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 purpose-built for destroying outside noise, and they’re excessively good at it.

If you travel by bus, subway, or airplane at all, you need a set of these headphones.

Auditory masking makes your music sound bad

Without going 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, what happens is the outside noise will “delete” other sounds that are quieter. 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.

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 drums of your music, and the harmonics can even interfere with higher notes as well. Because headphones generally don’t physically block out these low notes all that well, using an active noise canceling system will make your music sound a lot better than it used to. If you’d like to know more about this, it’s the same phenomenon that makes MP3 compression possible.

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

Noise-induced hearing loss

Additionally, you’re going to want to use noise canceling headphones in any situation where you might encounter loud noise because it protects your hearing. While that’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.

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 likely that 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.

Frequency matters

We caution you to ignore the isolation ratings of headphones, as that doesn’t 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 canceling performance of the AKG N60 NC.

The AKG N60 NC can block out a lot of outside noise, but not the lowest notes.

At SoundGuys, we post charts that show how headphones perform in this regard, so you can know exactly what you’re getting into. If we don’t, you can assume that it’s not a set of active noise cancelers. In the above example, you can see which notes are canceled out. Even though the AKG N60 NC is a stellar set of noise-cancelers, you can see that they don’t do so well blocking out the lowest notes out there, and they struggle a little at 1,000Hz.

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