If you’re a commuter or want to listen to your music anywhere other than a soundproofed room, there is no better upgrade you can get than noise cancelling headphones. Many people believe that in order to get better sound quality, they need to spend more, but that might only be half true: you need to also prevent noise that could compromise or overpower your music before it reaches your ears. Plenty of companies have tried their hand at active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones, and a few have become so good at it that it’s one of the main selling points for their wireless headsets. But how do noise cancelling headphones work? And why is it so cool?

Editor’s note: this article was updated on October 26, 2021, for changes to wording and to add a contents menu.

What is sound, and what is noise?

A drawing depicts the wavelength and amplitude of a wave. BBC

To understand how to cancel noise, it’s important to first what it is. Sound as you hear it is really just the compression and decompression of the particles in the medium in it flows through—for our purposes, we’re talking about air. Picture sound as a ripple moving through the air. Those moving particles lead to very slight, rapid changes in air pressure. We call the measure of these changes in air pressure amplitude. Your ears and brain detect and decipher those changes in pressure as sound. If you chart the amplitude over time, you end up with something like the waveform pictured above. The larger the amplitude, the louder the sound. The faster the changes, the higher the pitch.

Related: The best noise cancelling headphones

Sound can be wanted or unwanted, it can be pleasant or unpleasant. Noise is usually defined as unwanted, unpleasant, or very loud sounds.

How do headphones cancel outside noise?

Your headphones cancel ambient noise by using a trick called “phase inversion” to create “anti-noise.” The concept is simple, but it’s tricky to get right.

If you were to take two identical waves and line them up with each other, matching up the peaks and troughs, the two waves are said to be “in-phase,” which when summed results in an even larger wave (louder sound). But what happens if you delay one of the waves by exactly one-half wavelength, matching up the troughs with the peaks of the other like in the picture below?

How active noise cancelling actually works

Constructive and Destructive Interference Sound waves of equal amplitude, offset at half wavelengths result in compression waves with an amplitude of 0—canceling out the sound.

The two waves are then said to be “out of phase” and subtract from one another as the positive pressures of one wave are acting against the negative pressures of the other, and vice versa. Think of it as trying to add one and subtract one. You’re just left with zero. This is the basic physics behind noise cancellation, but how is that used in your headphones?

Does noise cancelling use microphones?

A photo showing the microphone array of the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700.

The microphone array (shown here as the holes in the side) records the noise around you to calculate how to cancel it

In order to create anti-noise, headphones must constantly monitor and sample ambient noise using tiny built-in microphones. They “listen” to the ambient noise around you, and then the onboard electronics take it from there. As well as your music, the headphones create sound that is exactly opposite to that sound wave to cancel it out so that all you should hear is the music coming from your headphones—and not anything going on outside.

Of course, this is all theoretical. In practice, noise cancellation is hard to do, and far from perfect. Constant noises like the low hums of jet engines on airplanes are easier for headphones to recognize and cancel when compared to sudden, random sounds like people talking.

While the physics remains the same, some companies are better at active noise cancelling than others. But now that you know how it works, you can pick the pair that’s right for you.

Related: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 vs Bose QuietComfort 45

Can noise cancelling headphones cause dizziness?

A picture of the Panasonic RZ-S500W noise cancelling earbuds both in the case, showing the LEDs on the buds.

The Panasonic RZ-S500W made Lily feel disoriented, because of the high-intensity hybrid ANC technology.

A few listeners have reported feelings of dizziness and disorientation when using noise cancelling headphones—our very own Lily Katz included. In some cases, headaches and nausea are also present—but in most cases it’s due to something else being triggered by the ANC, not the other way around. ANC on its own should not be able to be the sole cause of these issues.

One theory is that noise cancelling technology can generate extremely low-frequency vibrations that stimulate balance receptors connected to our ears’ stereocilia, our hearing hair cells. What then happens is that these receptors falsely communicate to the brain that the head is moving, despite one’s eyes being fixed. Mixed messages like this can trick the brain into thinking it’s experiencing motion and thus, dizziness.

One solution to this for moderately affected listeners is to decrease the ANC intensity. This can often be done in many headphone companion apps. Another solution is to buy a pair of noise cancelling headphones that aren’t at the top of the class. The sub-optimal ANC may be frustrating or disappointing to those who don’t suffer from side effects, but it could prove just right for you. The final solution is to forgo active noise cancelling altogether, which isn’t the best option for frequent flyers but might be the most comfortable.

Further reading: Active noise cancelling (ANC) technology types explained

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use the noise cancelling headphones to give you silence or do you have to play music?

Most ANC headphones will stay on and allow you to enjoy the silence without any signal being applied.