Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating Headphones – Which is Better

There are plenty of options when seeking the right pair of headphones. And with these many different choices, a lot of people can become easily confused about some technical audio terms, thus leading them to purchase the wrong product. So here now today we are going to discuss about noise cancelling vs noise isolating headphones, which is better?

Probably, the most common terms you usually hear are “sound isolating” and “noise canceling.” For most, these two technical terms certainly sound like they’re describing the same thing, but they’re actually not since there are subtle crucial differences between the two.

To find out, and help you choose the right kind of headphone for your needs, make sure you’re all eyes!

Stay tuned!

noise isolating vs. noise canceling headphones

Noise Canceling vs Sound Isolating headphones – Significant Difference

Both noise-canceling and noise-isolating headphones aim to minimize how much sound from the background gets into your ears so that you can feel more the music you’re listening to. And the reason these two technologies have different terms is that they fix the issue of background noise in very different methods.

Noise-canceling headphones utilize electronics to reduce the ambient noise that gets into the headphones. This technology uses tiny microphones that are integrated inside them to sample the ambient noise, invert the sound waves that get inside, and play them back alongside the soundtrack you’re listening to.

The inverted background noise and the natural background noise generated by the headphones cancel each other out, thus getting the term “noise-canceling”. Additionally, they gain power source via batteries.

On the other hand, noise-isolating headphones utilize a piece of thick foam around the headphone’s earpiece to block out background noise before it reaches the ear canal. The seal between the earpiece and your ear have to be tight, that’s why most companies ship earpiece of different sizes so you can select the most suitable one.

Noise isolating headphones can significantly enhance your listening experience. It doesn’t need batteries to function and usually cheaper than noise-canceling versions.

Development History

Noise canceling feature was initially utilized during the 1950s as a way to cancel or reduce the noise that helicopters and airplane cockpits generate. Today, noise canceling technology has advanced and had become better through the passing years, and nowadays noise-canceling headphones can be found almost in any market.

Because noise canceling technology is exceptionally useful on airplanes, a lot of airlines still provide noise-canceling headphones for some of their high-class cabins. Sadly, this very technology can actually lower the audio quality and could even add a high-quality frequency hiss to the audio.

Regardless, noise-cancellation headphones can still be seen as a very beneficial technology as it provides high-quality audio due to their excellent ability to minimize the ambient noise.

On the other hand, noise isolation technology is a much less advanced technology; however, it has also has been used for a longer time. And indeed, even the very first pair of headphones provide some degree of noise isolation factor by merely covering the outer ear.

Some of the more advanced versions were designed for drummers to monitor recorded sound while reducing the music they can hear that comes directly from the drums. Nonetheless, the chance to successfully deliver true noise isolation is usually dependent on how well the buds fit the ear when the user is using the earbuds from a headphone.

In general, both noises isolating and noise canceling headphones can give a reduction of anywhere from 8 to 25 dB of background noise.

Detailed Comparison

Process ( Active vs. Passive )

The most noticeable difference between noise isolation and noise cancellation technology is probably the process that they both use to do their work.

While both aim to lessen the background noise for the listener so that they could get a better listening experience through their headphones, these two technologies use different techniques. With noise cancellation, the headphone itself measures the background noise and then produces a waveform that is the exact opposite of that sound and amalgamates it with the audio signal that the listener is listening through the headphone.

With noise cancellation technology, this is an active process, while the noise isolating is a passive process.

Via an analog process, the negative waves cancel the background noise that is measured. On the other hand, the noise isolation process is a passive one that simply uses the soundproofing method to block out the background noise, instead of doing anything to counteract it. Usually, this is done by using the body of the earphone to cover the inside or the top of the ear.


Because the active process of noise cancellation technology uses a much more complicated process than noise isolation, it is no shock that more parts are needed to make it work. And usually, this extra tool tends to be pricier, and result in a product that is much larger than noise isolating headphones.

In order to really measure the background noise, these kinds of headphones should be integrated with a speaker, amplifier, and microphone to pick up, boost, and play the negative waveform back through the headphone. Noise isolation factor mostly depends upon its capability to soundproof background noises.

This is essentially accomplished when the headphones double as an earplug. Due to this, there are no extra components required in order to make these headphones work and their capability to function will most likely depend on how well they fit the user’s ears.

Environmental Factor

Because noise cancellation technology came about as a method to lessen background noise during travel, it is no shock that headphones that have this technology function best in environments with consistent and low-frequency noise.

Noise cancellation headphones are much less-effective when the noise constantly changes or with other types of noise. The mid-range frequencies are much less affected by this technology, and the higher range is even lesser.

Due to this, most sound canceling headphones have to rely on noise isolation to reduce the other source of ambient noise. In fact, true sound isolation technology blocks all sound frequencies.

Power Source

Because of the extra electronic parts needed by a noise canceling headphone, they also need a power source, usually, a battery that either recharged regularly or needs to be replaced. Typically, the power can also be delivered via a USB port. Sadly, some noise canceling headphones won’t function at all, not even as regular headphones when not charged.

On the other hand, noise isolating headphones, users don’t need any kind of power source since the noise reduction mostly relies on the integrated soundproofing that comes from the foam of headphone. In short, they can be used anytime and anywhere without the need to bring any power source.

