In this post I am reporting on my performance tests comparing noise cancelling headphones, over-ear noise isolating headphones, and in-ear noise isolating earphones.
Apart from noise reduction charts, I have also included tips based on my experience to help you decide which headphone type is right for your use case.
Let’s get right to it.
Regular closed-back headphones with ear cups that fit over your ears to reduce outside noise are noise isolating headphones.
But while higher frequencies can be muffled quite well using this design, this passive noise isolation doesn’t work very well against low and low-mid frequency noise.
That type of noise easily passes through the ear cups of regular headphones.
This includes, for example, airplane cabin noise, traffic rumble, the lower registers of male and female voices, engine noise, HVAC noise, larger vehicle honking, the barks of larger dog breeds, and lower frequency hums and buzzing noises.
When you use noise isolating headphones that muffle higher frequencies well, it may even appear as if these lower frequency sounds are louder than without headphones.
And, lower frequency noise can become fatiguing and will drown out (=mask) the lower frequencies in your music.
Clever designers added electronics to these noise isolating headphones to reduce lower frequencies.
They added microphones inside and/or outside the ear cups that listen to environmental noise.
And they added a battery and electronics that take the microphone input and use the headphones’ speakers to create a counter signal that electronically (actively) cancels out lower frequency sounds.
Thus active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones) were born by combining passive noise isolation and noise cancelling electronics.
Note: In addition to closed-back headphones there are also open-back headphones where the back of the speaker is not enclosed and merely protected by a grill or similar. Open-back headphones offer a larger sound stage and arguable sound best, but they provide no noise isolation and other people hear what you are listening to.
Overview noise reduction table (arithmetic averages, author’s ears)
The test was conducted using pulsed noises at increasing frequencies (1/3rd octave steps). For each frequency band, I noted the difference (=the noise reduction) between my hearing threshold with open ears and while wearing the headphones.
The following table indicates the noise reduction averages I have been able to achieve.
For noise reduction graphs and more details see the sections below.
Note: The test results in this posts are provided to show the potential for noise annoyance reduction, not to assess suitability for hearing protection! These headphones don’t have a noise reduction rating and are not meant or marketed as hearing protectors.
Over-ear noise cancelling vs noise isolating headphones
Most regular closed-back (noise isolating) over-ear headphones block almost no noise below 300 Hz and are only moderately effective against lower mid frequency noise from 300 to 1000 Hz.
Active noise cancelling over-ear headphones (ANC headphones) remove this weakness by adding electronics to passive noise isolation to cancel low and lower mid frequency noise.
To reduce higher mid frequency and high frequency noise both noise isolating and noise cancelling headphones rely on the passive noise isolation of their ear cups.
Over-ear headphones (with or without noise cancellation) get sweaty in a hotter climate, especially when used outdoors.
On the flipside, you may appreciate them in the winter.
Why choose ANC headphones
- Noise cancelling headphones are overall a lot more effective at reducing noise than regular over-ear headphones.
- Moreover, they are a versatile communication tool and offer good sound quality. Many can connect to your computer and phone at the same time.
- Modern noise cancellation reduces both constant low frequency noise (e.g., droning, hums) as well as low frequency impact noise (e.g., stomping, door slams, music bass).
Downside of ANC headphones
- Good ANC headphones cost more money than noise isolating headphones, and these days often have a rechargeable battery that can’t be removed.
- Regular headphones at the same price point typically offer superior sound quality (provided you are in a quiet environment).
- Wired noise isolating headphones need no battery.
- Active noise cancellation tends to produce some self-noise (white noise floor or hiss) which becomes noticeable when listening in a quiet environment.
- Active noise cancellation makes some people feel uncomfortable. (Personally, I have not experienced any discomfort.)
Over-ear noise cancelling vs in-ear noise isolating headphones
Deep-insertion in-ear noise isolating earphones are like earplugs with sound. Unlike their over-ear counterpart, they can very effectively reduce all noise.
With an optimal seal, some quality in-ears match the performance of both over ear noise cancelling headphones and ANC earbuds against low frequency noise and outperform them against mid and high frequency noise.
Why choose noise isolating in-ear headphones
- You get great noise isolation (low, mid, and high frequency noise) in a very small package and you need no battery.
- Depending on the price point, in-ears sound very good.
- You hear the details in your music even in a louder environment.
- No sweaty ears.
- You have to insert something deep into your ear canal and get used to an “earplug fit.”
- Insertion and removal take longer, which makes in-ears inconvenient for talking to people.
- They can isolate so well that you hear little of what is going on around you, and unlike ANC headphones and earbuds, they have no awareness mode.
- Making phone calls is more of a challenge: it becomes more difficult to gauge the volume of your own voice.
Noise cancelling earbuds vs in-ear noise isolating headphones
Unlike in-ears, many noise cancelling earbuds employ a shallow seal at the ear canal entrance. This is good because you are getting very little pressure inside the ear canal.
