Many people get expensive noise cancelling headphones in the hope that they will somehow completely shield them from environmental noise.
But when they switch on their headphones’ noise cancelling without music, they notice that all that chatter, shouting and screaming is still coming through.
It may appear at times as if voices are even amplified.
Perhaps you are now sitting in an open office or on a plane and wondering, “Why the heck do my $300+ Bose or Sony noise cancelling headphones let all these conversations right through?”
The reason for this is quite simple:
Current active noise cancelling technology works best for frequencies below 500 Hz and is somewhat effective only up to about 1000 Hz.
Engine noise and traffic rumble are mostly below 500 Hz and so are greatly reduced or even completely eliminated through active noise cancelling (ANC).
The important frequency range for understanding human speech, however, only starts at around 500 Hz. The most important bands for speech intelligibility are 500 Hz, 1000 Hz, 2000 Hz, and 4000 Hz.
Bummer: Current ANC does not help above 1000 Hz.
This applies even to highly regarded noise cancelling headphones, such as the Bose QC25 and QC35, and the Sony WH-1000XM3.
Just look at graphs comparing noise cancelling versus passive isolation for the top noise cancelling headphones.
Brent Butterworth’s measurements for the Bose QC25, with ANC on and off on. (see graph Measurements: Isolation)
Rting’s measurements for the Sony WH-1000XM3 with ANC on and off
Note that these graphs aren’t directly comparable as different equipment and methods are being used, but they illustrate the difference between noise cancelling turned on and off.
From 1000 Hz, noise reduction with ANC turned on is no better than attenuation with ANC turned off. In some instances it is even worse.
It isn’t that these companies want to let the chatter and screaming babies pass through. Current ANC technology just doesn’t work for this.
But, in addition to actively cancelling lower-frequency noise, newer ANC headphones also work quite well as noise-isolating headphones.
The ear cups’ seal and isolation substantially attenuates voices and other higher-pitched noise.
For speech blocking, active noise cancelling headphones rely mostly on passive sound isolation, not on their electronics.
With current top-of-the-line noise cancelling headphones, you can expect between 15 and 25 dB noise reduction from 500 to 2000 Hz, which is substantial but not nearly enough to eliminate speech.
Good industrial earmuffs, foam earplugs and noise-isolating in-ear earphones generally work better for reducing speech noise. They are optimized for passive noise isolation.
As far as earmuffs are concerned, you need to put up with less comfort and a higher clamping force though, and with in-ears you need to stick something in your ear.
If you value long-term wearing comfort and don’t want to have something in your ears, active noise cancelling headphones are still a great tool for offices and cafés. They just need a little help.
What can you do to improve the speech blocking performance of noise cancelling headphones?
Normal conversations overheard at close range can easily reach 50 dBA with peaks of 75 dB.
This is way beyond what the passive noise isolation of even the best noise-isolating headphones can cope with.
In the previous section I stated that active noise cancelling headphones are not very good at blocking speech.
They are, however, very good at cancelling low frequency-noise, including the bass of music.
Over the years I have found that lower-pitched noises—even in the absence of chatter—raise my stress levels. Low-frequency noise is more insidious than shouting and laughter, but it does grind me down over time.
This is the noise spectrum in my favorite coffee shop just now at 3 pm:
This spectrum is the result of chatter, a couple of AC compressors, coffee makers, and music.
Most offices and coffee shops contain a mix of disturbing sounds.
These sounds include low-frequency noise for which noise cancellers are very good and higher-pitched noises—conversations, keyboard clicking, people chewing ice cubes—for which these headphones need help.
This help is readily available in the form of noise masking with white noise and water streams. Noise masking essentially means drowning out offending noises by overlaying them with a more constant noise.
When people chat, chew, or handle paper bags in a quiet library, you would likely find this extremely annoying. Now picture the same people doing the same thing close to the Niagara Falls. Chances are you wouldn’t even notice them.
To effectively mask speech without turning up the volume too much, we need to shape our white noise to emphasize the speech frequencies and other annoying background noise.
The white noise generator in myNoise is highly flexible and allows us to do just that.
It features 10 different sliders, with which you can adjust the noise for the 10 octave bands of 31, 63, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000, and 16000 Hz.
The most important speech frequency bands are 500, 1000, 2000, and 4000 Hz.
