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Why you should buy noise cancelling headphones

Why we recommend everyone who's serious about audio get a set of noise canceling headphones.
November 12, 2021
Wearing the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless headphones.

Everyone who is serious about music should buy a pair of noise cancelling 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 cancelling headphones are purpose-built for destroying outside noise, and they’re really good at it.

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

Editor’s note: This article was updated on November 12, 2021 to improve interlinking, update the chart and its explanation.

Related: Best noise cancelling earbuds

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

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 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 cancelling: 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 even interfere with higher notes as well. Because headphones generally don’t physically block out these low frequency noises all that well, using an active noise cancelling system will make your music sound a lot better. 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 some important parts. A set of noise cancelling headphones will make your music sound far better than other headphones would in the same situations.

Protect your hearing

Additionally, you’re going to want to use noise cancelling 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.

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 cancelling 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 that you’re deafening yourself slowly. In order to avoid doing this, a set of noise cancelling 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 look beyond 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 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 can do it for you! Check out the five best picks on the market at any time—we update all our best lists monthly.

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