The best ANC earbuds are very effective against low frequency noise even at a shallow insertion.
However, such earbuds typically provide only a moderate reduction of mid and high frequency noise.
What earbuds and in-ears have in common is that you don’t get sweaty ears.
Why choose noise cancelling earbuds
- They are easy and fast to put in and remove and comfortable.
- You get a versatile communication tool.
- You feel less isolated in environments where you want to be aware of what’s going on around you.
- The mid and high frequency noise reduction is typically a lot weaker than that of in-ears (and over-ear ANC headphones): while this helps to be more aware of your environment, it’s a problem if you are bothered by chatter, crying sounds, honking, barking, etc.
- You need a battery and in particular with true wireless earbuds you get a limited playtime.
Noise reduction details noise cancelling vs noise isolating headphones
So far the active noise cancellation in commercial headphones doesn’t work for higher mid and high frequency noise.
Consequently for this type of noise ANC headphones also rely completely on passive noise isolation.
For example, with the very popular Sony ANC headphones (WH-1000XM4, left image above) the cutoff is at around 700 Hz.
These Sony headphones also reduce sound frequencies >700 Hz quite well, but this is because their ear cups and ear pads are designed to provide good passive sound isolation.
(The cutoff varies among headphones and brands.)
Because you are getting the noise isolation plus you are getting noise cancellation in the low and low-mid frequency range, good over-ear ANC headphones reduce noise better than purely noise isolating headphones with the same ear cup design.
Obviously, the quality among both noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones varies widely, so you have to look at specific models:
In this post I am looking at the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose QC35, two ANC headphones I have now used for a while.
I am currently not aware of regular over-ear headphones (without ANC) whose ear cups isolate better than the ones of these two headphones.
With regular noise isolating headphones, I am referring to closed-back headphones, e.g., the Audio Technica ATH-M50x, AKG K371, and Sony MDR 7506, etc.
These are all high quality headphones that sound very good.
Moreover, they will block some higher frequency distractions, so they do help with environmental noise. But, they don’t isolate better than the above-mentioned ANC headphones.
But, apart from regular (noise isolating) over-ear headphones, there are also extreme or high noise isolating headphones.
These headphones use larger ear cups than regular headphones and better noise dampening foam, and often employ a larger headband force.
Such headphones include, for example, headphones for e-drumming and a select few gaming headsets.
A while ago, I tested the Alesis DRP 100 (right image above), a pair of high noise isolating headphones for e-drumming.
Unlike most regular headphones, these headphones do provide a noticeable reduction of noise <300 Hz.
Here is a graph (test using my own ears) comparing the noise reduction of the DRP 100 with that of two of my favorite ANC headphones:
According to my results, the DRP 100 headphones reduce a lot less noise up to 800 Hz, perform about the same as the ANC headphones from 800 to 2000 Hz and reduce more noise in the range from about 2500 to 5000 Hz.
The Alesis headphones do isolate well, better than the regular over-ear headphones I am familiar with, and they cost a lot less money than the Sony or Bose ANC headphones.
In fact, they are actually quite good at reducing distracting noises and still reasonably comfortable.
But, because of the huge noise reduction gap below 800 Hz, against most every-day noises, both the WH-1000XM4 and the QC35 ANC headphones are more effective than the DRP 100.
This includes music bass, most traffic noise, honking, barking of mid- and large sized dogs, vacuums, a large part of human speech and the crying sounds of many (not all) babies.
The range from 2500 to 5000 Hz in which the DRP 100 offer an advantage is important but quite narrow, and the ANC headphones also reduce noise in this range well [>30 dB].
Nevertheless, against crickets, birds, chihuahuas, and higher pitched crying the DRP 100 do perform somewhat better.
How well could over-ear noise isolating headphones isolate?
Consumer headphones have to strike a balance between wearing comfort and noise reduction.
Ear defenders with a high noise reduction rating (e.g., NRR 30) are a different kind of animal.
Unlike ANC headphones, they are built for hearing protection, not for being ear pillows.
In the following graph, I have added my noise reduction results for the Peltor Sport Ultimate earmuffs (orange) to the graph you have just seen.
And indeed, in terms of noise isolation, these muffs give both ANC headphones and “normal” high noise isolating headphones a run for the money.
Against low frequency noise, active noise cancellation still has the edge, so against idling trucks and airplane cabin noise you will get more relief with the headphones.
But from 400 Hz on (i.e., most mid and high frequency noise) the muffs reduce noise substantially better than the most effective ANC headphones I own.
The main downsides of these ear defenders are the substantially higher headband force and the bulkiness.
The performance doesn’t look too shabby though?
Note: One of the most-well regarded over-ear headphones for drummers, the Ultraphones are built by putting the drivers of the Sony MDR 7506 studio headphones into NRR-29 Peltor Optime earmuffs.