With the Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones an effective speech blocking preset for the coffee shop I am currently in looks like this:
(Annotated screenshot from the iOS app. You could also start experimenting with the web app at myNoise.net)
I almost need no masking noise at the low and high frequency bands but I add a little because it makes the masking sound more pleasant.
Note how I have increased the volume for 500 (5th slider from the left), 1000, 2000, and 4000 Hz.
Tip: If these settings don’t quite work, I usually only need to further increase the volume of the 1000 and 2000 Hz bands.
How do you get there for your noise environment?
One way is to start with the pink noise preset (all sliders set to the same volume). Increase the master volume until you can’t hear the chatter (or whatever else may be annoying you) anymore:
Now the chatter is likely gone, but the pink noise might be too loud for comfort.
Decrease the volume of the three left-most sliders and the two right-most sliders by as much as possible while maintaining your masking noise’s speech blocking effectiveness. You could probably set them to zero.
Adjust the other sliders to fine tune your masking sound for comfort. I mostly end up with a triangle with a peak at 1000 Hz.
The web app myNoise.net also has a speech blocking preset which can be used as a base. IMO that preset works better for normal headphones though: normal headphones, because they don’t cancel noise, need a substantial amount of masking noise in the low-frequency range, i.e. the four left-most sliders.
If you haven’t yet purchased ANC headphones, you might wonder whether you should rather get earmuffs, noise-isolating in-ears or even earplugs.
Wouldn’t these be a much better choice?
This depends on your budget, your applications, your desire for comfort, and whether it is acceptable for you to plug your ears.
If you are traveling a lot on airplanes, IMO good noise cancelling headphones are the way to go. They were designed to get rid of turbine noise and do it better than everything else I know of. The same applies if you feel tortured by sub-woofers, rumbling trucks, generators, and other machines that emit substantial amounts of low-frequency noise.
Please note that noise cancelling headphones may not be used as hearing protectors unless they have a noise reduction rating (NRR)!
Tip: To get rid of loud chatter and screaming babies on airplanes, I wear foam earplugs underneath my headphones. I add some white noise and drift away.
Good industrial earmuffs, such as the 3M Peltor X5A are better at blocking speech.
But they are bulky and less comfortable. To achieve their superior noise isolation, they need to exert a higher clamping force than normal headphones. What’s more, even they won’t completely block loud speech, so at times you would have to wear earbuds underneath and play white noise.
Some earmuffs, such as the 3M Worktunes Connect Bluetooth and the Howard Leight Sync feature built-in speakers. These earmuff headphones are indeed a good budget alternative to noise cancelling headphones if you want to block conversations and everyday noise. They are a lot cheaper and at least as effective for speech. But they are less comfortable and don’t sound as good. So you are trading comfort for money and vice versa.
Foam earplugs are also better at reducing speech noise, but because of bone conducted sound even these cannot completely block louder voices and you can’t play a masking sound.
Good noise-isolating earphones, such as Shure and Etymotic Research’s in-ear monitors are indeed an alternative. If they fit well (!) and you insert them deeply, they reduce noise, including speech very well. You would again use white noise to mask what is left of the noise. The downside is that you need to stick something in your ear.
Personally, I often wear earplugs or earbuds at night and earbuds in the gym, so I’d like to keep my ears unplugged for the rest of the day. When I need everyday noise blocking, I mostly alternate between noise cancelling headphones and earmuffs.
I love the comfort of noise cancelling headphones and their ability to reduce low-frequency noise, which I find highly stressful.
When I need to focus I don’t want conversations around me either. Many active noise cancellers have pretty good passive noise isolation these days, but it is not nearly enough for louder offices and cafes. Consequently I mask the chatter with fine-tuned white noise.
- Image credits: geese-gänseschar, by ulleo via Pixabay.com
37 thoughts on “Why Noise Cancelling Headphones Don’t Block Voices and What You Can Do About it”
This is a really great article! Thank you for looking into this properly and sharing your findings and tips in this article. Greatly appreciated 🙂
thank you very much for your encouraging feedback.
Looking at the graphs, these noise cancelling headphones are actually already pretty good at passive isolation as well. But there is room for improvement in the mid-frequency range. I am not sure how that would affect wearing comfort though.
Have a wonderful day.
This is the most thorough article I have read on noise and what may and may not work. I have read hundreds!
