Noise Cancelling: This Is How It Works And Why You Want It

15 Jan '2018 Sound

A few years ago, noise cancelling headphones were a niche product, something a real audiophile would buy. Nowadays, the product has advanced into the mainstream. Why do you need it and how does it work?

If you’ve never tried noise cancelling headphones before, please do it as soon as possible. It’s great. While it doesn’t cut away the sound of a crying baby, it can help a lot with background noise from trains, buses, cars, airplanes: sounds that are fairly consistent and have a low frequency. Two good things about that: 1) you can hear a lot more of what you’re listening to, and 2) you don’t have to put your music that loud, so your ears will be thanking you if you get a pair.

Active or passive?

We’ll have to make a distinction between active and passive noise cancelling. Passive means that the headphones have materials like foam or other sound absorbing material to make sure it filters as much noise as possible. However, passive noise cancellation can only provide for a difference of around 15 to 20 dB.

But considering the fact that the sound on board of an airplane is around 85dB (and that can go up during take off and landing), you need something more than foam to listen to your music. That’s where active noise cancelling comes in. Most of the active noise cancelling headphones have some passive qualities as well, but the active part is what really makes the difference.

Yeah! Science!

Here’s how it works: the headphones make a sound that’s the same as the background noise that is present, except that it’s 180 degrees out of phase. This phenomenon is known as destructive interference in physics. It means that when the highs (crests) and lows (troughs) in the sound waves are the same but opposite to each other, they cancel each other out. So: no background noise anymore. Yeah, science!

If you want to read more about the (destructive) interference, check out Wikipedia. And if you want to buy a pair of these headphones now, the guys from TechRadar already made an article about what the best active noise cancelling headphones of 2018 are. If you get a pair, let us know what you think.

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