Your partner or roommate is snoring like a chain saw, and nothing seems to work. You have tried earplugs but they either don’t block enough of the snores or you just can’t tolerate them.
Now you are wondering, “Do these expensive noise-cancelling headphones block out snoring?”
I have asked myself the same question. And I have tried quite a few different solutions with anything from moderate, over loud, to deafening loud snoring noise.
The performance of noise cancelling headphones varies greatly (many of them are not up to the task), so this post has to answer this question using specific models.
To test the snore blocking performance of active noise cancellers, I tried the over-the-ear Bose Quiet Comfort 35 (QC35) and the in-ear QuietComfort 20 (QC20).
For me the result is this:
The Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones (QC35) block out enough of even loud snoring to allow me fall and stay asleep.
In fact, they can be made into the best snoring noise blocker I have been able to come up with by boosting their performance with shaped white noise and/or foam earplugs.
For more on my recipe for optimizing the performance of noise cancelling headphones for snore blocking and how you they might even work for a side sleeper, keep reading.
How did the QC20 perform then? The Bose QC20 work for me with moderate snoring (playing white noise), but if the snoring gets loud, I have to increase the white noise volume too much for my taste.
They are great for other purposes but not nearly as effective as the QC35 when it comes to snoring.
I have been wondering why these noise cancelling headphones work well for snoring
It turns out that snoring noise has several peaks in the low and mid frequencies. This 2016 snoring study, which looked mainly at patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), identified several snore energy peaks at 100, 470, 670, 800, and 1000 Hz. The strongest peak was actually in the range from 0 to 20 Hz, but we can’t hear that.
A second study (1996) also included simple snorers (without OSA). Again their snoring contained peaks in the low frequency range.
I also looked at the snoring noise spectrum for one snorer myself and found peaks at 250 and 1000 Hz.
Headphones with strong active noise cancelling technology like the QC35 tend to perform best in the low-and-low-mid-frequency range from 20 to 1000 Hz.
Yep, the strength of these noise cancellers is right in the range where many of the snoring noise peaks measured in OSA patients and simple snorers occur.
How well do in-ear noise cancelling headphones block out snoring noise?
Several reviewers have reported that the in-ear Bose QuietComfort 20 (QC20) noise cancelling headphones work for them with snoring noise, so I tried these as well:
They significantly reduced the lower-frequency components of the snoring noise, but overall were not as effective as the QC35. Playing white noise through them, they would block enough of moderate but not loud snoring noise for me.
The QC20 headphones provide enough volume to drown out even louder snoring, but I wouldn’t want to sleep with sound being played that loud.
It appears to me that the passive noise isolation of the QC35 is quite a bit better than that of the QC20, in particular for the higher-pitched parts of the snores.
In any case, the QC35 perform a lot better for this use case.
Furthermore, if the snoring gets really loud, you can wear foam earplugs underneath the over-the-ear QC35, turning them into a truly formidable snoring noise blocker.
I want to point out that I like the QC20 a lot and use them a lot.
They have very soft ear tips that don’t need to be inserted deeply and are very comfortable. While still protruding a bit from the ear, they are also easier to use for side sleepers and they are great for traveling on airplanes and buses or when you want to get rid of traffic rumble.
However, as far as snoring noise goes, they may or may not work depending on how loud the saw next to you is and your willingness to increase the headphone volume to drown out the higher-pitched parts of the snores.
Doubling up—wearing headphones and earplugs
The lowest-frequency parts of the snores are being taken care by the headphones, while the earplugs significantly boost the noise reduction for the lower-mid and mid frequencies.
“Doubling up” is often used in industrial hearing protection where earplugs are worn underneath noise reduction earmuffs. Wearing dual protection adds a few decibels and is necessary for very high noise environments.
Doubling up at night with the QC35 headphones provides the additional benefit of active noise reduction at the lowest frequencies.
Remark: These noise cancelling headphones work very well together with foam earplugs but they don’t have a noise reduction rating (NRR), so they are not certified to be used as a hearing protector.
With the in-ear QC20, you can’t easily wear earplugs underneath, so you are limited to the noise reduction they provide through their electronics and ear tips.
So if you are a back sleeper, the over-the-ear QC35 are comfortable and the clear winner when it comes to blocking snoring noise.
How to sleep on the side with over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones
Over-the-ear headphones are not really designed for side sleepers, their protruding ear cups creating quite a bit of pressure when lying on them.
Besides, using a normal pillow, I would be concerned that the headphones might wear out rather quickly or even break.
However, if you want to sleep on the side and need the performance of the QC35+earplug combination to find peace and fall asleep, there is a solution:
I have a comparatively dense, u-shaped memory foam travel pillow.
If I use this pillow so that the opening is at the top of my head, both the ear cups and the headband fit into the U and I experience no pressure.
While being a compromise (I prefer a different pillow), this works quite well.
When I sleep like this, my head can rest on the pillow, and the pillow doesn’t get too high either.
The particular pillow I use can be buttoned-up at the top— so the U doesn’t get bent outwards and the pillow keeps its shape.
The pillow shouldn’t be too soft—dense memory foam works best for me.
There are also pillows with an opening in the center that have been designed to allow people with ear surgery to sleep on the side. I haven’t yet had the chance to try them, but they might be an option.
How to use noise cancelling headphones to block out loud snoring?
Loud snoring can reach more than 80 decibels (at its peak).
These peaks can be significantly reduced by combining active noise cancelling and passive isolation, but they can’t be completely eliminated.
One main reason for this is that above a certain level sound also gets transmitted via our skull into the inner ear (aka bone conduction).
Even if you could completely block or cancel all sound that would otherwise reach your ear drums, you would still hear a sound if it is really loud. This limits the maximum noise reduction one can achieve.
However, you can mask the rest of the snores by playing shaped white noise or the sound of a waterfall using a white noise app.
Ideally when using white noise, shape it (using the app’s equalizer) so that it emphasizes the frequency bands in which the snoring still comes through after having being mostly cancelled by the headphones/headphone-earplug combination.
Here is my favorite recipe for snore blocking with active noise cancelling headphones:
- I wear a comfortable pair of foam earplugs. I like Flents Quiet Please cylindrical earplugs for this purpose. They are easy to insert, very comfortable, block a lot of noise, and work very well with these headphones.
- I wear the Bose QC35 on top of the earplugs.
- I play anti-snoring-optimized white noise via the app myNoise (generator White Noise & Co).
Here is how I set the generator White Noise & Co in the app myNoise to block snoring noise:
Essentially I have emphasized the range from 250 Hz to 2000 Hz (4th to 7th slider).
Depending on the snorer(s) next to you, you might want to further tweak these settings. Also, if I don’t wear earplugs underneath, a somewhat different shape sounds better to me. In any case, the equalization shown in the image above is a good starting point.
These Bose over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones in combination with earplugs and white noise are a great snore blocker, fending off even loud snoring. I am not aware of anything that works better for a back sleeper.
By using a pillow with an opening, they can also be made to work for side sleepers. This may be a compromise, but in my book it beats not being able to sleep by a margin.
For more ideas, also read my post that compares various snore blocking solutions.
Finally, a significant percentage of snorers actually suffers from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
OSA can lead to serious long term health consequences, so please encourage the snorer(s) next to you to get their snoring checked by a doctor.
You might get a better night’s sleep and they a longer life.