It would give me confidence to make a purchase if you could tell me my best option. I have a new home near a busy road, have hung sound dampening curtains and planted trees. It is the low frequency truck noise that drives me crazy. I looked at noise canceling headphones but am unsure in reading about them whether I can put them on, be in silence as opposed to music and have that lower vibration sound, deadened. I am a writer and just crave silence! Can you advise me?
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
thank you very much for the praise.
I can relate to your pain.
Before I go into the headphones:
Does your house have sound-proof windows? If not, perhaps look into that as well. They can make a substantial difference with traffic noise.
Regarding noise cancelling headphones:
I currently use the Bose QC35 and I am very happy with their performance against low-frequency traffic noise, even without playing music.
I have a mix of cars, pickups, medium-sized trucks and city buses. Occasionally a large truck passes by.
Without music, I still hear traffic noise (reduced) with my balcony door open, but the low frequency booming and rumbling is almost completely gone. If I should assign a number, I would say about 90%.
Some peaks still come through, but the headphones make a huge difference for me.
Please note: vibrations you feel can’t be cancelled by headphones and sound also gets conducted through your skull, so there is a limit.
I have compared the Bose to the Sony WH1000XM3 (their main competitor) against a sub-woofer bass, and chatter (but not traffic noise).
With speech, the Sony were slightly better, but the difference was small.
With the bass, it felt like a draw: both reduced the subwoofer substantially, to the point that I felt the sound more in the chest than hearing it.
I also found both comfortable; here the Bose had a slight edge.
For my use cases, I prefer the Bose: The WH1000XM3’s sound is too bass-heavy for me and I can’t use them with two devices at the same time (which I do a lot). If you like an emphasized bass, you might like the Sony.
In any case, both are great noise cancelling headphones; I am not aware of any better ones.
So my take is this: Pick either the Bose QC35 II or the Sony WH1000XM3 and try them against the trucks.
With both you have a good chance of substantial relief. See to it that you can return the headphones in case it doesn’t work out.
While it takes away from the comfort and music wouldn’t sound very good, you can even wear foam earplugs underneath. This helps quite a bit with the higher-bass and lower-mid frequencies and will further reduce the overall traffic noise level.
All the best.
How about playing white noise through speakers, outside of noise cancelling headphones?
I’m thinking it could mask some external noise through acoustic interference, and then get a bit filtered by ANC – is it a silly idea?
Playing masking noise through speakers is, for example, being done in open office environments and hospitals. Several companies offer such sound masking systems with multiple speakers mounted in the ceiling.
But sound masking doesn’t work through destructive acoustic interference / cancelling of sound waves.
It actually increases the noise level, but decreases the noise variability in the room and makes conversations that are taking place further away unintelligible.
The masking noise “drowns out” offending noises. Complete masking is not even necessary for many purposes.
A decreased noise variability can already improve sleep (it reduces the number of arousals) and ability to focus.
Any partial cancelling of sounds/destructive acoustic interference through a masking noise in such an environment (if any) would be incidental and would be highly dependent on the position of the listener.
What kind of noise do you want to get rid of and where is the noise source located?
You are probably aware of this: active noise cancelling headphones work through acoustic interference. The headphones try to produce 180-degree out-of-phase counter waves to destructively interfere with (=cancel) intruding sound waves.
Hello, thanks for reply.
I knew such systems exist, but as you can see I didn’t know how they work 🙂
Source is the worst of them all – human speech, of living, moving people in open office floor plan. I’m _very_ sensitive to speech and unable to cut off from such “broadcasts”.
The obvious idea is to not work in open space, which is sadly not possible for me right now.
I used Peltor X4A (pretty effective, uncomfortable) – but I was still able to understand speech. Currently I use the WH1000XM3, and with music they work well. But music is rather variable and listening for hours can be exhausting.
I’ve tried using mynoise, but thought that masking noise outside my headphones would be closer to the source = more effective.
Generally, it would be more effective at the destination, i.e., you need less sound energy than at the source. The further sound waves travel the more energy they lose; the sound becomes quieter and hence a quieter masking sound would suffice.
By making use of the noise cancellation and noise isolation of your Sony headphones, you are in essence putting more distance between yourself and the source of your noise. You would ideally play the masking sound inside the headphones.
With these noise masking systems, the speakers that are mounted above your desk area are to mask more distant speech (i.e., mask further away noise sources at the destination) but not to interfere with the communication between coworkers sitting nearby.
If the speakers were set loud enough to mask people sitting close-by, the sound would disturb their communication and annoy the heck out of them.
