How to choose & use noise-canceling headphones [Cult of Mac travel tips]

The noise canceling headphones are fantastic. They reduce traffic noise, aircraft noise and even, to some extent, the racket of that endless construction work across the street. Not only is life more pleasant without this noise pollution, but background noise is also healthier for your ears.

Because you are not trying to drown out ambient noise with your music, you can adjust the volume to a lower level, thus preserving your hearing (as well as your sanity).

Today we will see how to choose between the different types of noise canceling headphones available and how to use them. What will not be a guide for the buyer, although I have some recommendations based on personal use.

Two types of noise cancellation: passive …

There are two ways to reduce background noise. One is passive. Simply use thick, well-sealed headphones or headphones to prevent noise from entering your ear. This is actually a great option for noise cancellation. I have an old pair of Sony headphones that are perfect for walking on the street, because my ears seal very well.

  These Sony XBA-C10s are fantastic, but they are very long.
These Sony XBA-C10s are fantastic, but they are long lasting.
Photo: Sony

The disadvantage of passive noise blocking is that you must get a good fit. Hearing aids should be attached to your ears, and the seal can be damaged by glasses or sunglasses of great thickness. Larger earmuffs may be better than smaller ones in this case.

Check out the ear defenders to see the latest noise blocking technology. The popular and respected 3M Peltor X5A, for example, comes with a large cup with an opening large enough to allow the entire outer ear to fit inside. (It is also deep enough for your ears to feel they have some space.) But in reality, it depends on the shape of your ears and your head. Try several models to be sure.

If it can fit well (try putting the headphones upside down and make sure you try different sized tips to better fit your ear), then passive noise-blocking headphones can be all as good as active technology. In addition, they offer the advantage of being battery-free and, in general, cheaper than headphones with active noise cancellation.

So, could you buy a pair of cheap ear defenders and use them with your AirPods? Yes and no. That certainly works in theory. But in practice, putting on the big earmuffs will usually take out the AirPods. I know, because I tried it.

… and active

Active noise cancellation is where the headphones contain a computer and a microphone. They sample the ambient noise, then create an exact copy, only out of phase. Here is an image to show you how it works:

  Active noise cancellation: Science in action!
Science in action
Photo: CC Marekich / Wikipedia

It's pretty wild. That's some high school physics that is happening in real life right there. Surprisingly, it is possible to take a copy of the street noise, reverse it and then reproduce it so that the original noise is almost completely canceled. Headphones with active noise cancellation also use some passive blocking to do their job.

However, noise canceling headphones have several drawbacks. One is that processing can negatively affect real music. However, with better models, this should go unnoticed (especially if you are streaming MP3 via Bluetooth). The other major drawback is the price. A good pair of noise canceling cans costs much more than a good pair of passive hearing aids.

Additional tricks

  The only bad thing about Sony WH-H900N headphones is their name.
The only bad thing about Sony WH-H900N is the name.
Photo: Sony

Active noise cancellation also offers other advantages, thanks to the microphone (s) of the headphones and the integrated processor. One of them is that they can normally be used to make phone calls. Another is that they can reduce wind noise. The Sony WH-H900N has this feature, and it is miraculous. You lose a little noise cancellation when you turn it on (traffic will sound louder), but the wind that passes through the headphones is reduced or eliminated.

Do they really cancel the noise?

Actually, noise cancellation is actually more like noise reduction. Never cut all the background sound. But that's okay. It is good enough to avoid ear fatigue on long flights and to reduce traffic or noise from the subway / subway / bus so you can listen to your podcasts without turning up the volume completely.

For years, I felt happy with the Sony XBA-C10 Headphones (photo above). In fact, I still am. I keep them in my bag all the time. But these days, I find it awkward to put things in my ears. So now I use the Sony WH-H900N headphones mentioned above. They are less convenient, but more comfortable. Also, they sound better.

AirPods are the worst outdoor headphones

AirPods don't cancel or block noise, but I'll mention them here because they're so bad. I love the convenience of AirPods. Nothing can beat a small gadget, always loaded, always in your pocket. And the sound is not bad. But I can only use them in my house.

Outside, they are so drowned out by ambient noise that they are almost inaudible, even when they are launched. In the subway, they are useless. And on the street, traffic drowns music and makes podcasts difficult to hear. So, for me, my super expensive wireless headphones are used only at home, where it is quiet enough to listen to. I guess at least the battery will last more than two years.

Should I buy headphones with noise cancellation?

I should probably do it. While you probably don't need high-end (and expensive) active models, the health benefits and comfort of noise canceling headphones are worth it. If you do nothing else, make sure that your next headphones are well sealed to place over your ears or headphones that can cover your ears against ambient noise.

For more information and some recommendations, see Wirecutter's excellent article on noise canceling headphones.

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