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Why you should buy noise canceling headphones

Why we recommend everyone who's serious about audio get a set of noise canceling headphones.

Published onJanuary 9, 2023

Everyone who is serious about music should buy a pair of noise canceling headphones. You may be an audiophile, or you may be someone who doesn’t want to think too much about your headphones. Either way, noise canceling headphones are built for destroying outside noise, and they’re really good at it.

If you travel by bus, subway, or airplane at all, you should definitely prioritize getting ANC headphones.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on January 9, 2023 to improve interlinking, explanations, and condense some language.

Auditory masking makes your music sound bad; noise canceling headphones can help

Without getting too far into the weeds, it’s important to isolate yourself from outside noise because it’s not only annoying—it can make your music sound bad.

Essentially, loud outside noise will obscure quieter sounds. If you don’t blast your tunes, you won’t be able to hear your music over the roar of an engine or other din, and that’s really bad for your ears. As a rule, you want to listen to music as quietly as you can while still enjoying it.

noise canceling: A chart demonstrating auditory masking.
Wikipedia If your music’s notes are quieter than the masking threshold of outside noise, they’ll be near-inaudible.

When you listen to music on an airplane or bus, the engine sounds will mask many of the notes that make up the vocals, basslines, and drum parts of your music, and can interfere with your brain registering quieter notes. Because headphones generally don’t physically block out these low frequency noises all that well, using an active noise canceling system whenever you’re subjected to high noise will prevent a lot of the perceived audio quality loss it can cause.

With all that masked sound, your music will sound like it’s missing a lot. A set of noise canceling headphones will make your music sound far better than other headphones would in the same situations.

Prevent poor listening hygiene

Additionally, you’re going to want to use noise canceling headphones in any situation where you might encounter loud noise because it can help protect your hearing—though it’s no substitute for dedicated hearing protectors. While it’s not a sexy benefit, look at it this way: maintaining your auditory health is the best way to ensure you can hear music as it was intended to be.

noise cancellinlg: A photo of the active noise canceling Sony WH-1000X M2 wireless Bluetooth headphones being used to activate the Google Assistant on a Google Pixel XL.
Noise canceling headphones are really good at getting rid of droning sounds like computer fans, and engines.

If you crank your tunes up to drown out the world around you, it’s possible you’re deafening yourself slowly. In order to avoid doing this, a set of noise canceling headphones makes your music far easier to hear and prevents the need to turn your music up to a high volume.

Listening to music at a lower level means that you can not only enjoy your tunes for a longer time without overexposing your ears to loud sound, but the reduced exposure can help you enjoy music much later into your life without impediment.

Frequency matters

We caution you to look beyond the isolation ratings of headphones, as that doesn’t always tell you everything you need to know. Headphones don’t cancel or block out every note equally, which is why you should look for charts detailing this performance.

A chart showing the active noise cancellation performance of the Apple AirPods Max.
The Apple AirPods Max doesn’t provide isolation from low-pitched sounds, so the ANC steps in to get rid of those noises.

At SoundGuys, we post charts that show how headphones perform in this regard, so you can know exactly what you’re getting. The solid pink lines represent what noise is physically prevented from reaching your eardrum, while the dashed cyan line shows how much noise is prevented from reaching your inner ear when the ANC unit is enabled. ANC does a really good job at killing droning sounds, but isn’t always perfect at nullifying quick, irregular sounds.

If you don’t want to do this level of research, we do it for you! Check out the five best picks on the market at any time—we update all our best lists periodically as new models are released and tested.

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