Thank you for the great article. I stumbled on reviews while trying to find the best way to concentrate in my noisy open floor plan office.
I currently use the Bose QC-25 and listen to music, but unless I put the volume quite high it isn’t enough. Furthermore I get tired of listening to music eventually.
I was thinking of getting industrial earmuffs but I’m happy I read your many reviews; it helps me conclude that they wouldn’t be any better than ANC + white noise. You’ve saved me money and the disappointment of finding that earmuffs won’t be any better.
I’ve used MyNoise in past but just like with music, my ears eventually get tired. I think it is because the white noise volume needs to be relatively high for it to drown out my coworkers. (I wanted to try white noise at a low volume + music at the same time, but it’s not possible to play two sound sources it seems on an iPhone)
If you ever have a better working solution than ANC + white noise, please make sure to post about it!
A quick test to see whether earmuffs might work for you is to use well-fitted foam earplugs underneath your QC25 headphones. The earplugs should provide substantial additional attenuation at some of the frequencies important for speech intelligibility. I do this quite often when I want to sleep on a flight.
If you like the performance, you could then just add white noise on top, which will come across much quieter yet do the trick. This will likely bring the performance of your ANC headphones to a different level.
If you don’t mind the earplugs, you already have your solution.
But you have to ensure that your earplugs are really sealing well to get the best out of that combination.
As to combining white noise and music: You could do that on a PC. Just start the web version Mynoise.net in your browser and then start a YouTube video in another browser tab or play music through a music player such as the VLC player. I do that quite often actually.
To reduce the white noise volume necessary for speech masking, I recommend emphasizing the speech frequencies using the equalizer. On the website you can find a preset called speech blocker that already does this.
By the way, if white noise fatigues you, try it at a lower volume, even if it doesn’t completely mask the speech/environmental noise. Aim to significantly reduce the number of distracting noise events rather than bringing them to zero.
I hope that helps a bit. Let me know how you are doing.
Please, please, please, can someone tell me what will block out loud music from the neighbors. We live in Queensland, Australia, with wooden houses. It drives me mad and like another person who commented, I crave silence. I do not need music to counteract the music. Which noise cancelling earbuds (it happens a night as well) would be the best?
If possible, I would talk to my neighbors / the authorities first, but perhaps you have already tried your best there.
Additionally, I would look into soundproofing your bedroom as a first line of defense.
As to blocking the music that reaches your room at night:
For night time noise blocking, I would start with foam earplugs. The key to making them work is a good fit (which takes some practice) and an earplug that suits your ear. You don’t mention whether the music is bass-heavy or just small speakers blaring. I have recently used Flents Quiet Time / Moldex Purafit earplugs with good success. They are a bit long, so experiment with how deep you insert them. See the above article link for more info and alternatives.
Now if you can sleep on your back, the over-ear active noise cancelling headphones (even without playing music) mentioned in this post are a good alternative, in particular if what bothers you is the bass.
With some really bass-heavy stuff, they may be the only thing that can make a dent. You could even wear earplugs underneath the headphones.
If it isn’t the bass and you don’t mind playing some sound (or you are a side sleeper), my first suggestion would be the combination earplugs plus a white noise machine.
Please note, there isn’t a hearing protector that can block all sound. Above a certain level, sound also gets conducted into your inner ear via your skull.
I hope you can find some peace and quiet soon.
Hello Helmut, This is a fantastic article. Thank you so much for the detailed information! – and not just a sales pitch for different headphone brands.
I am very sensitive to/distracted by human voices. I generally use a combination of foam earplugs, ANC headphones (an old pair of Audio Technicas that still works well, though I’ll probably replace them soon), and white noise playing through the headphones.
However, I worry sometimes about damaging my hearing, because even with all those layers, I have to turn up the white noise fairly loud to fully block out noisy conversations nearby.
Do you have any insight on what level of white noise is safe and will not damage hearing?
Thanks a lot for your feedback.
I can tell you what I personally do:
When using a masking sound long-term, I try to be conservative.
Personally, I aim to limit the level of the masking sound reaching my ear to 50 dBA or less. (this is significantly below the maximum occupational noise level NIOSH recommends for hearing loss prevention, but noise can also cause other health issues and stress.)
I will exceed 50 dBA if I have to work or sleep under excessive noise, but whenever possible I turn down the volume.
