How Do Noise Cancellation Headphones Work?

by Lisa Hayden
How Do Noise Cancellation Headphones Work?

If you are an ardent fan of music and travel across cities on busy commuter trains then you would recognise Noise cancellation headphones as a boon. What started as a search to fulfil a necessity, has now turned into a billion dollar industry.

Noise cancelling headphones are not only convenient to minimise the noisy environments but also allows you to enjoy that favourite playlist of yours without any distraction- yes, even when you are in  busy public places without affecting the quality of the sound you are listening to.

How Were Noise Cancelling Headphones Developed?

The headphones were introduced by Amar Bose in late nineteen seventies who went on to become the founding father of Bose Corporation.

He apparently had a pair of airline headphones, the ones that get shipped to us mere mortals in the cattle class with low quality wires, but he could not enjoy his favourite music due to the deafening noise coming from the plane engines. 

From there, he thought about it and decided to develop noise cancelling headphones. Ten years after the airline incident, the noise cancelling headphones were available in the market and became a game changer!

The Science Behind Noise Cancellation

So, How do Noise Cancellation Headphones work? They work by allowing only the intended sound and blocking the rest out. Before you learn about how the headphones mechanism work, it is essential to know the science behind it by first understanding how sound waves functions.

When there is any mechanical vibration, rarefactions and compressions are produced which spread to form the sound waves. The sound waves are longitudinal waves meaning that they are parallel to the direction of the medium of vibration.

Types Of Noise Cancelling Headphones

When it comes to noise cancelling headphones, you have two types to select from-Passive and Active  headphones. Below are their differences.

• Passive 

They work by muffling the noise, from outside to lessen the noise’ interference with your music. They prevent the noise from getting into your ears by the use of ear cushions formed by some layers of foams.

Different manufacturers use various types of foams for padding your ears against the noise so when purchasing, make sure you consider the type of foam used. The most preferred type is the circum-aural type as they are specially made to reduce noise and increase the noise reducing options. T

heir foam layers are of high density which makes them bulkier than other noise cancelling headphones.

The effectiveness of the passive noise cancelling headphones is high. They have been tested thoroughly and proven to block any external sound waves. The cost of purchasing these headphones is usually very cheap and affordable, and you will enjoy all the features you need to block noise.

Passive noise cancelling headphones can reduce noise up to 15 to 20 decibels.

• Active

These headphones are like an advanced version of the passive headphones. They have all the features that the passive headphones offer but the main feature of them is the phase cancelling technology. which blocks even the lowest of the low-frequency sound waves

The usually come with a microphone that picks the unwanted noise from outside which the circum-aural cushions cannot block and eliminates them pretty efficiently.

All this is carried out by phase cancelling circuit within the headphones that assesses the intensity and frequency of the unwanted noise to help in blocking it. The noise cancellation process is then manipulated electronically whereby the incoming noise is 180 degrees out of phase.

Typically, the  speakers found in the active headphones have anti-noise features, and they eliminate any noise that has already entered the device. The result of this feature is that the audio or music you are listening to becomes very audible and clear.

Noise Cancellation Illustration



The microphone is located inside the ear cup. The main functions of the microphone are to pick the noise from outside that the circum-aural cushions cannot block out.

Noise Cancelling Circuit System

The ear cups have electronic features that help the microphone to block the noise by detecting the frequency of the unwanted noise. This circuit system also analyzes the intensity of the external noise and the artificially generated noise and allows them to meet and cancel each other.


As with any advanced electronic circuitry, noise cancellation mechanism requires adequate power  to function effectively. A battery with a long life is sufficient source of power for the headphones. This is least of the worries if you choose to buy the headphones as most these days come with rechargeable built in batteries anyways!


The components we discussed earlier are necessary for the noise cancellation process by the headphones, which can believe it or not, can reduce up to 70 per cent of external noise making the music or audio that you enjoy very enjoyable even in the noisiest of environments like airlines and public places/

Some people have argued that while the noise cancelling headphones reduce the external noise, the quality of the audio is usually compromised. Other people have reported that the ear cups help in eliminating the air pressure as air does not enter the speakers in the earphones.

However, the disadvantages reported cannot outdo the benefits that users get from these headphones. They have become a necessity among most people who want to enjoy music in places where there is a lot of noise.

Also, if you are anything like me, the headphones are advantageous when travelling as you will not get annoyed from the noise buzzing through. One word of caution though! When driving or walking along the road, you should be careful as you will not hear any sound of an oncoming vehicle.

Also in public, you should be careful as the noise cancelling features tend to increase your focus on the music/audio and may result in losing that last bus home that you so desperately wanted to catch!

How To Select Your Noise Cancellation Headphones?

Now that you have an understanding of the differences between the passive and the active noise cancelling headphones, you should decide the best one for you. In most cases, passive headphones are usually advantageous.

Irrespective of the type you choose there are hundreds of models out there in the market to choose from. Here are a few tips to help you in selecting that  noise cancellation headset you couldn't wait for so long.. 

The Cost

Before you go purchasing, make sure that you have a set budget. Due to their technical features, the noise cancelling headphones can be a bit pricey. For an average user who commutes everyday to London on packed trains and tubes over a two hour period each way like me, you probably are looking at a moderate use headphones.

If this is your first dip into noise cancellation world, try to dip your toes with a normal brand before spending those hard earned cash! Not everyone likes this feature on their headsets, so remember to take it nice and slow.

One tip that has always worked for me sit to keep an eye out on coupon and deal sites for you favourite brand and jump on sales when they arrive. I get it that if you are an impulsive soul and can't wait but more often than not, if you wait for sales, you will end up with reasonable prices from a reputed manufacturer. 

Due to the nature of the device and its usage, most noise cancelling headphones are made of premium high-quality materials that are durable and last very long.


When you are out and about and purchasing the noise cancelling headphones, check if the manufacturer offers warranty services. If they do not offer, you probably are better off with another brand.

If they do provide a warranty, check the period and their terms as most offer a minimum of two years on factory build so you are pretty much covered. 


It is important that you research the reviews from different users and industry standard reputable review sites like us. The reviews will help you to know the advantages and disadvantages of using those noise cancelling headphones.


Whatever price or model you decide to choose, noise cancelling headphones should and will have all the features as discussed above for sound reduction. The features that the headphones have will determine the percentage of the unwanted sound blocked. 

That should be your number one priority- the level of noise blocked. There are also specialised headphones like the models made for drummers which are also worth considering unless you are hopeless at music like me!

There are different brands, types and styles of noise cancelling headphones available today. You can purchase online or through local shops but remember research does help. Noise cancelling headphones are essentials that everyone should have if you like listening to music on the go. They are portable, and you can carry them with you wherever you go. Happy Noise Free Music!

Is it worth buying noise-cancelling headphones? 

You can see that I've been trying to answer this question by now, but the right answer is that it depends. Not everyone will need a set of noise-cancelling headphones as they're far from an essential purchase these days. However, if you find yourself frequently travelling on busy public transport or regularly finding yourself in noisy environments where your music is drowned out, they can be an excellent purchase.

Can you hear yourself with noise-cancelling headphones? 

No, not at all. The point is that they actively cancel out the noise around you, which means when it's on, everything should be much quieter.

What are the best noise-cancelling headphones?

You can't go wrong with Bose or Sony in our opinion

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