In this post I am comparing two of my favorite noise reduction tools: active noise cancelling headphones and earmuffs. The results of an everyday noise reduction test are also included.
Noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones) have become all the rage in recent years, and for good reasons:
They get rid of bass noise like no other tool, sound great, and are very comfortable. I use them a lot and get great utility out of them.
Some people even wear them when riding a zero turn lawn mower or using power tools. But is this a good idea?
On the other hand, more and more students and people who are sensitive to noise swear by hearing protection earmuffs to reduce distractions and shield themselves from the onslaught of everyday noise—everything from chatter to screeching chairs.
Some teachers even buy earmuffs in bulk for whole classes and allow their use in exams. Wouldn’t it be much better if they got ANC headphones instead?
Well, after having used both for a couple of years and done a fair bit of testing (see below), here is what I have found.
Summary noise cancelling headphones vs earmuffs
Both noise cancelling headphones and hearing protection earmuffs are good options for everyday noise reduction, e.g., if you are you are sensitive to noise or are looking for a tool to improve concentration.
However, for use as a hearing protector in a high noise environment, choose safety earmuffs with a noise reduction rating (NRR), not noise cancelling headphones.
Strengths of noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones)
- They provide good to excellent low frequency noise reduction (e.g., traffic, plane, thumping bass, HVAC) and good high-frequency noise reduction (e.g., screeching brakes, hand-held vacuum).
- ANC headphones are very comfortable.
- They sound great.
- ANC headphones are OK at reducing mid-frequency noise, but safety earmuffs work a lot better for these frequencies. And, there is a lot of noise in the mid-frequencies.
- ANC earbuds only somewhat reduce mid-frequency noise.
- These headphones have no NRR and are not designed for hearing protection in a work environment.
- They aren’t cheap.
Strengths of hearing protection earmuffs
- Safety earmuffs provide good to excellent mid-frequency noise reduction (e.g., shouting, barking, honking, vacuum cleaner, etc.) and good to excellent high-frequency noise reduction.
- They have a noise reduction rating (NRR).
- They can be used for everyday noise reduction as well as a hearing protector in a high-noise work environment.
- Good earmuffs are inexpensive.
- For low-frequency noise, even the highest rated NRR 30-31 earmuffs offer only OK noise reduction. Lower rated NRR 25 earmuffs only somewhat reduce low frequency noise.
- They are less comfortable than ANC headphones and ANC earbuds.
- In order to provide an optimal seal they employ a higher headband force than headphones.
Overall comparison table
|What||Noise cancelling headphones||NRR 30 earmuffs||NRR 25 earmuffs||Noise cancelling earbuds|
|Low frequency noise (traffic, plane, bass, HVAC)||Excellent||OK||So-so||Good to Excellent|
|Mid frequency noise (shouting, barking, honking, vacuum)||OK||Excellent||Good||So-so to OK|
|High frequency noise (screeching brakes, crickets, hand-held vacuum)||Good||Excellent||Good||OK|
|Noise reduction rating||No||Yes||Yes||No|
|Work hearing protector||No||Yes||Yes||No|
|Sound quality||Excellent||No speakers||OK (Bluetooth models)||Good|
|Make phone calls||Yes||No||Some||Yes|
|Battery for noise reduction||Yes||No||No||Yes|
Noise cancelling headphones vs earmuffs as a hearing protector
Noise cancelling headphones can help to protect your hearing in everyday life, but they are not a rated hearing protection device, i.e., they have no U.S. NRR.
Most other countries have similar standards that require that hearing protectors be tested and rated.
Furthermore, even the best current ANC headphones have what I call a mid-frequency weakness (see below for more details). In this range they are largely outperformed by earmuffs.
If you want to listen to radio, music or audio books or take a phone call while mowing the lawn, doing metal work, etc., take a look at my test and review of hearing protection earmuffs with Bluetooth.
So are noise cancelling headphones no good for protecting hearing?
Noise cancelling headphones use a combination of noise cancelling electronics and noise-isolating ear cups to reduce the noise reaching the ear. The best noise cancelling headphones are excellent at reducing low-frequency noise, including HVAC, vehicle, engine, airplane, and bass noise.