Key is to start out with good noise isolation:
If you have to play white noise very loud to mask normal chatter around you, I suspect that there might be an issue with the fit and seal of your earplugs because even if your headphones blocked little noise, well-fitted plugs should block quite a bit. Try optimizing your earplug fit and if this fails, a different plug.
Also, I vary the masking sound. Sometimes, I use equalized white noise as described in this post, sometimes I use the sound of a waterfall, and sometimes rain.
In my experience, un-equalized, pure white noise is not optimal for masking speech at a low volume. You need to emphasize the speech frequencies. (On MyNoise.net’s website you can also find a speech blocker preset.)
To get a feeling of how loud a sound level of 50 dBA is, play your masking noise through speakers and use a sound level meter. The NIOSH Sound Level Meter app is available for free in the Apple app store. For an alternative for Android (and some info on using white noise at night if you need that too), please see this post.
You could then increase the volume to 70 dBA and insert your foam earplugs and optimize their fit.
Foam earplugs with an NRR of at least 28 should allow you to reduce the noise level by at least 20 dB across the frequency range provided they are well-fitted.
(Unfortunately, many people don’t even get half the NRR due to wrong or shallow insertion or earplugs that don’t fit their ear.)
Finally, in my experience, you don’t have to completely mask every little sound in your environment. I aim to significantly reduce the number of distracting noises but not to eliminate everything. At times your earplugs / ANC headphones alone might suffice and you won’t need any masking sound.
I hope this helps a bit. Have a great day.
I want to block out snoring. I do not know the sound level of the snoring but it probably is above normal speech level. Maybe I do not understand the article (I am a senior). I am not a fan of ear buds. Any suggestions?
Yes, snoring can get quite loud and mostly is lower-pitched noise. A couple of years ago, the case of an English lady snoring at more than 100 dB made the news. That would be as loud as a leaf blower, but obviously she was a special case.
I have written a separate article about blocking snoring noise.
Please see whether that article helps with your issue.
You are very welcome to ask questions in the comments there.
If you are interested how noise cancelling headphones work for snoring, please check this article.
Let me know how it goes.
All the best.
I am looking for noise canceling headphones for a teen who is very noise sensitive and mildly on the spectrum.
1) He is hoping to create quiet/silence at swim meets (cheering/buzzers/chatter) and at home (little sister chatter).
2) He does NOT want to listen to music wearing the headphones. He just wants quiet.
3) He wants his friends to believe he is listening to music, which is socially acceptable. As such, he had no interest in gun range type hearing protection.
4) He will wear over-the-ear or in-ear headphones, but won’t wear gummy type ear plugs.
Do you have any recommendations that might possibly fit all that 🙂
I see, he doesn’t want normal earplugs or earmuffs. (Those would be the most economical solutions.)
OK, then two types of solutions come to mind:
1. The active noise cancelling headphones mentioned in this post, i.e., the Bose QC35 II or the Sony WH1000-XM3. Two days ago, Bose added an additional model, the Bose noise cancelling headphones 700.
Apart from noise cancellation, which works for lower frequencies, all these headphones isolate pretty well as well. They can be used without music.
But all the above-mentioned models are quite expensive. The wired Bose QC25 are usually a bit more economically priced, but still.
These headphones will significantly reduce everyday noise, but they won’t provide complete silence when other students are cheering or raising their voices.
My feeling is that these headphones might be overkill for your son’s use cases.
2. Earmuff headphones such as the 3M Worktunes Connect. (I would be leaning towards these for your son.)
They are a hybrid of earmuffs and headphones and look less like normal hearing protectors.
They will passively reduce the chatter and cheering (but not low-frequency noise, traffic noise, engine noise, etc.) at least as well as the active noise cancelling headphones I have tried.
They are a lot cheaper and completely passive, so you don’t need to power them on to reduce noise. As a hearing protector, they will never run out of battery.
They can, however, be used as Bluetooth (or wired) headphones, so they are more fun than “gun-type hearing protection” and your son can pretend he is listening to music.
The Worktunes’ downside is that they exert significantly more headband clamping force than the headphones mentioned above. I find them reasonably comfortable, but the headphones mentioned above are all more comfortable for long-time wearing.
Still, IMO, the Worktunes Connect are worth a try in your situation.
Hi Helmut, I’m 75, wear hearing aids due to Industrial Deafness, and have taken up Bench Rest rifle shooting. I need to protect what’s left of my hearing, yet be able to listen to advice on the indoor range from the Range Officer, and also be able to kill or dampen the sounds of my own rifle in order to protect my hearing. Do you have any recommendations as to what I should be looking for in headphones. I am a pensioner and dollars are important.
