Noise Cancelling Headphones or Earbuds? It Depends on Where and When

noise cancelling headphones vs earbuds

The best over-ear active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones) feature impressive noise reducing performance and sound great.

But, they take up a lot more space than active noise cancelling earbuds (ANC earbuds).

ANC earbuds also use electronics to reduce noise, so perhaps they could do just as well?

They fit in a handbag or even a pocket and are accessible whenever you want listen to music or get some peace and quiet.

Indeed, the performance of ANC earbuds has come a long way. I recently got a new pair of neckband earbuds and the amount of low-frequency noise they cancel has really surprised me.

While neckbands may not be as fashionable as true-wireless earbuds, you can wear them all day (or night) with earbuds in or out and get a stronger battery than with true-wireless models.

With a neckband, you also never have to worry about losing one of these precious earbuds.

On the other hand, true-wireless earbuds look great and you don’t have to put up with a sticky collar when exercising.

And, some true-wireless models (e.g., AirPods Pro) also have great noise cancelling performance.

So do ANC earbuds cancel as much noise as ANC headphones?

In my experience, they are not yet there. Earbuds are good but overall not as good as their big brothers.

I have compared the performance of two excellent noise cancelling earbuds (1More Dual Driver ANC Pro and Bose QC20) and two state-of-the-art noise cancelling headphones (Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QC35):

In terms of overall noise reduction the big headphones still win.

For very low-frequency noise reduction, 1More’s ANC Pro earbuds are as good as the over-ear Sony—which is quite a feat. At some frequencies they are even a bit better. That opens some new possibilities.

But for high bass, mid-frequency, and high-frequency noise, the Sony headphones perform better. And the Bose QC35, while not quite as strong as the Sony, overall also reduce noise better than the earbuds.

This becomes apparent when sitting in a loud coffee shop:

Against the low-frequency HVAC system, both the headphones and the earbuds work well.

But chatter, the vocals from music and especially higher frequency sounds from making coffee and handling cups, glasses, and silverware are more reduced with both over-ear models.

My explanation is that earbuds that sit at the ear canal entrance passively can’t isolate as much noise as the ear cups of over-the-ear headphones.

(Some passive in-ear earphones, e.g. Etymotic Research in-ears, feature much better passive noise isolation than earbuds, but like reusable and foam earplugs, they need to go much deeper in your ear canal.)

For optimal mid- and high-frequency noise reduction you need as much passive noise isolation as you can.

WhatOver-ear ANC headphonesNeckband ANC earbudsTrue wireless ANC earbuds
Overall noise reductionExcellentGoodGood
Low frequency noise (traffic, plane, bass, HVAC)ExcellentGood to ExcellentGood to Excellent
Mid frequency noise (shouting, barking, honking, vacuum)OKSoso to OKSoso to OK
High frequency noise (screeching brakes, crickets, hand-held vacuum)GoodOKOK
ComfortExcellentExcellentExcellent
Headband forceLowNoneNone
Reliable sealExcellentOKOK
Sound qualityExcellentGoodGood
Battery life, typical (continuous listening+ANC)20 to 30 houes10 to 16 hours4.5 to 6 hours
Can be used without battery (no ANC)Most modelsSome modelsNo
Bluetooth connectionYesYesYes
Wired connectionMost modelsSome modelsNo
Open Office and StudyingGoodOKOK
Short haul flight, public transport, on the goGood to ExcellentExcellentExcellent
Long haul flightExcellentExcellentOK (battery)
ExerciseSosoGoodExcellent
Back sleepingGoodExcellentSoso (battery)
Side sleepingSoso (bulky)OKSoso (battery)
PortabilityOKExcellentExcellent

Comfort and consistent seal

When I am mostly stationary, I prefer a headband and ear-pads over putting anything in my ear.

With headphones you have to accept some headband force and the ear cushions pressing against your head and ear.

On the other hand, with earbuds, you have to put something in your ear.

Perhaps you are more of an earbud person?

Earbuds sit at the ear canal entrance, as opposed to in-ear monitors which go quite deep into the ear canal.

Generally, I find earbuds more comfortable than in-ears. Of all earbud tips I have tried, I find Bose’s Stay Hear tips the most comfortable ones, but others are fine as well.

With headphones, a consistent seal is easy to achieve for most people.

Earbuds can be a bit more fickle:

You get to choose between three or four different-sized ear tips to achieve a good seal.

With both the 1More and Bose ANC earbuds I get a good seal, but when I swallow or move my jaw in a certain way I can hear outside sound seeping in and the noise cancelling performance going down. Also, I have to refit the earbuds from time to time.

In the following, I’d like to compare headphones and earbuds for different use cases.

Stationary use in an open office or at home

Over-ear active noise cancelling headphones

If you want to use your headphones daily to cancel as much noise as possible and help you concentrate on your work or listen to music in peace and quiet, I recommend over-ear noise cancelling headphones over earbuds.