Through their ear cups they are also moderately effective at reducing mid-frequency noise and good at reducing high-frequency noise.
As a consequence, you can listen to music, lectures, or audio books at a much lower (=safer) volume than you can with normal headphones.
Also, in cities and on public transport you can actually quite easily encounter unsafe or at the very least stressful noise levels.
Against this noise onslaught, state-of-the-art ANC headphones are a great and comfortable antidote.
But note, not all noise cancelling headphones perform as promised.
Read my post Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Your Hearing for more details and recommendations.
Test results: everyday noise reduction noise cancelling headphones vs earmuffs
To get a better picture of how well headphones and earmuffs perform in everyday noise situations, I did a systematic listening test comparing a pair of state-of-the-art Sony noise cancelling headphones (WH-1000XM3), and two different earmuff models:
- Peltor X5A (NRR-31; earmuffs with a very high noise reduction rating)
- Peltor Optime 98 (NRR-25; light-weight earmuffs with moderate effectiveness)
I compared headphones and earmuffs from 40 to 12500 Hz (in 1/3 octave band steps) using narrow band pulsed-noise.
For each 1/3 octave band, I started out with a high sound level, reduced the volume until I couldn’t hear the noise anymore, and took note of the hearing threshold sound level.
(This is similar to the real ear attenuation at threshold test [REAT] performed when earmuffs are rated, but I used finer steps and tested down to 40 Hz as opposed to 125 Hz. And, I don’t have an anechoic chamber.)
In the following table I have scored the results:
(++: substantially better; + somewhat better)
What does that mean for practical purposes?
For lower-frequency noise from 40 to 315 Hz, the Sony headphones performed significantly better than the X5A, the highest-rated passive earmuffs I know of.
These ANC headphones are going to be more effective than the earmuffs against:
- Airplane cabin noise
- Traffic noise (buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes)
- The bass of sub woofers
- AC compressors and HVAC systems
From 400 Hz to 2500 Hz, the X5A earmuffs performed a lot better than the noise cancelling headphones, and from 2500 to 4000 Hz still somewhat better.
Many everyday noises fall into this mid-frequency to lower-treble frequency range:
- Honking of most vehicle horns
- Louder speech noise, screaming, and shouting
- Barking of most dog breeds. (Some large breeds like Rottweilers fall more into the lower-frequency range.)
- Vacuum cleaners (some models extend somewhat into the lower-frequency range.)
- Many noises in restaurants and coffee shops
If you are troubled by speech noise in particular, and want to know what you can do against it, please also read my post Why Noise Cancelling Headphones Don’t Block Voices.
From 5000 Hz to 12500 Hz, that is high-frequency or treble noise, the Sony headphones and the Peltor X5A earmuffs reduced noise similarly well (with the earmuffs still having a slight edge).
- Screeching (e.g., from brakes), but also small hand-held vacuum cleaners, and several cricket and song bird species fall into this range.
How do the lighter NRR-25 earmuffs compare to the headphones?
Compared to the light NRR-25 Optime 98 earmuffs, the noise cancelling headphones had an even larger advantage with respect to low-frequency noise reduction.
Still, in the mid-frequency range from 500 to 2500 Hz, the earmuffs performed a lot better than the headphones.
For the range from 3150 Hz to 12500 Hz earmuffs and headphones performed virtually the same.
So apart from low-frequency noise, light NRR-25 earmuffs can go toe to toe with state-of-the-art noise cancelling headphones.
Noise cancelling headphones are designed for wearing comfort while earmuffs are optimized for hearing protection.
The headband of noise reduction earmuffs exerts a larger clamping force than the headband of headphones. This is to ensure that the seal between ear pads and your head doesn’t break, regardless of how much you move your head.
I find earmuffs reasonably comfortable, but it does take some getting used to their snug fit.
In contrast, wearing a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones feels more like wearing soft pillows on the ears. You can truly forget that you are wearing them.
The cushioned headband is designed to exert as little pressure as possible while still holding the soft ear cushions in place and isolating your ears from the environment.