Thanks for reading,
The noise cancelling headphones mentioned in this post are not designated nor designed as a hearing protector, neither in an industrial settings nor at a firing range. So don’t try to use them at the range.
NIOSH recommends wearing double hearing protection, that is, wearing earplugs underneath noise protection earmuffs when shooting at an indoor firing range.
I understand that may be difficult with your hearing aids. I strongly recommend talking to your audiologist / doctor what hearing protection is suitable in your situation and how that may interact with your hearing aids.
Please be safe and protect your hearing!
As input for your discussion with your audiologist:
Howard Leight (a subsidiary of Honeywell) produce the Impact Pro Electronic Shooting Earmuffs, NRR-30 earmuffs that would allow the wearer to hear range commands. I don’t own them, but some wearers have reported using them with their hearing aids (which may be different from your’s).
(Most shooting earmuffs, due to their smaller profile, don’t achieve an NRR of 30. Beware of excessive claims that sometimes accompany no-name products.)
I hope this helps a bit.
All the best.
I will second what Helmut said about talking to your audiologist regarding the right hearing-protection solution for the range. As you may know, wearing hearing aids in an industrial-noise environment can actually increase hearing loss, because hearing aids by design amplify sounds – including some of the already dangerously loud sounds you are trying to block.
My story: Landed on this article while checking some information on ear pad replacement. I have spent the past two decades dealing with noise from all the places I’ve lived/worked.
I have been through four iterations of Bose QC headphones. I stick with the QC25 as I prefer replacing a single AAA battery to recharging a built-in battery as inside the QC35/QC35ii and QC700.
I am acquainted with two iterations of the top-of-the-line Sony NC headphones.
I prefer the Bose as they are sized just a bit smaller for my rather small head, and are comfortable enough. I routinely wear them to bed.
That technique you mention about using good fitting foam ear plugs under active noise-cancelling headphones is one I have employed for a long time. Usually noise in my environment doesn’t get so bad noise-wise that I’m motivated to resort to ear plugs + active noise cancelling, but I use that pairing somewhat frequently.
I’m into my sixties and have lived in nine states and overseas, and I’ve not the slightest doubt that the world has become increasingly noisy – not in a straight line increase, but in general noisier overall.
I’ve no doubt that the inability to reduce noise in people’s lives can play a role in mental health disorders.
Of course those with better financial resources can better isolate themselves (homes on larger lots with greater setbacks, building materials of greater cost …).
Last year I left a small community in Northern Arizona to be close to elderly parent that needs care.
To my chagrin the parent lives near Atlanta, and like other places I lived many years ago such as LA, Miami, NYC – it is awash in congestion and traffic.
I know from many years within social work field, (and of course many know this regardless what line of work they have been in), that people who share common experiences with one another gain some degree of comfort in shared experiences.
Your website and reader posts like this one provide a measure of this shared experience. Thank you for providing this site about noise.
thank you for sharing your experience. I have edited your comment for length.
As to replaceable batteries: Unfortunately, most electronics these days come with sealed rechargeable lithium batteries. I am not sure disposable batteries (or batteries that need to be charged externally) are the answer though.
For me the ideal solution is to employ user-replacable high-capacity lithium batteries as had been the case with mobile phones and notebook computers in the past.
Ideally we would only have to upgrade when we really get added value from a new device.
Unfortunately, companies are going the other way and even headphones and shavers (that could be used for a long time) are increasingly becoming consumables.
That being said, I have already gotten nearly three years of use out of my QC35 and the battery is holding strong. I have replaced the ear pads twice, but I use them a lot in a hot climate.
I also agree that this world has become a lot noisier.
We are only beginning to account for the significant cost of noise to society due to lost productivity and deteriorating physical and mental health (hearing damage, lack of sleep, unnecessary invoking of a stress response, etc.).
All the best to you.
Thank you for your detailed, thoughtful article. I am familiar with the MyNoise app and found it useful used alone on my iPhone. However, I am an audiobook aficionado and now I use an Android tablet with (as you have explained above) ANC.
I suspect that I won’t be able to enjoy my audio books simultaneously with MyNoise, even though that app is customizable – its best feature, its color-coding being a close second. Adding to the challenge is that I have 24/7 moderate tinnitus, so using earplugs is counter-productive.
