Against low-frequency noise, active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones) reign, but against everything else, foam earplugs are more effective.
That’s what I used to think, having used both for years now.
But ANC headphones and ANC earbuds have become better and better, so I wondered, “Is this still true?”
Besides, maximum noise reduction and isolation from your environment are not always desirable.
Often, you just need to turn down the volume a notch to reduce stress and be at ease.
In this post, I am reporting on a noise reduction test comparing foam earplugs, ANC headphones, and ANC earbuds and share what I consider to be the ideal use case for each of the three.
Furthermore, I also tested how much additional noise you can block by wearing noise cancelling headphones together with foam earplugs.
To this day, this is what I resort to when I want to sleep on an airplane, but suddenly a baby two rows in front of me starts crying.
I am comparing the Moldex Purafit (NRR33) foam earplugs, the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM4 ANC headphones, and the 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro earbuds.
These particular headphones and earbuds perform best in class or close to best in class. The foam earplugs fit me well and have a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 33, which is as high as it gets.
Against mid-and high-frequency noise, foam earplugs (and hearing protection earmuffs) are still the most effective tools out there.
Foam earplugs haven’t been dethroned yet, but state-of-the-art over-ear active noise cancelling headphones are substantially better at reducing low-frequency noise than foam earplugs (17 dB better on average for the headphones tested here) and the difference is getting larger. They are also getting pretty close in overall noise reduction.
Noise cancelling headphones have become a very complete noise reduction tool!
ANC earbuds offer very good low-frequency noise reduction (in this test, about 11 dB better than foam); at some frequencies they are so good that they can go toe to toe with over-ear models.
Their mid- and-high-frequency noise reduction is more modest though; in particular against high frequency noise, ANC earbuds are far behind earplugs and full-size ANC headphones.
If you just want to lower the volume though, this moderate mid-and-high-frequency noise reduction can be an advantage. You retain more awareness of your surroundings.
Ideal use case
Foam earplugs, when deeply inserted, conform very well to the shape of the ear canal. If they are the right size for the wearer, they don’t stick out and are ideal for side sleeping.
ANC headphones are great for long-haul plane, bus, and train travel as well as working in an office or coffee shop.
ANC earbuds are excellent if you want to turn down the overall volume of your environment and do away with the bass without feeling isolated. They are great for walking around in a busy city, and commuting.
Sitting at the ear canal entrance (foam earplugs go much deeper), they exhibit virtually no ear pressure. There is also no headband pressure, so they are very comfortable.
ANC earbuds’ excellent bass noise reduction makes them a good alternative to earplugs for sleeping for people who are bothered by traffic rumble, EDM bass, or stomping noises.
Noise reduction details
The test was conducted using the Moldex Purafit (NRR33) foam earplugs, the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM4 ANC headphones, and the 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro earbuds.
Why this choice?
The chosen ANC headphones and earbuds models perform best in class or close to best in class. The foam earplugs fit me well and have a noise reduction rating of 33 (the highest available).
I want to show-case what these different technologies can do for you and me.
There is a large variety of headphones and earbuds on the market. Some are close in performance to the models I tested, but many perform a lot worse. By selecting an “average” model, I may come to conclusions that don’t reflect what noise cancelling headphones can do for you.
Test results earplugs vs noise cancelling headphones
I conducted a real ear attenuation at threshold test (REAT) using my own ears and pulsed narrow-band noise in 1/3rd octave band steps from 40 to 12500 Hz: for each 1/3rd octave band the volume is lowered until the pulsed noise cannot be heard anymore. The corresponding threshold value in decibels is noted.
This is similar to what is done when earplugs and earmuffs are tested to obtain their noise reduction rating, but I used finer steps and tested across a larger range.
The following summary table details by how many dB one technology reduced noise better than the other. Positive numbers indicate the earplugs outperformed; negative numbers show the headphones/earbuds were better.
Note: In the U.S., earplugs and earmuffs are tested from 125 to 8000 Hz to determine the NRR for the purpose of hearing protection. To assess the “annoyance reduction potential,” in this post we are looking at a larger range.
Earplugs vs over-ear ANC headphones
Against bass noise up to 250 Hz the headphones were substantially more effective, attenuating noise by between 10 and 20 decibels better than the earplugs.
Against mid frequency (315 to 2000 Hz) and low treble (2500 Hz to 5000 Hz) noise, the earplugs attenuated noise better, on average by 4 and 5 decibels, respectively.
Note that our hearing is most sensitive in the range from 2000 to 5000 Hz.
