be reduced by about 90% and you’ll hear much more relaxing low-volume white noise instead.
To me, the near absence of this mostly unnatural low-frequency background feels like a big weight has been taken off my shoulders.
I am not alone:
Many airplane travelers report something similar. Having removed the constant droning noise, they feel a lot less stressed and fatigued after a long-haul flight.
And, in Effects of Low Frequency Noise and Vibrations, Prof. Kerstin Waye states the following:
“A common reaction to low frequency noise, and especially steady-state noise such as ventilation noise, is a feeling of relief when the noise ceases, even when the exposed persons have not been aware that the noise was present.”
Their ability to significantly reduce low-frequency noise while providing superior wearing comfort is a unique advantage of active noise cancelling headphones.
How well do they work against chatter, crying babies, and the clinking and clanking of cups and glasses if you don’t play music?
As mentioned earlier, the active noise cancelling electronics work well for bass frequencies but not very much for mid- and higher frequencies.
However, the ear cups of over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones also muffle noise and the best ones do it quite well, albeit not nearly as well as good hearing protection earmuffs or foam earplugs.
Going back to the coffee shop example, the passive noise isolation of the ear cups does reduce the volume of crying babies, people’s voices, clinking cups and glasses, and steaming espresso machines, but you will still hear them.
People with deep voices will have their bass frequencies removed. If they are not too close, they’ll sound as if they were coming from the speaker of a small TV or radio that has been covered with a blanket.
Likewise, if you don’t play music, the sound level of honking and screeching brakes will only be somewhat reduced.
Birds and crickets will also still be chirping.
So if you don’t play music, you will find the overall volume of this kind of noise reduced but not nearly as much as low-frequency noise.
You definitely will not be in a soundproof room.
For more background info and tips on improving the performance against chatter and other mid and high frequency noises, read Why Noise Cancelling Headphones Don’t Block Voices.
What you need to know if you plan to use active noise cancelling headphones without music
The effectiveness of the active noise cancelling circuitry varies widely among different brands and models
- Despite carrying the name “noise cancelling,” no active noise cancelling headphones can cancel 100% of even all low-frequency noise.
- Some models will only somewhat reduce a constant droning sound and provide a little bit of relief on an airplane, but that’s it basically.
- On the other hand, the best ANC headphones almost completely remove low frequency noise, including intermittent noise, (i.e., reduce it enough so you don’t hear it) provided the noise is not too loud.
- If the noise is above a certain sound level, you will hear it. So, don’t expect to sit next to the speaker-wall in a club and not hear any bass.
For my preferred active noise cancelling headphones and alternatives, please check the posts Tools to Block Noise While Studying or Working in an Office and How to Block Bass Noise.
Some headphones have an auto-power-off feature that kicks in at some point if you aren’t playing any music / haven’t connected them via Bluetooth
- In most models, you can turn this feature off.
- Check whether you can disable auto-power-off before buying a particular model if you want to use them without music.
The unique benefit of using active noise cancelling headphones without music is that it takes the low-frequency noise burden off your shoulders like no other tool.
I believe this kind of noise is a major cause of stress for many people who live in large cities, in particular in urban and industrial areas.
While I have always been sensitive to the various noises persisting in cities and on public transport, before trying my first pair of noise cancelling headphones several years ago, I didn’t realize how much of a problem these noises actually are.
“Turn the headphones on and you’ll notice the difference right away.”
Some ANC headphones also offer decent passive noise isolation through their ear cups and will turn down the volume of mid- and high-frequency noises, making them more bearable and reducing distractions.
However, don’t expect these higher-pitched noises to be gone. You will still hear babies, chatter, honking, clinking, screeching, and chirping, just a bit quieter.
You can wear foam earplugs underneath to improve their performance. I do that often when traveling on a plane.