I know that several (one?) manufacturers have come out with $$$$$ ear buds, supposedly with built-in noise generation, but the reviews are not great.
Thank you for your feedback.
On a Samsung Galaxy J7 (Android), I can use MyNoise simultaneously with audio books or music.
So if you want to listen to your audio books on your Android tablet (through your ANC headphones), while still keeping a bit of a masking sound in the background (e.g., to help with your tinnitus), that should work.
Thank you for the comprehensive article. It answered a lot of questions and sheds more light on the different effective tools.
I have Epilepsy that is triggered by sounds; mostly high pitch sounds. From your article I deduce that the noise cancelling headphones won’t help for high pitch sounds. Have I understood this correctly?
I would be so grateful for any advice.
While I have heard that sounds can trigger seizures in some sufferers from epilepsy, I am no medical doctor and no expert on epilepsy at all. I highly recommend that you consult with your doctor.
That being said, here is my best answer to your question:
The active noise cancellation (ANC) function of current over-ear noise cancelling headphones does not add any benefit above 1000 Hz, so if the trigger sounds are solely of frequencies >1000 Hz, the ANC will most likely not help for that.
However, in addition to their ANC, these headphones also isolate you passively (through the barrier that the ear cups provide) from environmental sound.
For the Bose QC 25 / QC35 and the Sony 1000XM3 headphones, this passive sound isolation is substantial and will reduce the noise above 1000 Hz. The Sony’s passive isolation is even better than the Bose’s.
In essence, above 1000 Hz, these headphones work like passive noise reduction earmuffs.
But, these headphones—while being more comfortable—generally isolate significantly worse than good hearing protection earmuffs and foam earplugs.
If you want to primarily muffle higher-pitched sounds, both good foam earplugs and earmuffs are likely going to be more effective and a lot cheaper than these ANC headphones.
You can even wear earplugs underneath muffs and get additional noise reduction. (If you already have active noise cancelling headphones, you can also boost their noise isolating performance with earplugs.)
Should you be looking for specific models, see for example the light-weight Peltor Optime 98 and the low-profile X4A in my post on hearing protection earmuffs. I have also written a post on foam earplugs that may help to find a pair of well-fitting plugs.
All the best.
Hello Helmut, this is definitely a great insight from a seasoned noise fighter; you shared a great deal of detailed info and tips. Also the comments hold a bunch of valuable info.
I have to agree with all said, the tips and tricks as well as with the fact that noise is becoming an increasing problem nowadays.
I’m using pretty much the same techniques except for the fact that you went even further with customizing the masking sound. I was using brown noise as it felt more comfortable to me, but customizing seems to be even better.
I have also suffered greatly in extremely noisy open offices where people were screaming at each other and laughing all the time. I looked deeper into this problem and acquired a pair of Bose QC35 and myNoise. Those have become my most valuable companions.
Extremely comfortable, great ANC and sound generally, but sadly on the other side, very poor for phone calls in noisy environments.
So I ended up with an external boom microphone that made it a good solution, but tied me down to a cable and forced me to plug/switch sources constantly.
I have read about this issue a lot and it seems to be a general Bose problem that a lot of users experience and Bose even denies its existence, hence replacing them. Their own forums are full of complaints. Do you also have the same experience?
Recently my beloved QC35 got stolen, so I’m looking into getting a replacement.
Loved the QC35, but the call quality is an issue. I’m looking into the Sony 1000XM3, but not sure, if this will be a significant improvement over the QC35. Or maybe the Bose 700 that look to be a breakthrough in call capabilities.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I have edited your post for length.
As to Brown Noise: I find Brown Noise very soothing, but it overemphasizes the lower frequencies and under-emphasizes the frequencies important for masking speech.
Additionally, good noise cancelling headphones are excellent at cancelling out the lower frequencies but need support for precisely the higher-pitched parts of voices. That makes Brown noise less than ideal for masking speech in general.
As to the call quality of the Bose QC35 in a noisy environment: I find the call quality decent, but there is room for improvement.
I am afraid, the Sony WH1000XM3 will likely not solve your problem. Poor call quality is one of the main complaints with these otherwise excellent noise cancelling headphones.
As reported in various posts, cancelling out background noise picked up by the mics during phone calls and good call quality seem to be the shining features of the Bose noise cancelling headphones 700. I don’t own them (yet), so I can’t speak from personal experience.