For more information on how earmuffs compare to noise cancelling headphones in terms of noise reduction effectiveness, check my post Noise Cancelling Headphones vs Earmuffs: Electronics vs Big Ear Cups.
Noise reduction details ANC headphones vs noise isolating in-ears
Perhaps surprisingly, some deeply inserted noise isolating in-ear earphones can go toe to toe with top active noise cancelling headphones.
As it turns out, it is much easier to achieve good low frequency noise reduction by plugging your ears than by covering them.
Our ear canal consists of two parts, an outer, cartilaginous part and a bony part that is terminated by the eardrum.
If you can insert your earplug or ear tip so that it seals in the bony part (or close to it), you can potentially get very good noise reduction across the whole frequency range, including low frequency noise.
A few specialized in-ear earphones are designed for such a deep seal.
Etymotic Research are the innovators in this field. To this day they make among the (if not the) most effective noise isolating in-ear headphones.
Here is the noise reduction graph Sony ANC headphones vs Etymotic in-ears (image above), again for my ears:
Take a look at the red noise reduction line for the Etymotic ER2XR noise isolating earphones. It stays above 30 decibels for most of the low frequency range (<=250 Hz), and indeed virtually the entire tested frequency range.
The excellent Sony over-ear ANC headphones perform somewhat better from 40 to 60 Hz and equally well (but not better) up to 400 Hz.
But for remainder of the mid-frequency range (400 to 2000 Hz) and the high-frequency range, the ER2XR block more noise.
So overall, in my ears and with foam ear tips, the tiny Etymotic ER2XR in-ear monitors reduce noise more effectively than Sony’s current top ANC headphones.
It’s perhaps not a quantum leap but surprising nevertheless.
Where is the battery?
There is none; it’s all passive noise isolation.
Is there a catch?
With these in-ears, you have to get a deep seal, otherwise ANC headphones will perform better.
By comparison, with ANC headphones, you just have to put them on and flick a switch to enjoy good noise reduction.
- Etymotic are often used with triple-flange silicone ear tips (instead of foam). In this configuration they are a somewhat less effective, but still very good and competitive when compared to ANC headphones.
For more information on the noise reduction (with various ear tips) and sound of these in-ear monitors, read my test and review of the Etymotic ER2XR.
Now you may wonder why then don’t the ANC earbuds displayed in the graph above (1More ANC Pro) perform as well as the noise-isolating in-ears?
The main reason is that they don’t go very deep into ear. Earbuds typically seal the ear canal close to the entrance which makes them very comfortable but not ideal for maximizing noise reduction.
In fact, the active noise cancellation of these earbuds is very good, which is why they are competitive up to 100 Hz. Most are not. With their ANC switched off, they reduce very little low frequency noise
Active noise cancelling headphones block significantly more noise than over-ear noise isolating headphones with the same design.
They isolate as well and, in addition, use electronics to reduce low and low mid frequency noise.
Low frequency noise is prevalent in larger cities as well as on public transport and airplanes, and even in many offices.
This kind of noise can be much more effectively subdued by electronic noise cancellation or earplug-style deep insertion earphones.
If you primarily want to use your headphones in noisy indoor environments, I would seriously consider ANC headphones.
Quality ANC headphones sound good and are a very versatile communication tool, with most state-of-the-art models allowing you to connect to your computer and phone at the same time.
If, on the other hand, you primarily want to enjoy good music in a quiet(er) environment, noise isolating headphones can give you more bang for your buck.
In my experience, $150 – 200 noise isolating headphones can sound as well or better than $350 noise cancelling headphones.
Moreover, you won’t need a battery if you are OK with a wired connection. If you take good care of such headphones they can still serve you well after 10+ years.
If you are OK with earplug-type insertion, in-ear noise isolating headphones (unlike their over-ear counterpart) can very effectively reduce all noise and also sound very good. Moreover, they fit in your pocket.
With these you can listen to your music in peace and quiet in almost any environment. In terms of pure noise reduction performance they are hard to beat, provided you get a good seal.
I would not choose in-ears for situations where you need to communicate a lot or need to take them out and reinsert them frequently.
Personally, I use noise cancelling earbuds (and headphones) a lot more often than in-ears. I walk a lot on tropical city streets and often do want to talk to people or take a call.
Earbuds that sit at the ear canal entrance can be much easier taken out when you meet someone than in-ears. And I usually take them out when holding a conversation (even if I could use a transparency mode).
In my opinion this shows respect and appreciation.
ANC earbuds don’t reduce mid and high frequency noise nearly as well as in-ears. In fact, they are only competitive (but not better) against low frequency <=125 Hz.
I find this moderate noise reduction ideal for reducing stress and listening to relaxing music when out and about.
For shutting out the world in a noisy café though, I prefer more noise reduction than what my earbuds offer.
Have a great day.
1. For a detailed comparison of insertion depth and noise reduction for a model of Etymotic in-ears for audiometric testing see (FIG 6):