Also, I have never had a Bose headband dig into the top of my head, but with some earmuffs, the weight can make you feel the headband.
Durability and maintenance
Headband and ear cups
Noise cancelling headphones are a lot more delicate than earmuffs. The headband tends to have hinges, allowing you to fold them.
Also, it is often covered with soft faux leather or velvet and the ear cushions are made of a very soft protein leather.
If you just throw headphones in your backpack without a hard case and have them compete with other items for space, chances are that one day the ear cushions come out torn, or worse the headband or ear cups have cracked.
Not so with earmuffs: Many earmuffs have a steel-wire headband with a rubber- or plastic top that is very hard to break. The ear cups are made of a durable hard plastic, designed to absorb the force and wear and tear you would expect on a construction site.
Ear cushion wear and tear
The protein leather cushions of quality noise cancelling headphones are very soft but tend to deteriorate under sweat and heat (even when wiped regularly), with the top layer sometimes flaking off.
I have had to change my headphones’ ear cushions about once a year.
Some people don’t like spending this extra money and I understand that.
On the other hand, I consider changing the cushions a good hygiene measure.
The ear cushions of earmuffs are often made of a soft plastic; they don’t absorb much sweat and can be cleaned with some water and soap.
However, after prolonged use in harsher conditions, their ear cushions can also become hard and the foam lining inside the cups gets dirty and deteriorates.
I have found that the better the foam is for isolation the faster it falls apart under heat, sweat and dirt.
So if you use them daily, you can expect to change the ear pads and foam lining of earmuffs once a year as well.
For hearing protection earmuffs aimed at professionals, brands like 3M and Honeywell offer hygiene kits, including the ear pads and the foam, for purchase.
Even for consumer models where they often don’t sell kits, contact them when your pads are spent. They might send you complimentary ones.
Unfortunately, for many no-name earmuffs no replacement ear pads are available.
These earmuffs are cheap, so it’s not that big of deal, but throwing them out still burdens the environment.
Given the much higher price for noise cancelling headphones, I recommend that you check that replacement ear cushions are available for purchase—if not from the manufacturer then at least from third parties.
Noise cancelling headphones need electricity to operate. Without juice you don’t get any of the excellent low frequency noise reduction.
Not so with passive noise reduction earmuffs. They rely on their ear cups, cushions and isolation foam for noise reduction.
Bluetooth earmuffs, radio earmuffs, and earmuffs that contain electronics to facility active listening and communication do need batteries, but it is almost always for their extra functionality, not noise reduction. So if you don’t turn them on, they still reduce noise.
Unfortunately, the rechargeable battery in most modern active noise cancelling headphones isn’t user replaceable anymore. This is a pity and limits for how long you can use them.
Note: previous generations of noise cancelling headphones often used AAA batteries and you could optionally buy rechargeable ones.
With electronic earmuffs there are various options: some models operate with AA- or AAA batteries, some offer an optional replaceable rechargeable battery, and others yet have a non-replaceable rechargeable battery pretty much like noise cancelling headphones.
For low-frequency noise reduction and wearing comfort, quality noise cancelling headphones are great. The best models also offer good passive noise isolation and reduce noise across the whole frequency spectrum.
When I want to focus or just reduce everyday noise, I find myself gravitating more and more towards noise cancelling headphones.
I dislike low frequency noise, but perhaps more importantly, ANC headphones are so comfortable that I can forget I am wearing them.
Also, I listen to a lot of lectures and audio in general.
However, in terms of overall noise reduction, these headphones are not better than the best passive earmuffs.
In fact, in the mid-frequencies they are outperformed even by lighter safety earmuffs.
The highest rated earmuffs still reduce all but low-frequency noise better than noise cancelling headphones.
So if you want to concentrate for a couple of hours, can’t stand the vacuum cleaner, blender etc., or just need something to keep you sane, passive earmuffs are an effective and inexpensive option.
To protect yourself against hazardous noise levels (e.g., in the workshop, on your mower, at the range…) use earmuffs or/and earplugs with a noise reduction rating. If you want to listen to music while mowing your lawn, use a model with Bluetooth.
The same applies to protecting yourself and your child at loud events.