So, overall the over-ear ANC headphones were a lot better against low frequency noise and while noticeably less effective than foam earplugs against mid- and high frequency noise, they held their ground surprisingly well.
Earplugs vs ANC earbuds
Against bass up to 125 Hz the earbuds reduced noise by 11 decibels better (range 9 to 15 dB) than the earplugs. They were also quite effective against higher bass noise and mid frequency noise, but here the earplugs were noticeably more effective.
These ANC earbuds are no match for foam earplugs when it comes to low and high treble noise.
With good ANC earbuds you can expect on average about 20 dB mid- and 25dB treble noise reduction, which isn’t enough to isolate yourself in a loud coffee shop or office.
Chatter, screaming, screeching, eating, and clicking noises clearly come through.
On the flip side, earbuds allow you to dial down the volume of your environment while retaining more awareness of what’s going on around you than you would with foam earplugs. This can be of great benefit when walking around town.
Ranking table: earplugs and headphones performance against everyday noises
- Many everyday noises, such as eating, crying, and speech cover a large frequency range. Also multi-tone alarms and car horns can include both mid and treble frequencies.
- With noise cancelling earbuds and to a lesser degree headphones as well, it is the mid and treble frequency parts that can become annoying. When you reduce one part of the noise very effectively, another one tends to take center stage.
Wearing noise cancelling headphones together with earplugs
Wearing foam earplugs underneath noise cancelling headphones (doubling up) improved noise reduction effectiveness (vs using only headphones) by a lot, in particular in the mid- and low-treble ranges.
15 and 11.5 decibels additional noise reduction on top of the good isolation the headphones already offer is no mean feat!
This boost is very useful because speech, crying, honking, and a lot of other everyday noises fall in this range. In addition, it is the range in which our hearing is most sensitive.
As mentioned earlier, I use this combination on a plane when I want to sleep but crying babies or chatting neighbors would otherwise keep me awake.
“Doubling up” is also an option if you are sitting in a particularly noisy place and the headphones alone don’t provide enough relief for you to focus on your work or studying.
The noise reduction performance against bass noise deteriorates somewhat
Somewhat surprisingly, the noise cancelling performance for bass noise from 40 to 125 Hz deteriorates by about 5 decibels.
Mind you, the ANC still works well and reduces noise by 12 decibels better than what you would achieve with the Moldex foam earplugs, but nevertheless.
Active noise cancellation works by creating an inverted signal to the noise the headphones pick up via their microphones and is a very delicate undertaking; the earplugs appear to interfere with this to some degree.
However, the overall noise reduction of the combination (Sony noise cancelling headphones + Moldex foam earplugs) is far ahead of what the headphones achieve by themselves.
Moreover, this illustrates that there is still a lot of room for improving the performance of active noise cancelling headphones.
In an earlier post, I have detailed how wearing noise reduction earmuffs on top of ANC earbuds increases performance. Here we are doing it the other way around.
But, the combination described here is more comfortable. Foam earplugs correspond better to a change in ear canal shape (than earbuds) and the headband force of these Sony headphones is significantly lower than that of noise reduction earmuffs.
Are there any headphones that exploit doubling-up?
The Nuraphone headphones feature a combination of in-ear and over-ear design. So far, they are the only headphones I am aware of that do that.
I have tried them once and found their passive noise isolation to be outstanding. The ANC, however, appears to be substantially weaker than that of the Sony headphones.
Note: Doubling up with earmuffs, i.e., wearing them on top of foam earplugs, is often used to improve hearing protection in very high-noise situations.
Ideal use cases for earplugs, ANC headphones, and ANC earbuds
Office and coffee shop work
(1) Noise cancelling headphones
Coffee shops and open plan offices can be loud.
The noise covers a large part of the frequency spectrum: HVAC noise, humming and buzzing, building resonances, clicking keyboards, eating noises, chatter, laughing, someone shouting into his phone, printers and copy machines…
I enjoy reading and working in coffee shops and go to two or three different ones most weeks.
Every place comes with different sights and sounds and triggers different thoughts.
In these places, I find over-ear noise cancelling headphones offer the best combination in terms of wearing comfort, noise reduction, and ease of use.
Also, the latest generation of many ANC headphones, such as the Sony WH-1000xM4 (but not the M3), allows you to connect them to your notebook computer and your phone at the same time.
Just to be clear: they don’t block all noise and against loud conversations you will have to additionally deploy a masking sound.
