The incipient idea of headphones came as an offshoot of the telephone receiver earpieces which were the primary instruments used before to listen to any electrical audio signals. The first true headphones, however, were developed by Nathaniel Baldwin in 1910 which he sold to the U.S. Navy. Since then, headphones have evolved and now headphones carry various features such as noise-isolating feature and noise-cancelling feature.
These two features are two of the most notable features of contemporary headphones, and more often, these two features are interchangeably referred to by those who produce and use headphones. But is there really a difference between noise-isolating headphone and noise-cancelling headphone?
Last update on 2020-01-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Those who are not meticulous enough with the things that they use would surely not bother to know whether the headphone they are using is a noise-isolating or noise-cancelling headphone. This is because both types of headphones sound the same. Yet, upon closer scrutiny, you would notice that noise-isolation is essentially a passive way of isolating noise; while noise cancellation is an active way of isolating noise.
Let me clarify this further. Passive noise isolation requires the use of the body of the earphone to block out ambient sound. This type of headphones includes the in-ear canal headphones and the closed-back headphones. Makers of this type of headphones claim that these headphones can reduce by around 8 dB-30d dB the ambient noise. Hence, if you want a real quiet space even if you are surrounded and bombarded by different annoying sounds from all sides, you should opt for a noise-isolating headphone.
On the other hand, active noise-isolating headphones have mechanisms that phase-reverse unwanted noise. These mechanisms then eventually cancel out unwanted noise without necessarily dampening or muffling the desired sound. These mechanisms consist of carefully-crafted acoustic hardware that includes a microphone, amplifier, and speaker that could pick up, amplify, and at the same time play the noise in a reversed-phase. On average, the noise-cancelling headphones can cancel around 15dB of ambient noise. The active circuitry, however, of the noise-cancelling headphones are only designed to reduce constant noise or sound with lower frequencies effectively, and their effectiveness diminishes if the noise is sharp and of high frequency. Hence, you should not expect your noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate annoying voices of people totally. Yet, noise-cancelling headphones are very useful if you want to cancel jarring background noises while still letting you hear people’s voice.
What is the Mechanism Behind Noise Isolation Headphones?
The main idea behind the development of noise-isolating headphones is that there are instances wherein we need to be free from hearing ambient noise. Noise-isolating headphones block the noises and sounds from entering our ears. Moreover, noise-isolating headphones do this by serving as a barrier between your ear and the outside world. This type of noise reduction and isolation rejects, and at the same time, filter the sounds that enter the ear canal. Hence, even if the isolating headphones are plugging the ear opening, the desired sound is still allowed to enter the ear.
The dynamics of sound rejection usually begins at the outer walls. This outer wall consists of the solid cuplike exterior that readily rejects unwanted sounds. Afterwards, there are the large ear pads made of soft materials. These earpads seal the opening of both ears by surrounding each ear. These pads likewise are usually oversized to completely enclose the ears. Inside these pads are highly elastic memory foam that readily absorbs unwanted sounds. Embedded also deep within the headphones are speakers that could broadcast the audio to the inner ear. With reduced ambient noise, you can thoroughly enjoy every detail of the music or sound you are listening to.
Which One to Choose between Noise Isolating and Noise Cancelling Headphones?
Many users of headphones feel that noise-cancelling headphones are far more superior than noise-isolating headphones. The reason for this is that the noise-canceling headphones are active devices that vigorously cancel noises and unwanted sounds. Moreover, the noise-cancelling headphones literally sound more effective in rejecting unwanted sounds. However, many people still prefer to buy noise-isolating headphones over noise-cancelling headphones. This is because the noise-isolating headphones are less expensive than the noise-cancelling. Additionally, they prefer the noise-isolating headphones because these headphones are more convenient to use, being lighter and smaller than the noise-cancelling headphones.
The difference between the amount of unwanted sound isolated by both types of headphones appear to be very insignificant. Hence, you would surely find it hard to convince noise-isolating headphone users to opt for the noise-cancelling headphones and to shell out some of their hard-earned money to shift to the use of the more expensive noise-cancelling headphones. Furthermore, the noise-cancelling headphones could not totally isolate other annoying sounds and some of them are only designed to reduce low-frequency and constant sounds.