Have a great day.
Thank you so much for the well written article! I am using my new ANC headphones right now with the website you suggested, mynoise.net, and it is SOOOO much better in my open office space. I feel like I’m in my own little world.
The time and effort you put into this page is much appreciated!!
Thank you very much for the heads up, Stacey.
Have a wonderful day.
Hello… my husband and I live in ‘paradise’ on a beautiful ‘ocean-front’ rural property.
We enjoy the ‘peace and quiet’ with only the the sounds of birds and the ocean’s gentle waves on our beach — that is, when our neighbours aren’t playing loud music for hours on end (often for a 5-hour stretch).
We are at our wit’s end over this problem. We cannot approach the neighbours and ‘talk’ to them… [Edited]
The authorities cannot do anything about the long hours of music being played.
I am considering buying a pair of Active Noise Cancelling Ear Phones or Ear Plugs.
I don’t want to listen to even my own music all day to help block out the noise, so I had this bright idea that I could record my own ‘peaceful’ ambient sound with the birds and waves — and then play that back to myself. 🙂
(I realize there are commercial peaceful sounds, but I would like to hear my own.)
Which ear phones or ear plugs would you suggest for this?
I realize over-the-ear-phones might be too hot in the summer, but I also question whether ear buds would block out the music.
Also, my son has warned me that it is almost impossible to block out loud bass music. He says I would still be able to hear it, albeit muffled.
I would greatly appreciate any advice and/or information you could provide me.
first of all, I feel very sorry and upset about the way your neighbor has been treating you. It is beyond me how self-centered some people are.
I have edited your post end removed your neighbor’s actions because they might upset other people as well.
I want to focus on your questions instead.
From your son’s comment, I assume you are talking about bass-heavy music, so this is what I am basing my reply on. (Correct me if I am wrong.)
You also write that you want to play your own nature sound recordings.
In this case, I think your best bet is indeed over-the-ear active noise cancelling headphones.
I have recently done a test of noise cancelling headphones against bass-heavy rock and hip-hop music.
I would try the Sony WH1000XM3 headphones. They perform very well against both low and higher bass. I can’t think of anything better against bass-heavy music.
Yes, they may get a bit sweaty, but I have also tried very good in-ear active noise cancellers and those just didn’t remove enough of the lower bass.
Please also read the post How to Block Bass Noise—and Save Your Sanity for more information.
If you decide to get these headphones see to it that you can return them if they don’t do enough for you.
They are very good but at some point even they will be overwhelmed.
Sound that exceeds a certain volume is also conducted via our skull directly into the inner ear, bypassing the outer and even middle ear. That sound can’t be cancelled nor blocked with earplugs or muffs.
If speech noise and higher frequencies in your neighbor’s music are also a problem, you might indeed have to mask those with your nature sounds.
For the mid and higher frequencies, the headphones basically rely on the passive noise isolation of their ear cups, which is very decent, but depending on the music and distance, may not be enough.
A waterfall or heavy rain sound might come in handy for this purpose.
You could even wear foam earplugs underneath, but this would take away from the wearing comfort and the sound quality.
I sincerely hope you can find some relief.
Please let me know how it goes and all the best.
What a great article!
My wife and I are currently enduring a “shrieking” phase that our 2yo son is going through, nothing we have tried stops him from randomly belting out ear piercing shrieks constantly and randomly throughout the day.
I got some ANC headphones thinking they would block out some of the shrieking only to find human voices weren’t blocked out to any great degree.. I thought I had wasted my money until I found this article and the suggestion to use the “myNoise” app, I installed it, set my own custom white noise to counter the voices, in my case I went pretty heavy on the super high frequency channels because our sons shrieks are super shrill, and just like that a had a white noise hiss that blocked at least 80% of the squeals!
thank you for your encouraging feedback.
You are making the important point that you have to turn up the frequency band(s) in the app that encompass the noise you want to mask.
I am glad it is working for you. Hopefully your son will be through his “skrieking-phase” soon.
All the best.
A fantastic article at the right time! I was really irritated that my new Bose 700s wasn’t blocking out many sounds and now I know why. Thought I wasted my money. I downloaded the app and love it! I will make an in app purchase as a way of thanks
Many thanks for your encouraging feedback, Rob.
All active noise cancelling headphones I have need help to block out speech and other mid-frequency noises, so I use the app nearly every day as well.
All the best.