In terms of pure performance, foam earplugs (and earplug-like earphones) can be even more effective against office and coffee shop noise than ANC headphones; they are a very economical option if you need good noise isolation.
But for me, this only works if I don’t have to constantly remove/reinsert the earplugs due to work demands.
Note: It’s not only the inconvenience; many foam earplugs become soft in your ear and hence quite difficult to reinsert. Ideally you need to give them a cooling-down period.
I want to limit my daily use of earplugs. Since I often wear them for 8 hours at night, I prefer to keep my ears unplugged during the day and let earwax do its cleaning job.
If you want to keep your ears open, passive noise reduction earmuffs are a very effective and economical alternative for enhancing focus. They are not as comfortable as ANC headphones though.
Noise cancelling earbuds are good if your work place isn’t too loud, or you want to primarily fend off low-frequency humming, HVAC systems, or building resonances caused by heavy traffic.
Sleeping at home and away
(1) Foam earplugs
For sleeping, my favorite tool is foam earplugs. They effectively reduce creaking noises, my AC, the TV coming from adjacent rooms, the sound of a fridge turning on, crickets, barking dogs, you name it.
However, because these earplugs reduce noise so well, intermittent noises that make it through can become your mind’s focus.
It is as if in the absence of noise, the brain turns up the internal amplifier to watch out for the saber tooth tiger.
This can be remedied by playing a white noise machine at a volume sufficient to create a constant background sound noticeable through the earplugs.
The brain gets something constant to listen to (instead of nothing and then suddenly a startling sound) and disturbing noises are blocked even better.
When I am on the road and experience bass or stomping noises that are too loud for the earplugs, I sometimes wear noise cancelling earbuds.
Foam earplugs are not bad against low frequency noise, but, as shown in this test, my ANC earbuds perform by about 10 decibels better in that range than the earplugs.
This is huge against the bass and can make the difference between sleeping soundly and being kept awake by a repeating “thump, thump…”
I will occasionally use over-ear ANC headphones for their superior performance against bass as well as other noises (e.g., snoring), but they are clearly not ideal for side sleeping or alternating between side and back sleeping.
Lowering the city volume and commuting
(1) Noise cancelling earbuds
Often we just want to turn down the volume when walking along a busy city street or sitting on a subway or other public transport. Cities are permeated by low-frequency noise (trucks, buses, compressors, generators), which active noise cancelling earbuds can almost completely eliminate.
There is also honking and screeching and other mid-and high frequency noises, and ANC earbuds are only moderately effective (15 to 25 decibels reduction) against this type of noise.
But, when out and about, this moderate noise reduction is mostly an advantage:
I want to reduce the volume to reduce stress but I don’t want to isolate myself. I still want to hear what is going on around me.
At times, I use earbuds (currently mostly the 1More ANC Pro reviewed here) without any music while walking around or shopping: the low-frequency noise is gone and the overall volume of everything else is reduced. Great, hassle-free stress reliever!
For my taste, foam earplugs isolate too well in this situation, and they are a hassle to remove and then put back in several times during a walk. Nevertheless, foam earplugs on the train or bus are a very effective antidote.
Over-ear ANC headphones are a good option for commuting, provided it’s not too hot outside. The thing is, I mostly get to enjoy a hot climate and the ears get sweaty.
If you are considering ANC headphones for walking around town, adjust the noise cancellation so that you are not too isolated from the environment; if necessary use the ambient sound mode.
Plane, long-haul and short-haul travel
Long-haul: (1) noise cancelling headphones + foam earplugs
Short-haul: noise cancelling headphones, noise cancelling earbuds, or foam earplugs
Like most people I find the constant droning sound in an airplane cabin fatiguing. Flying with noise cancelling headphones has made a huge improvement to the way I feel during a flight and after getting off the plane:
A considerable weight has been taken of my shoulders.
For long-distance flying, I prefer over-ear active noise cancelling headphones. They reduce air cabin noise very well and are also good against the chatter around me.
When I want to sleep and a baby starts crying, I wear foam earplugs underneath and play white noise.
Foam earplugs all by themselves are my second choice. They are decent against cabin noise and very good against the noises my fellow passengers make.
Noise cancelling earbuds are effective against the cabin noise and very comfy. For short-haul flights, they are a good, compact solution. However, for sleeping, I wish they’d reduce mid and high frequency noise (chatter, crying) better.
Long-distance bus and train travel: the noise spectrum of buses is different from airplanes, but they are fatiguing as well. Trains are generally quieter. Noise cancelling headphones are my favorites for all modes of long-distance travel.