Noise-cancelling headphones

Noise-cancelling headphones are headphones that reduce unwanted ambient sounds using active noise control. This is distinct from passive headphones which, if they reduce ambient sounds at all, use techniques such as soundproofing.

Noise cancellation makes it possible to listen to audio content without raising the volume excessively. It can also help a passenger sleep in a noisy vehicle such as an airliner. In the aviation environment, noise-cancelling headphones increase the signal-to-noise ratio significantly more than passive noise attenuating headphones or no headphones, making hearing important information such as safety announcements easier.[1] Noise-cancelling headphones can improve listening enough to completely offset the effect of a distracting concurrent activity.[2]


To cancel the lower-frequency portions of the noise, noise-cancelling headphones use active noise control or ANC. A microphone captures the targeted ambient sounds, and a small amplifier generates sound waves that are exactly out of phase with the undesired sounds. When the sound pressure of the noise wave is high, the cancelling wave is low (and vice versa). The opposite sound waves collide and are eliminated or "cancelled". Most noise-cancelling headsets in the consumer market generate the noise-cancelling waveform in real time with analogue technology. In contrast, other active noise and vibration control products use soft real-time digital processing.

Cancellation focuses on constant droning sounds like road noise and is less effective on short/sharp sounds like voices or breaking glass. It also is ineffective in eliminating higher frequency noises like the sound of spraying. Noise-cancelling headphones often combine sound isolation with ANC to maximize the sound reduction across the frequency spectrum. Noise cancellation can also be used without sound isolation to make wanted sounds (such as voices) easier to hear. Noise cancellation to eliminate ambient noise is never passive because of the circuitry required, so references to passive noise cancellation actually are referring to products featuring sound isolation.

The Bose QuietComfort headphones feature both passive noise isolation (big padded earcups) and active noise cancellation (ANC circuitry).

To prevent higher-frequency noise from reaching the ear, most noise-cancelling headphones depend on sound isolation or soundproofing. Higher-frequency sound has a shorter wavelength, and cancelling this sound would require locating devices to detect and counteract it closer to the listener's eardrum than is currently technically feasible or would require digital algorithms that would complicate the headphone's electronics.[3]

Noise-cancelling headphones specify the amount of noise they can cancel in terms of decibels. This number may be useful for comparing products but does not tell the whole story, as it does not specify noise reduction at various frequencies.

In aviationEdit

By the 1950s, Dr. Lawrence Jerome Fogel created systems and submitted patents about active noise cancellation specifically in the field of aviation. This system was designed to reduce noise for the pilots in the cockpit area and help make their communication easier and protect hearing. Fogel is considered to be the inventor of active noise cancellation, and he designed one of the first noise-cancelling headphones systems. Later on, Willard Meeker designed an active noise control model that was applied to circumaural earmuffs for advanced hearing protection. Noise-cancelling aviation headsets are now commonly available.[4][5]

In 1989, Bose Corporation introduced its "Series I Aviation Headset" which became the first commercially available ANR headset. It included a noise-cancelling function and was powered either by NiCad batteries (with a claimed battery life of 8 hours) or by power from the aircraft. Series I aviation headsets are distinguished by the clear windows on the earcups or by noting that the on/off switch and volume control are located on the separate control module.[6]

Several airlines provide noise-cancelling headphones in their business and first-class cabins. Bose started supplying American Airlines with noise-cancelling headphones in 1999 and started offering the "Quiet Comfort" line for the general consumer in 2000. Noise cancelling is particularly effective against aircraft engine noise. In these cases, the headphones are about the same size as normal headphones. The electronics, located in the plane hand rest, take the sound from the microphone behind the headphone, invert it, and add it back into the audio signal, which reduces background noise[7]

As a sleeping aidEdit

Noise-cancellation headphones have been used as sleeping aids as well.[8] Both passive isolating and active noise-cancellation headphones or earplugs help to achieve a reduction of ambient sounds, which is particularly helpful for people suffering from insomnia or other sleeping disorders, for whom sounds such as cars honking and snoring impact their ability to sleep. For that reason, noise-cancelling sleep headphones and ear plugs are designed to cater to this segment of patients.[9]


A December 2016 study from the Hong Kong Journal of Occupational Therapy found that noise-cancellation headphones helped children with Autism Spectrum Disorder cope with behaviours related to hyper reactivity to auditory stimuli.[10]


Noise-cancelling headphones typically cost more than regular headphones. The active noise control requires power, usually supplied by a USB port or a battery that must occasionally be replaced or recharged. Without power, some models do not even function as regular headphones. Any battery and additional electronics may increase the size and weight of the headphones compared to regular headphones. The noise-cancelling circuitry may reduce audio quality and add high-frequency hiss, although reducing the noise may result in higher perceived audio quality.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Molesworth, Brett; Burgess, Marion (2013). "Improving intelligibility at a safety critical point". Safety Science. Elsevier. 51: 11–16. doi:10.1016/j.ssci.2012.06.006.
  2. ^ Molesworth, Brett; Burgess, Marion; Kwon, Daniel (2013). "The use of noise-cancelling headphones to improve concurrent task performance in a noisy environment". Applied Acoustics. Elsevier. 74: 110–15. doi:10.1016/j.apacoust.2012.06.015.. Recognition and recall of audio information improved when 65 dB(A) background noise was blocked by noise-cancelling headphones, and performance was "no different" when listening with the headphones while at the same time working a mathematical puzzle, than while trying to listen to the same audio with neither puzzle nor headphones.
  3. ^ Reinhard Lerch, Gerhard Sessler, Dietrich Wolf: Technische Akustik: Grundlagen und Anwendungen, Kapitel 14.7.3 Kopfhörer – Hörertypen, Verlag Springer (2008), ISBN 9783540234302, Seite 431
  4. ^ US Grant, US2966549A. "Apparatus for improving intelligence under high ambient noise levels".
  5. ^ McKinley, L., Richard. "Auditory and Acoustic Research and Development At Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)" (PDF).
  6. ^ How a “Genius” Engineer Designed the First Noise Cancelling Headsets. The Broadcast Bridge. Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  7. ^ How a “Genius” Engineer Designed the First Noise Cancelling Headsets. The Broadcast Bridge. Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  8. ^ Yu, Winnie & Smith, Michael W., MD (November 7, 2013). "Will a Gadget Help You Sleep?". WebMD.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Jonaely, Rosarito (March 5, 2018). "How to get quality sleep at night?". Scalar. University of Southern California.
  10. ^ Ikuta, Nobuhiko; Iwanaga, Ryoichiro; Tokunaga, Akiko; Nakane, Hideyuki; Tanaka, Koji; Tanaka, Goro (2016-12-01). "Effectiveness of Earmuffs and Noise-cancelling Headphones for Coping with Hyper-reactivity to Auditory Stimuli in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Preliminary Study". Hong Kong Journal of Occupational Therapy. 28 (1): 24–32. doi:10.1016/j.hkjot.2016.09.001. ISSN 1569-1861. PMC 6091992. PMID 30186064 – via SAGE Journals.
  11. ^ Beacham, Frank (August 17, 2016). "The Limits of Noise Cancelling Headphones for Professional Use". The Broadcast Bridge.