Woman using headphones while working

7 Key Features to Consider Before Buying Noise Canceling Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones are a worthwhile investment when endless bustle from nearby construction or raging traffic keeps you from enjoying your favorite playlist. Noise-canceling headphones reduce background noise and isolate you for much-needed quiet or focus time.

But with the wide variety of noise canceling headphone designs on the market, choosing a solid noise canceling set that meets your needs can be tricky. So what technologies and features should you be looking for to maximize sound and disconnect from the world?


1. Active or passive noise cancellation

First and foremost, it’s important to understand the types of noise cancellation technologies. Active noise cancellation (ANC) and passive noise cancellation (PNC) aim to block out external noise. However, they go about it very differently.

Passive noise canceling or noise isolating headphones physically filter ambient noise. The over-ear PNC headphones sit on thick, padded earpads that fit snugly in your ears, while the in-ear headphones plug into your ears and create a seal around them to reduce background noise.

On the other hand, active noise cancellation uses internal microphones to analyze the structure of incoming sounds. A small speaker then emits the same tone but in reverse to effectively cancel incoming noise. The instantaneous processing speed of digital signal processing (DSP) makes this possible.

If you value high-quality sound and noise isolation in noisy environments, opt for ANC headphones. However, if you’re on a budget, prefer more natural sound, and primarily need noise isolation in quieter environments, PNC headphones are what you need.

2. Choose the right form factor

AirPods Pro and Max

Headphones come in different styles, affecting sound quality, comfort, and even the impact of active noise cancellation. The form factor you select is entirely up to your personal needs.

In-ear headphones or earbuds are generally lighter, smaller, and more portable than full-size headphones. They come in different wired and wireless styles. Unlike over-ear headphones, headphones provide a passive aid to active noise cancellation technology as they act as a seal for your ear.

Over-ear headphones and earpads are known for their sound isolation, superior bass response, and sound quality due to their large drivers. Plus, they often feature generous padding and better battery life than smaller alternatives. However, they take up more space than a pair of headphones.

Over-ear headphones are a hybrid of the two above and don’t fully cover each ear. Due to their loose fit, over-ear headphones don’t sound as good as other options and usually don’t have ANC. If your priority is noise cancellation, avoid them.

3. Sound quality

Professional and standard headphones

When it comes to headphones, sound quality rating is obviously important. To enjoy a wide range of media, you should ideally test the headset in person. However, if not, you can always refer to online reviews and YouTube videos. Having a good understanding of the headphones sound signature will also help.

Try listening to several genres and a mix of high and low frequency sounds to identify potential flaws. It is recommended to test the headset with songs that you listen to frequently due to familiarity. You could try our headphone test playlist! Also test the volume and look for clicking or buzzing noises that could indicate a problem.

4. Comfort and Fit

Man wearing headphones

Headphones should be as comfortable as possible because you will have them in or on your ears for hours. A good fit is essential, as ANC headphones are notorious for causing ear pain. Some headphones may feel loose or too tight and heavy after long periods of time. If possible, try the headphones out in a store to see what you think.

Loose headphones can leak sound and disturb others around you. If you plan to use in-ear headphones, you need a good seal to ensure they stay in place and don’t fall out. This will also help with passive noise cancellation, and you’ll find that you don’t always need to have the headphones on at maximum volume.

Most over-ear headphones have adjustable headbands and rotating ear cups, while some brands offer special sizes for men, women, and children. Unfortunately, some earphones fit differently after being broken in, so reading other people’s reviews can be helpful.

5. Battery life and charging

Charging AirPods

You need to take into account how long you use your earbuds on a daily basis, as you will need to keep charging them. The battery life of rechargeable wireless headphones has come a long way, with high-end models having a playtime of more than a day when fully charged. Additionally, over-ear headphones tend to have better battery life due to their larger size.

If the headphones use a charging case, you’ll need to put them back in the case every two hours. Some cases support fast charging and give you hours of playtime in minutes. However, the charging case and earbuds need to have decent battery life to last long.

Remember that active noise cancellation, high volumes, and other advanced features consume a lot of battery and significantly reduce battery life.

6. Special features and design

Man holding headphones in charging case

Besides the obvious factors, such as comfort and sound quality, you’ll want to look for some advanced features. For example, some headsets include different noise cancellation modes, allowing you to fine-tune the listening experience. Transparency mode is another common feature and allows you to temporarily listen to the sounds around you.

Most noise-canceling headphones also have voice integration with Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa for hands-free control on the go. Newer models feature high-quality mics that improve voice assistant integration, ANC, and calls, even in noisy environments.

Depending on the model, the headphones may also include touch controls and accessibility options. This lets you switch between ANC modes, skip songs, or answer calls without accessing your smartphone.

7. Price and value

Person taking out dollar bills

Your price range is the final factor to remember, as noise-canceling headphones can be a bit more expensive than a standard pair depending on the features you’re looking for. After all, they come at a price if you care about noise cancellation and audio quality.

Depending on your budget, prioritize the headset features that are essential for your use case before you start your search. This will help you narrow down the options available to one that meets all your requirements. Depending on your budget, you can also browse used or refurbished options. However, check their warranty and condition carefully.

Get out of the world with noise canceling headphones

Noise-canceling headphones are great, but you need to know exactly what you want. Some might prefer the convenience of headphones, while others might appreciate the performance of over-ear headphones.

ANC headphones often cost significantly more than standard models, but that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank or compromise on sound quality. Before deciding which type of earbuds are best for you, identify how noise-canceling technology can improve your life.

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