Do I need to buy $499 Noise cancelling headphones?

Updated: Nov 28, 2018

This is a short blog where I combine a few of the most common questions I often get about active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones. To be clear, this blog isn't about telling you to buy a pair of ANC headphones, however if you happen to be in the market, these are some points to consider.


I'll admit that I post a lot about hearing protection (more than I post about ear wax & FYI ear wax is one of my favourite ear topics) because hearing protection, or hearing prevention needs to be a mainstream topic and forethought. Hearing protection and prevention need to be thought of like sunscreen and sun protection when going outdoors. Slip, Slop, Slap was a major hit when I was in primary school. I think the SunSmart council have added 2 or 3 new adjectives to the slogan, but my point is we all know to cover up when going into the sun. There is nothing sexy about being sunburnt. Now image applying sunscreen to your sunburn at the end of the day. This is often how people view hearing protection, as an after thought.


It's easy to forget about hearing protection. Noise is invisible and over time as we expose ourselves repeatedly to noise the delicate structures in our hearing organ get damaged. Like sunburn, if we repeatedly expose ourselves to the sun without thought for prevention, we may develop skin cancer. I know that hearing loss isn't as scary as skin cancer, but I want to emphasise the need to think about hearing protection and preventions during times or activities where we can be actively doing so.

Noise is invisible and over time as we expose ourselves repeatedly to noise the delicate structures in our hearing organ get damaged.

As an audiologist I am aware, educated and know the risk of noise exposure over time, and I see the immediate, short, medium and long term effects of people who work in noise, with noise and around noise. As examples of the time frames I have given, I have seen people in clinic effected by immediate noise exposure (acoustic shock or trauma, call centre employees), short term noise exposure (Dj's), medium to long term noise exposure (pilots and aircraft engineers) and long term noise exposure (musicians and industrial workers). If I can impart a little knowledge about the effects of noise then I'm happy with what I am doing. If I can educate people on noise, ears, hearing and protection/prevention and they are willing listeners, then I am very happy and love my job even more.

Back to my original points, these 3 questions come up; "If I buy the $499 active noise cancelling headphones are they better than the $199 ones?"

"Do I need active noise cancelling headphones?"

"What is active noise cancelling?" Active vs passive noise cancelling Passive headphones can be thought of as ear muffs and foam inserts/ear buds. You can pop down to your local hardware store and pick up a pair for about $20 or even the 3M branded foam tips for $2. Passive means the structures of the headphone or inserts reduce the noise getting to your ears. At the basic end of understanding passive noise cancelling it's like sticking your fingers in your ears to reduce some of the noise getting through but still being able to hear some noise, usually in a muffled manner. When it comes to passively cancelling out noise these materials work best for mid to high frequency ranges.

Active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones incorporate all the passive headphone qualities plus they have a function that can reduce more ambient noise. In a nutshell, the active term refers to the microphones, electronics and battery in the headphone picking up the ambient or background noise around you and cancelling out a lot of this noise so that you can hear and listen to the sounds you want without too much interference from ambient noise. ANC headphones don't eliminate all of the background noise, but it certainly improves your listening situation. When it comes to cancelling out noise, ANC headphones usually cancel out the low frequency ranges best. This range is usually engine noise or background noise.

Who should consider ANC headphones?A) Commuters on the bus, train or plane, and I use these commutes loosely. If you travel a lot by plane get yourself a decent pair of ANC headphones. Even if the plane trip is only 60 minutes, use the ANC headphones. Not all planes are created with sound proofing compartments. When you are in a plane you are in a tin can strapped to an engine. The engine sounds reverberate throughout the plane, causing it to be very loud (80 to 90dBA). ANC headphones will reduce some of this noise exposure. B) If you catch the bus or train think about how long your commute is? I know that in America by law, buses and trains must comply with federal and state laws to be less than 85dBA internally. I couldn't find anything specific for buses and trains in Australia, I guess it's different across states, however if you know the Occupational Health and Safety Standard for this please comment below or shoot me an email. I see people using headphones all the time on public transport. Ok I admit it, my eyes default to looking at people's ears when I am out. If we've ever hung-out there is a 98% chance I've looked at, or in your ears. What annoys me the most on the bus or train is when I can hear every single lyric or podcast line from the headphones one has on, and I am sitting opposite you or an arms length away from you. That is dangerously loud. A good rule of thumb is too ensure you can still hear or be aware of the background noise around you when using headphones or earbuds. I know that in Europe, by law, their devices cannot go above a certain maximum volume. I know my smartphone (now) has a pop up message alerting me that loud listening volumes may be damaging. This is a serious issue and clinically I have seen a growing number of teenagers with noise induced hearing loss. Did you know that noise is becoming the new secondhand smoke? The European Union have set guidelines to ensure that quality of life whilst sleeping is not damaged by noise, as noise can have harmful effects on the body. You can read more on the World Health Organisation website here. Whilst this study does not directly relate to headphones yet, you can certainly see this happening in our everyday lives. C) The other time to consider ANC headphones or changing your situation/environment is any time you turn the volume up to combat the ambient noise or you raise your voice to speak over the ambient noise. D) Sound quality. Some people like ANC headphones as it reduces interfering noise and they can listen to their music or podcasts better. E) Can you turn down the volume or remove yourself from the situation? What you need to consider when purchasing ANC headphones:Why are you getting the active noise cancelling headphones? Is there another way to manage or reduce the noise?Comfort & style? Do you want over the ear or in the ear?Is sound quality important?Do the headphones feel good (quality of materials & fit on your ears/head)?Connectivity (wired, wireless, bluetooth, voice features)?Price point. Not all ANC headphones are created equallyRefer back to my points for consideration. There a numerous factors to consider when it comes to headphones. Are the $499 ones better than the $199 ones? It depends. What do you want them for? Generally speaking you get what you pay for, keeping in mind what you are trying to achieve or expect out of your headphones. Heres a summary of some of the ANC headphones and earbuds on the market that I compiled. Remember, what do you want the headphones or ear buds for?

When do I use my ANC headphones? I recommend and use ANC when I fly (short or long haul). Keeps low frequency engine noise out and music in. When I do a stationary wind trainer bike session (see photo insert). They help to minimise the noise of the wind trainer and I can hear the music better. When I catch the train or bus. At home listening to music. When I don't want to hear background noise.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic. What headphones do you have and why? If you have any questions don't forget to reach out and shoot me an email. I am always up to discussing these topics.

Hears to ears, Cheers Kat Penno

#HearingCollective

#headphones #earbuds #wired #wireless #connectivity #bluetooth #earbuds #ears #noise #sound #music #podcasts #activenoisecancellingheadphones

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