Difference between Noise Cancelling and Noise Isolating Headphones

Updated on June 27, 2017

“Noise cancelling” and “noise isolating” headphones are technical audio terms that are mostly used interchangeably. However, they are far from being alike. This article provides valuable information on the subtle differences between the two.


Noise Cancelling

Noise cancelling headphones are a type of headphones that reduce external noise by the use of an active noise control system. Designed with built-in microphones that detect unwanted ambient sounds, noise cancelling headphones block out external noise by processing inverse waves.

For instance, +1 external noise creates -1 sound signals for sound cancellation. When added up, this results to 0, which means no sound. As inverse waves are fed back to the device, external noise is cancelled, optimizing the audibility of soundtracks.

Noise isolating headphones, on the other hand, are headphones that do not integrate a sophisticated electronic system to reduce external noise. A passive device used to isolate ambient sounds, noise isolating headphones function as a physical barrier between the ear canal and any unwanted external noise.

Noise isolating headphones are built with high-quality materials to block out as much ambient sound as possible. They are typically designed with padding and memory foams to optimize user comfort while enhancing the audibility of desired soundtracks.

Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating Headphones

What’s the difference between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones, then? Although they both function to reduce external noise, their working mechanisms and level of efficiency are far from being alike.

Firstly, noise cancelling headphones use an active noise control system to block out ambient noise signals. Their built-in microphones and internal processing system create inverse waves that filter external noise.

Noise isolating headphones, by contrast, do not use an electronic system to reduce noise. A passive device that acts as a physical barrier between the ear canal and any external noise, noise isolating headphones are a soundproofing device made with high-quality materials.

Since noise cancelling headphones are designed with built-in microphones that require power, they require battery to operate, while noise isolating headphones are not battery-operated. It follows, therefore, that unlike noise isolating headphones, noise cancelling headphones are made up of three components: a battery unit, a digital signal processor and a microphone.

In terms of efficiency and usage, noise cancelling headphones are more effective in detecting and filtering low-frequency sound signals such as those coming from air conditioners and engines. However, they are not designed to negative mid to high-frequency sounds. In this case, noise isolating headphones are more efficient.

Lastly, since noise cancelling headphones integrate noise control systems, they are usually more expensive than noise isolating headphones.

Comparison Chart

Noise Cancelling HeadphonesNoise Isolating Headphones
Active system: uses an electronic system to block out external noisePassive system: acts as a physical barrier between the ear and external noise
Battery-operatedNot battery-operated

Composed of a battery unit, digital signal processor and microphone

Operates without a battery unit, digital signal processor or microphone
Ideal for filtering low-frequency sound signalsIdeal for isolating low to high-frequency sound signals
More expensiveLess expensive