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Active noise canceling (ANC) technology types explained

ANC headphones are everywhere these days, but they aren't all built the same. Here's everything you need to know about the different types of noise canceling technology.

Published onMarch 22, 2023

Active noise cancellation (ANC) technology is a staple of the modern headphone industry. While still not a basic feature, it’s no longer reserved for the most expensive headphones. In fact, you’ll find a decent selection of earbuds and even true wireless products sporting some form of noise canceling technology. However, as our reviews show, not all ANC implementations are equal.

In fact, there are quite a few different ways to implement ANC technology, each of which has implications for the quality and type of noise that a headset is good at canceling out. We’re going to explain the differences between these types and what they mean for your next headphone purchase.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on March 22, 2023, to update formatting and add a comparison table.

How does active noise canceling work?

A graphic of waves that are in- and out-of-phase to cancel each other out.

We’ve already covered how noise canceling headphones work, and in a nutshell, noise cancellation is based on the principle of phase cancellation. Sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase, or the inverse of one another, cancel out when summed together. Think of it as adding -1 to +1, and you end up with zero. The idea with noise cancellation is to record the background noise, invert the noise signal to create “anti-noise,” and then add it to your output signal, which includes your music. The anti-noise signal cancels out the actual background noise at the point it reaches your ear. The idea is surprisingly simple and dates back to the 1930s, but it’s easier said than done.

The biggest issue with ANC is sampling ambient sounds accurately enough to provide the maximum degree of attenuation. Microphones must capture the noise, and the phase of the cancellation waveform leaving the headphone drivers needs to perfectly line up with the phase of the noise when it reaches your ear. These systems need to be finely tuned, but even then you won’t ever see 100% cancellation. Instead, between 20-40dB of noise reduction is quite common, which cuts the background noise level you hear to between one-quarter to one-sixteenth its original level. A considerable amount.

The back of Under Armour Project Rock by JBL headphones is shown being stretched out over the back of a man's head, about to put it on.
Ear pads that fully encompass the ears will do a much better job of blocking out noise than ear pads that rest on the ears.

Another key point to consider is that the noise you hear on the inside and outside of headphones is very different. Compare the passive isolation of closed-back headphones versus earbuds, for example. This difference in sound capture substantially changes the quality and capabilities of active noise cancellation between the two types of headsets. This begs the question, where do you best position the microphone in order to capture and cancel out noise? Outside the headphones, inside, or perhaps a little bit of both works best?

What is feedforward active noise canceling?

Feedforward ANC is, arguably the simplest type of active noise cancellation. With feedforward technology, the noise-capturing microphones are placed on the outside of the headphones. This is pretty handy for ANC earbuds, where there is limited real estate for a mic inside the wearer’s ear.

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise canceling true wireless earbuds wing tips, air vents, and IR sensors.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
Each Samsung Galaxy Buds Live earbud is absolutely packed with sensors and vents.

Feedforward ANC uses a digital signal processor (DSP), or dedicated ANC processing hardware to map the noise signal to what the user will actually hear on the inside of the headphones. However, it’s not as accurate as placing a mic inside the ear cup (something we’ve seen from premium headsets like the Bose QuietComfort 45 and Sony WH-1000XM4). Also, noise canceling properties change a bit between wearers. A loose fit, for example, may allow extra high-frequency noise to bleed through, which the processing can’t account for.

Placing the microphone outside the headphones has its share of pros and cons. The external microphone has the best noise sensitivity, making it good for mid-frequency noise canceling. As such, it can be used to isolate specific sounds, such as speech or traffic, for more advanced ANC and ambient sound control technologies. However, feedforward ANC is more sensitive to wind howl and other forms of incidental noise. These unpredictable noises may actually get amplified as they are not picked up inside the ear cup to be canceled out.

What is feedback active noise canceling?

The Sennheiser HD 450BT noise canceling headphones with the right ear pad removed to reveal the dynamic driver.
The ear pads are removable and don’t leave much room for large ears.

With feedback ANC, the microphone is located inside the ear cup, or inside the wearer’s ear with earbuds. Picking the right place within the ear cup’s interior presents a new set of difficulties. The major benefit to feedback ANC is that noise captured by the microphone more accurately reflects noise the wearer hears, regardless of the exact positioning and fit of the headphones. You can think of feedback ANC as a self-correcting mechanism. This also makes the headphones more resistant to wind howl, but devices can lose high-frequency noise canceling sensitivity, as less of this noise is likely to pass through the headphones from the outside.