As mentioned in the introduction, the best over-ears still block more noise, in particular mid- and high frequency noise, which is plentiful in pretty much every space where people gather.

While no ANC headphones are perfect at blocking conversations, I still feel less exposed with them than with earbuds.

Also, over-ear headphones are clearly visible and signal to other people that you are busy.

Another point to consider is how comfortable you are with plugging your ears most days.

I find earbuds reasonably comfortable, but I also frequently use earplugs at night to block noise. Ideally I want to give my ears a rest during the day.

Last but not least, while quality earbuds sound good, I still prefer the sound quality of over-ear headphones.

If you are considering true-wireless earbuds (as opposed to neckband buds), also keep in mind they will likely not last a whole day.

Sure, you can put them back in their charging case, but having headphones with a battery that lasts for 20 or even 30 hours is just more hassle-free.

Use for traveling and while on the go

Long-haul flights and other long-distance travel

For long haul flights, both over-ear headphones and neckband earbuds are good choices.

Over-ear headphones block somewhat more chatter and crying, have a longer battery life, and virtually all of them still come with a cable that can be plugged into a flight entertainment system.

Also, when you want to sleep, you can wear a pair of foam earplugs underneath and block even more noise.

Neckband earbuds are more portable and make it easier to sleep with your ears against a pillow. With my current model, I get about 15 hours of battery with ANC on and they also come with an audio cable.

True-wireless earbuds, on the other hand, generally don’t have enough battery life for a long flight or train journey and can’t be connected via an audio cable.

To remedy this, you could put them back in their charging case every couple of hours and you can also buy a Bluetooth adapter to connect to the inflight entertainment system.

Short-haul flights, shorter travel, public transport and while on the go

Active Noise cancelling earbuds

Here both full-size noise cancelling headphones and earbuds work fine, but I somewhat prefer earbuds.

Earbuds are a lot more portable and inconspicuous and they don’t get hot. On the other hand, they won’t keep your ears warm in the winter.

Personally I would go with a neckband model because I can wear that all day long and don’t have to worry about losing my earbuds.

Other people prefer not having that neckband and go with true-wireless.

Exercise

For exercise, it is noise cancelling earbuds all the way and true-wireless is usually the best choice. Neckband earbuds work well too. When you break a sweat, the neckband does get a bit sticky though.

I have exercised with over-ear Bose noise cancelling headphones and I find the fit stable enough; they actually work quite well, but they do get hot and the ear cushions deteriorate faster under sweat, which adds an extra cost.

I am also worried they might break or suffer water damage at some point if I used them for daily exercise.

Preferably choose an earbud model with a rating of IPX4 or higher for water ingress so they can cope with sweat and light rain.

AirPods Pro (IPX4), for example, are sweat and water resistant for non-water sports and exercise.

Sleep

Quality noise cancelling headphones and earbuds can reduce low-frequency noise better than any other tool.

Over-ear headphones would be best for overall noise reduction and can work well if you sleep on your back, but they are too bulky for most side sleepers.

I sometimes use them with a horse-shoe pillow for side sleeping and it works OK, but it isn’t ideal.

Ideal for side sleepers are micro earbuds (that don’t protrude from the ear) and headband sleep phones, but those don’t have active noise cancelling.

In my opinion, the next best option is neckband noise cancelling earbuds.

Like most earbuds, they protrude a bit but can work quite well if used together with a rolled-up towel on top of the pillow or a pillow with a hole.

To use active noise cancelling and perhaps white noise or nature sounds for a whole night, you need a minimum of 10 hours of battery, which many neckband models provide. Preferably go for a model that gives you at least 12 hours; you might not always have your earbuds fully charged and the battery deteriorates over time.

I am not aware of any current true-wireless earbuds that last 10 hours with noise cancelling enabled; many won’t even get you 6 hours.

They can be fine if you only need them to help you fall asleep, but are not ideal if you need noise cancelling and sound for a whole night.

I am pretty confident, true-wireless buds will get there eventually.

In the meantime, I have also tried the 1More ANC Pro earbuds against footfalls and found they work surprisingly well.

If you are bothered by foot step noise, also read my article on reducing low-frequency footfalls from upstairs neighbors and listen to the sound sample to understand what kind of footstep noise I am referring to.

Conclusion

I like both noise cancelling headphones and earbuds. Over-ear headphones still perform better when it comes to overall noise reduction and sound quality.

For office, coffee shop, and home use and long-haul flights I prefer headphones. Importantly, they also signal that I don’t want to be disturbed.

But if I had to optimize for space, I would be very relieved to have noise cancelling earbuds with me instead of being exposed to all this noise.

Modern noise cancelling earbuds have come a long way; my most recent purchase is a truly impressive antidote against traffic and bass noise and helps to turn down the volume of loud and stressful places.

And, earbuds are so light, small, and inconspicuous that you can always have them you with you: along a busy road, while exercising, on public transport, on shorter flights, in a restaurant…

Finally, their performance and small profile make them a very interesting option for people whose sleep is disturbed by low frequency noise.

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