What's the difference between noise isolating and cancelling headphones

If you want to stop noise from getting into your music there are a few options to consider. There are lots of options and lots of confusing terms to deal with to determine the best noise cancelling option for you.

How noise cancelling headphones work

Noise cancelling headphones reduce external noise by cancelling out certain consistent frequencies they "listen" to in your environment with a microphone. They use that to cancel that sound with an off-setting out before it reaches your ear. There are technical explanations here but in genearl they work very well for things like jet engines, air conditioning, tire noise, vacuum cleaners and anything else that has a constant droning sound. Unfortunately noise canceling will do nothing to keep you from hearing the person in the cube next to your or your kids.

What are noise isolating headphones?

Noise Isolating in ear
Noise isolating headphones reduce all external noise equally, no matter what the source is, even talking. How do they work? They accomplish this by physically blocking outside noise from reaching your ears. Over ear headphones with enclosed backs do this well as do in-ear headphones which fit snugly inside your ear canal. Open air headphones of any type will not be noise isolating.

Types of noise cancelling headphones and earbuds
Bose In ear buds

As mentioned there are closed back and in-ear noise cancelling. Both work equally as well. It depends on if which style you're more comfortable with. Personally over ear head phones with a few exceptions (higher end Sony headphones) will start hurting my ears after about an hour or two. If you have smaller ears this may not be a problem for you.
Bose Closed Back over ear


Closed back over ear headphones


Over ear noise cancelling headphones offer good isolation of external noise as well as comfort to those who prefer not to stick something in their ear canal. They also have the benefit of having the electronics that do the noise cancellation inside the headphone.

In ear, or ear bud noise cancelling headphones will fully block the ear canal offering some isolation in addition to electronic cancellation but have an small external box to house the electronics. For me this is worth it but you might find it annoying. Be very careful that what you're getting has active electronics and is not a noise isolating headphone purporting to have cancellation.

Which is better?

If you are trying to block out white noise type sounds like a jet engine then noise cancelling is the way to go. If you want to partially block our your coworkers than noise isolating works just as well. As for in ear or over ear it depends on which you're more comfortable with. If you usually wear over ear headphones then that's your best choice. If you prefer in ear headphones like I do, then that's the way to go.

Which do you perfer?

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