How do noise canceling headphones work?

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It is annoying listening to music or working in a noisy environment, isn’t it? Don’t worry, that’s why noise canceling headphones were born. How do noise canceling headphones work?

No one wants to work or listen to music in a noisy environment, right? The popularity of noise canceling headphones is so great that a lot of companies have invested in active noise canceling (ANC) headphones and some have been really successful. 

So, how do noise canceling headphones work? Why are they important? Let’s read the following article to be able to answer these questions.

Working mechanism of noise canceling headphones

When it comes to how do noise canceling headphones work, many people will immediately think of the following two mechanisms:

  • Passive noise cancellation (PNC)
  • Active noise cancellation (ANC)

1. Passive noise cancellation (PNC)

In fact, headphones are designed to block outside noise in several ways. Among them, passive noise cancellation is one of the most commonly used methods. 

Simply put, this method works on the principle of creating a tight seal to isolate your ears from noise.

For in-ear headphones, the earplugs are integrated with silicone tips for the purpose of passive noise isolation. In case you use over-ear headphones (circle), you can also recognize the same mechanism. 

These headphones use earcups to create an enclosed space around your ears. Thanks to that, it can effectively block out the noise.

Over-ear headphones use earcups to create an enclosed space around your ears

Over-ear headphones use earcups to create an enclosed space around your ears

In summary, we can simply understand passive noise cancellation as follows:

  • Over-ear headphones provide complete isolation from ambient noise by covering your ears.
  • In-ear headphones act as earplugs that help seal your ears. Thanks to that, it can prevent noise from getting into your ears.

2. Active noise cancellation (ANC)

The main working principle of this method is “Inverse sound waves”. 

For active noise canceling (ANC) headphones, they are integrated with microphones and a special circuitry to reduce background noise. 

Physically, as we know, two sound waves that are 180° out of phase will be simultaneously suppressed. That’s exactly how active noise canceling headphones work.

Active noise canceling headphones have built-in small microphones on the outside of your headphones. They are responsible for detecting the noise around you. 

After that, your favorite headphones will create a sound wave that is completely out of phase with the noise. 

According to basic physics, they will cancel each other out. As a result, you will no longer hear anything but the sound that is coming from your headphones. Unfortunately, that’s just a theory.

Relate More : What Are ANC Headphones? How Does Active Noise Cancellation Work?


The main working principle of active noise cancellation is “Inverse Audio”.

The main working principle of active noise cancellation is “Inverse Audio”. 

Currently, there are not any active headphones that can eliminate 100% of external sound. The reason is related to both hardware as well as software.

As mentioned above, active noise cancellation is digitally based, so it will also have a certain delay. 

In addition, the one-second frequency sweep of the microphone is not enough to respond to unexpectedly loud noises.

Active headphone often works best for low-frequency and continuous noises like engine noises and machine noises. 

For high-frequency noises such as car horns and human voices, their anti-noise effect is usually not high.

On the other hand, if you increase the noise cancellation level too high, you may experience headaches, severe tinnitus. Therefore, you should be careful when using them.

In summary, the working mechanism of active noise canceling headphones is summarized as follows:

  • Active noise canceling headphones have built-in microphones that detect ambient noise.
  • After detecting the noise, the electronics in the headset will generate sound waves that are out of phase with the noise. As a result, they cancel each other out simultaneously.
  • Thanks to that, you can listen to music without being disturbed by any noise.

Why are noise canceling headphones important to us?

Currently, noise canceling headphones are becoming more and more popular for three main reasons:

  • Protect the user’s hearing
  • Increase your ability to focus
  • For the best listening experience

Let’s demystify them!

1. Noise canceling headphones can protect the user’s hearing

This is probably what most people need in a noise canceling headphone. If you often work in a noisy place such as a construction site or a factory, a noise canceling headphone is something you must have.

In fact, our hearing is not able to recover from damage. Being constantly exposed to loud noises will cause your hearing loss. Even after a long time, you can lose your hearing permanently. 

Therefore, it is important that you always keep your hearing in top condition.

2. Noise-cancelling headphones can increase your concentration

Imagine you are working at an airport. Ambient noises can distract you. As a result, your working performance is significantly reduced. This sucks and you absolutely do not want it to happen, do you?

Not only very useful in protecting the user’s hearing, noise canceling headphones can help increase your ability to focus. This is especially useful when you are working in a noisy place.

Noise canceling headphones are very important to us

Noise canceling headphones are very important to us

3. Using a noise canceling headphone for the best listening experience

It is annoying to listen to music in a noisy place, isn’t it? Listening to music is for relaxation, so you need to get the best listening experience. 

Thanks to using a noise canceling headphone, you will have the quietest space to enjoy your favorite songs. All the noise around you is eliminated with either passive noise cancellation or active noise cancellation. As a result, you can be entertained more effectively.

Negative effects of active noise canceling headphones

In fact, many people complain that they feel dizzy, headache, and even nausea when using active noise canceling headphones.

The cause of this problem is the sound waves generated by the electronics inside their headphones. As noted above, increasing the noise cancellation level too high will give you headaches and ringing in your ears. To avoid this, all you can do is reduce the level of active noise cancellation.

Setting the noise cancellation level not too high may not completely remove the noise.

However, at least you can avoid negative effects like headaches, tinnitus or nausea. You can even replace active noise cancellation with passive noise cancellation.

See more:

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can I listen to music with noise cancelling headphones?

Many headphones help eliminate outside noise when you are listening to your favorite songs. In fact, some active canceling headphones can muffle or dilute the sound. However, in most cases, they will help improve your listening experience.

2. What range can passive noise canceling be?

Passive noise canceling headphones can reduce noise by about 15 to 20 decibels (DB).

3.What are the disadvantages of passive noise canceling headphones?

Passive noise canceling headphones are slightly heavier than regular headphones. In addition, it will be less effective than active noise canceling headphones in some specific environments, such as in an airplane cockpit.

4. Are active noise canceling headphones popular?

Thanks to the great advantages it brings, many people prefer to use active noise canceling headphones. In particular, they are also widely applied in the aviation industry and even in the military.

5. What are the disadvantages of  active noise canceling headphones?

As mentioned above, setting the active noise canceling frequency too high can cause headaches, dizziness, and even nausea. 

In addition, active noise canceling headphones require power while passive noise canceling headphones do not. It also costs more than regular headphones.

6. Do noise canceling headphones have the ability to block voices?

As we all know, noise canceling headphones are designed to eliminate background noise. Fortunately, they do not have the ability to block the sound of the voice7

7. What kind of headphones should I use to sleep better?

Noise-cancelling in-ear headphones are recommended for you. With the effect of blocking noises such as traffic noise, neighbor’s music, it is a great choice to help you sleep better.

8. Does noise canceling technology have any negative effects?

In general, noise cancelling headphones do not have any negative effects on your health. However, as mentioned in the article, leaving the noise cancellation level too high can make you dizzy, headache, or even tinnitus.

9. Are active noise canceling headphones completely noise canceling?

Unfortunately, there are no active noise canceling headphones that can completely cancel noise at this time. In fact, they have a certain delay. They are also not very effective at canceling unexpected loud noises.

10. Should I use active noise canceling headphones or passive noise canceling headphones?

There is no exact answer to this question. They have their own advantages and disadvantages. The choice is completely dependent on your needs.


Hopefully, after reading this article, you can already come up with your own answer to “how do noise canceling headphones work?” Whether you choose passive noise canceling headphones or active noise canceling headphones, you will have a great listening experience.


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