Earbud Decision: Noise Cancellation vs. Audio Quality
Jan 2021

Noise-canceling earphones may enhance your listening experience and make your surroundings somewhat more serene, whether you are in a noisy plane or train. But for audiophiles, those drawn to the purest of sound quality, the choice between ANC and non-ANC headphones is not that simple.

How noise cancellation works

The Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) concept is about creating anti-noise that reflects and cancels the surrounding noise. Noise-canceling headphones and earphones leverage electronic processing to assess ambient noise and produce the "inverse" sound. The outcome is relatively less noise.

ANC headphones and earphones pick up low-frequency sound and soften it before it reaches the ear. The sound frequency is inverted at 180 degrees to the unwanted noise, leading to cancellation and 'zero' noise frequency.

Users may have an easy time listening to music or making phone calls in a busy street. ANC enthusiasts love that the headphones let you 'hear yourself think,' that they 'turn on the quiet' and so forth.

Caveats of ANC earbuds and headphones

The truth? Noise cancellation is not yet a perfect technology. ANC headphones and earbuds do not produce absolute silence. Their efficiency in noise elimination is lackluster at best.

The headphones and earbuds simply turn down the noise. They don't mute it. Their ANC capabilities perform well for low droning sounds. For sudden high-frequency sounds such as heated conversations, crying babies, or hooting cars, ANC is for the birds.

The canceling techniques used, feed-forward cancellation, feedback cancellation, and hybrid cancellation, significantly impacts outputted sonic quality.

Most users report a background hiss to the audio, interference that disappears the moment you turn off noise cancellation.

Everything feels compressed and closed off, especially for high-frequency audio. If you have experienced hi-res music on state-of-the-art headphones and earbuds, ANC can be a pain in the back. The good thing about ANC headphones is that most of them have a switch to turn the noise cancellation on and off.

Audiophile earbuds and headphones

Turning on ANC waters down the sonic output quality. Choosing noise-canceling ANC headphones is choosing to forego the clarity, crispness, rhythm, energy, and superb sound arrangement of a non-ANC headphone.

Non-ANC headphones have impressive sounds that capture the entire range of frequency in the movement of the sound. They can handle messy and challenging songs in a way that ANC cannot.

The bottom line

ANC headphones use destructive interference to eliminate the noise. However, in the noise reduction process, audio quality is greatly impacted. If you seek to experience natural sounds, splendid and untouched by coloration and curve, turn off ANC on your ANC headphone, or choose a non-ANC headphone or earbuds.