This technology type still requires a processor to handle noise filtering. For instance, feedback noise canceling has to contend with the fact that the user’s audio (the wanted signal) is also likely to be captured by the internal microphone. This needs to be filtered out and also corrected for the frequency profile of the headphones when being worn.

Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones next to magazines on a wood bench
The Sony WH-1000XM4 has an effective hybrid ANC system that uses both feedback and feedforward ANC.

As with all feedback systems, runaway amplification can occur. There’s a small risk of the system picking up its own anti-noise signal and increasing the level of amplification in a bid to cancel it out; this can actually increase the amount of noise or even produce a ringing feedback sound. This is very rare but can happen in models that don’t take adequate precautions. There’s also less processing time with the feedback design, as it’s working on audio already very close to the ear. As such, feedback ANC is most effective at low frequencies, which have longer wavelengths.

What is hybrid active noise canceling?

Hybrid active noise cancellation offers the best of both worlds. As you may have guessed, it combines both feedforward and feedback microphones and processing to cover all the bases.

An image showing how hybrid active noise canceling works

You’ll receive the best noise attenuation frequency coverage and the lowest chances of feedback issues with hybrid technology. Furthermore, hybrid ANC can still be used for ambient noise and sound isolation features, while retaining the benefits of accurate, tailored ANC.

The drawback is that hybrid ANC is more expensive. Not only are there two microphones but these microphones need to be of high quality to avoid introducing extra noise. Headphones also require more powerful dedicated processing hardware to handle the extra math. Developers also double up on all the frequency and performance testing to maximize noise canceling performance. These products make up the most expensive headphones on the market, but they offer the best quality ANC around.

Does noise canceling matter?

A woman wears the Jabra Elite 85t and operates the right earbud's control button.
An effective pair of noise canceling earbuds like the Jabra Elite 85t can help protect your hearing.

While manufacturers seldom talk about the ins and outs of their noise canceling technology, knowing more about the three main types can help inform your purchasing decisions. If you’re having problems with feedback or not enough high-frequency cancellation, you may want to switch from the feedback to the feedforward type. Alternatively, noise cancellation that seems a bit temperamental could be a sign to switch from feedforward to something else. While not an automatic guarantee of quality, keeping an eye out for hybrid ANC should ensure a nice quiet listening environment free from issues.

Finally, keep an eye out for our noise canceling performance charts in our reviews. These give you the best picture of all about how headphones perform at canceling noise and can help us to infer a bit about the technology on board.

How do the different types of ANC compare?

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a handy table that offers the main points at a glance.

Attenuation typeMic locationStrengthsWeaknesses
Attenuation type
Isolation (passive)
Mic location
No extra power necessary
Avoids sensory issues

Low end attenuation very poor
Attenuation type
Feedback active noise cancellation
Mic location
Inside ear cup
Better at canceling wind noise
Poorer high-end attenuation
Attenuation type
Feedforward active noise cancellation
Mic location
Outside ear cup
Better at canceling mids
Poorer incidental noise attenuation
Attenuation type
Hybrid active noise cancellation
Mic location
Outside and inside ear cup
Best of both types, drawbacks of neither
Usually more expensive
Attenuation type
(Adjustable) active noise cancellation
Mic location

Allows you to turn down ANC effect
Requires interaction

If you look at this table and conclude “hey, maybe I should find hybrid ANC headphones”—you’d probably not be surprised that these are becoming more common now that the market has had enough time to mature and grow as a segment. Headphones have needed to improve ANC performance to stay competitive, and that’s led to more and more manufacturers adopting a hybrid approach.

Frequently Asked Questions

Sometimes our readers have further questions after reading an article, and we collect these questions and answer them here! Below are our responses to the best questions we’ve been asked.

Less effective than you want, most likely. Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) systems work best on droning sounds that are constant in frequency and intensity. Because quick, irregular sounds like music sounds and people talking are over with long before your headset can calculate how to cancel them, the only noise attenuation your ANC headset will offer against annoying coworkers/TV noise is simply what sound they can physically block out.

Yes. If you use different earpads on your headphones, you can alter the performance of the isolation quite considerably. Namely, pads will often use different materials that can change how well they fit to your head, or they may be able to physically block outside noise better. If you want better noise attenuation performance from your headphones, pads may be a way to ensure a better fit—and thus, better performance.

No feature is without its cost, and ANC often means a drain on battery life, higher cost of products, and a more difficult time hearing important cues in the world around you.