Closed-Back VS Open-back Headphones
The obvious difference between the closed-back and the open-back headphones lies on how the earcups are designed and configured. The earcups of the closed-back headphones, for example, are designed to block noise completely. The earcups are sealed with a very effective plastic material or aluminum which does not allow any leakage of sound. Hence, when you use the closed-back headphones, you will readily get a very compact and isolated listening experience. The closed-back headphones are advantageous for use if the ambience is filled with disturbing and annoying sounds. Moreover, it is also advisable to use closed-back headphones if you don’t want to disturb other people with the sounds that you are listening to.
Open-back headphones, by the name itself, are designed to allow air passage through the headphones. These headphones are not designed to isolate sounds completely. Hence, it is not advisable to wear or use this type of headphones in public places.
Moreover, headphones can be categorized too as on-ear headphones and in-ear headphones. In-ear headphones are called canal phones and they are smaller in sizes that could comfortably fit like earbuds into the ear canal. On-ear phones, however, are directly fitted into the outer ear. They face the ear canal, but they are not inserted into the canal.
Noise Isolating Headphone Buying Guide
There are other important factors that you should consider when choosing headphones such as those of input sound quality, price, speaker driver, portability, convenience, removable cord, weight, peak volume, built-in microphone, and some other factors. It is necessary to understand these factors to be able to zero in on the right and ideal headphones for your use.
Sound Quality of Input
The main reason behind buying noise-isolating headphones is the isolation of sounds. The next reason is that of improving the quality of input sound. If you simply want sound isolation and good input sounds, you can readily select from the many brands of noise-isolating headphones. However, if you are a musician who wants to isolate noise or if you are someone who is meticulous with the quality of the sound input, you should go for the high-end noise-isolating headphone brands.
Costs / Price
If money is not a problem for you, you can surely look for high-end brands with proven quality. However, if you got limited budgets, you should look for quality but affordable noise-isolating headphones. Quality noise-isolating headphones usually range from a hundred dollars to a thousand dollars.
Speaker Driver and Speaker
The quality of the sound input generally hinges on the type of speaker driver. The bigger and more efficient your speaker driver, the better the sound input of your headphones. Speaker drivers usually range between 8mm to 15mm and between 20mm to 50mm.
The speaker driver, however, is useless if it is not complemented by good speakers. The speakers also factor well in the kind of sound input produced by the headphones. Hence, before buying noise-isolating headphones, you should at least figure out what type of speaker driver and speakers the prospective headphones have.
Convenience of Use and Portability
The convenience afforded by headphones should factor well in your choice of a headphone set. Most buyers of headphones prefer lighter headphones and smaller headphones that they can conveniently carry around anywhere and anytime. The downside, however, of opting for lighter and smaller headphones is that smaller headphones may sacrifice quality and functionality. If it is noise-isolating headphones, it may compromise its capacity to isolate noise because of its reduced size. Hence, you should sometimes weigh between quality and convenience.
One of the features that you should take into consideration when buying noise-isolating headphones is the built-in microphone. Built-in microphone allows you to answer phone calls or video chat without necessarily removing your headphones, especially, if you are using a tablet, laptop, or smartphone.
The Level of Volume and Peak Volume
It is important to consider that not all headphones have the same volume levels. They vary likewise in their peak volume levels. Hence, when buying a set of noise-isolating headphones, you should at least first try to figure out the peak volume levels of the headphones. You should also try various types of headsets and figure out which among them has the best sound output level. If you are a listener who always like mild music, then you should opt for headphones that afford you mild volume level. However, if you are a hardcore listener, accustomed to loud sounds, you can opt for those headphones with high peak volume.
Nowadays, you already have the choice of buying headphones with removable cord. These headphones with detachable cables allow you to listen to music while lying on your bed, moving around, or casually slouching on your favorite sofa. Cord sometimes can become a nuisance, and hence, it is better to buy headphones with removable or detachable cord, for they add more convenience and flexibility in the use of headphones.
Nowadays, the quality of a product is not the sole determining factor for consumers to buy a product. Consumers also want to buy quality products that come with a good warranty. Noise-isolating headphones may only cost around several hundred dollars; hence, many people sometimes do not expect that their headphones will come with warranty. But headphones are also bought with hard-earned money, and for this reason, if you are going to buy one, you should at least look for a brand that comes with warranty.
After knowing the difference between noise-isolating headphones and noise-cancelling headphones, you can now readily distinguish between these two types of headphones. Moreover, having learned and understood the different factors to consider when buying headphones, you are now in better position to zero in on the best headphones that would be appropriate for your need. Lastly, next time you would choose and buy headphones, you should use the abovementioned guidelines so that you choose effectively and wisely.