Sound Quality

This factor mostly depends on how much of an audiophile the listener is. In noise-canceling headphones, the integrated extra sound waves and built-in DSP can interfere with sound quality, though it is less of an issue if you are willing to shell out a little more cash for high-quality headphones.

On the other hand, noise isolating headphones don’t produce any kind of extra waves; thus the results are more genuine to the original sounds. In fact, sound engineers prefer much more these kinds of headphones because the audio production is what it’s meant to sound like.


Obviously, since noise cancellation technology tends to use more extra electronic components, they’re frequently pricier than the noise isolating headphones. In fact, quality sound isolating headphones can be bought starting at less than $100; however, comparable noise-canceling headphones could cost greater than that.

Pros and Cons

Now that we’ve learned all those basic stuff let’s now focus on the pros and cons of these two technologies.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

What Are the Pros of Noise-Canceling Headphones?

For headphones that use noise cancellation technology, they are actually more effective at canceling out noise than headphones that use noise isolation.

While noise isolation headphones only incorporate some sort of physical barrier to prevent any ambient noise from interfering with your listening session, noise canceling headphones actively aims out any background noise and get rids of them.

Noise-canceling headphones are also more comfortable to keep on the head, which is ultimately handy when you have an extended stay on a plane or subway. Moreover, with some of the pricier styles, you can get real leather and memory foam so your body may be tired after those long trips, but after your head finally hits that soft pillow, your ears will certainly be fine.

What Are the Cons of Noise-Canceling Headphones?

Similar to any technology, noise cancellation is not always perfect. Although both high-end and low-end headphones can do an outstanding job of noise cancellation, some sound can still get in and ruin your listening pleasure.

For instance, noise canceling headphones may work fine on a plane, where the sound is constant and low-frequency but if you have a construction worker with a high-end jackhammer outside your office window, you shouldn’t expect to have that musical nirvana.

Also, these kinds of headphones are usually much heavier than headphones that utilize noise isolation technology since they have more integrated components other than the speakers inside them.

Noise Isolating Headphones

What Are the Pros of Noise-Isolation Headphones?

Two primary things are in favor of headphones that use noise isolating technology. Those are affordability and comfort.

If your budget is near on a dead-end, noise isolating headphones won’t really hurt your wallet. You can merely get a pair for just about $10. Obviously, this may not be the best option for you out there, but when you compare them to premium headphones, you might lose or break up to 15 pairs of headphones before you approach the cost on one pair of premium noise canceling headphones.

Now concerning comfort, it is another good point for noise isolating headphones. With both over-ear and in-ear styles available, you won’t get heavy pads pressing directly on your ears. Noise canceling headphones come in a variety of materials, so depending on the content of your wallet; you can also get some real leather and memory foam for the over-ear style.

What Are the Cons of Noise Isolation Headphones?

Noise isolation headphones are a physical barrier to the outside world, and just like a shield, there are chances that they can be breached.

While your sound quality from the speakers may be solid, sounds like the wheels bouncing along the tracks or airplane engines, underneath you might bleed in, leaving you with just a dissonance of outside sounds competing with your music’s beat for your brain’s attention.

Nowadays, the ear pads on some of the premium noise isolating headphones can be exceptional, but they are not fool-proof. Even if adequately inserted, ear-buds can still let the ambient noise interfere with your listening pleasure.

Which One Should You Choose?

Under this central question, one inquiry you must ask to yourself is what do you need the headphones for?

If you do a lot of commuting or traveling and need some tranquillity on the way, noise cancellation could be the better option since it’s very effective at canceling traffic noise.

However, keep in mind that ANC technology usually comes in a more massive and more expensive package and demands more energy.

Moreover, with inexpensive models, it does have a slight impact on the sound quality, in a not so good way. This is particularly noticeable with high-resolution sound.

On the other hand, average noise isolating headphones come in all sizes and shapes. One example is the ear-buds which are known for excellent noise isolation compared to most closed-back headphones.

But one good thing is that noise isolation won’t really change the audio quality. In fact, it is a whole ton necessary to get the best sound output a headphone can reproduce.  The takeaway is that if you value sound quality than the advanced technology, it’s an ideal choice.


Now that you know the difference between noise cancelling vs sound isolating headphones, you must figure out which one is better especially if you’re planning to purchase one soon. And the thing is; it’s not a simple answer.

Both technologies come with their own pros and cons.

Generally speaking, noise canceling headphones are more effective than headphones that use noise isolation. The reason is just that noise canceling headphones usually make use of both isolation and cancellation; thus you get twice as much ambient noise reduction.

Nonetheless, low-cost headphones that use noise cancellation technology don’t have that thick foam that’s necessary for efficient isolation and instead rely more on its active technology. In short, more background noise leaks. Due to this, premium noise isolating headphones usually outperform low-end noise-canceling headphones.

Well then, to sum it up and help you decide better, just remember two things: your budget and the purpose you’ll be using it for, If you already know these two things, then you can start choosing your very own headphones that either uses noise isolation or noise cancellation technology.

If you have any comments or suggestions to expand this topic, make sure to comment down below, and we’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible.

Have a nice day!

More on the web


Virendar Singh is a 20-year-old Blogger from Uttarakhand, India, he loves to play with gadgets and likes to write reviews on best tech products. Learn more about us here.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.