Followers

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Noise Isolation vs. Noise Cancelling

I've decided to start a "mini-series" of posts for my blog regarding audio and headphones/earphones and other audio gear (amplifiers, speakers, etc.). I think these posts will be beneficial to anyone looking to get the best sound quality out of their music! Personally, I have been upgrading quite a lot over the past few years, and reading a lot of audiophile information on forums like head-fi.org. I will try my best to help others with the information I've obtained over the years.

I'm sure many of us have heard of Noise Cancelling headphones by now. But do you truly know the difference between Noise Cancelling headphones and Noise Isolating headphones/earphones?

Noise Cancelling headphones work by "fighting sound with sound" by emitting opposing frequencies that cancel out external noise. Above, Sony MDR-NC60 headphones.
Source: sony.jp
Noise Cancelling headphones, quite simply, fight sound with sound. Since there is usually ambient noise external to the headphones that leaks into the music, Noise Cancelling headphones actively "remove" this unwanted sound by emitting frequencies that cancel out the opposing sound. The end result is that you hear your music without all that external noise from outside leaking in.



Noise Isolating headphones/earphones work a little bit differently. Noise Isolating headphones/earphones (more properly, IEMs or in-ear monitors) passively remove external noise without producing opposing frequencies. How they do this is quite simple: they create a seal in your ear or outer ear. For example, many "canal phones" that you insert deeper into your ear than you would iPod earbuds, are creating a seal in your ear that reduces external noise from anywhere between -20 dB and -47 dB. This prevents external noise from coming into your ears at all, thus eliminating the need to "fight sound with sound" as Noise Cancellation does.

Noise Isolating in-ear monitors (IEMs) work by passively reducing external noise by creating a seal in the ear canal. This eliminates the need to "fight sound with sound". Above, Shure SE535 in-ear monitors.
Source: fittechnica.com

So which form of technology is better? Frankly, Noise Isolating would get the vote from me. One of the main reasons is that Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not introduce artifacts into the music as Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones do. Since Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones fight external sounds with opposing frequencies, they have a tendency to introduce artifacts into the music that were not originally there. Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not fight sound with sound, so they never introduce any artifacts into the music.

Secondly, Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not require any external electricity or power to work. Many Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones require a battery of some sort in order to run the Noise Cancelling feature. This requires charging or replacing batteries, something that Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not require.

And finally, Noise Isolating headphones simply work better in my opinion. Since sound is never introduced to the ear in the first place (because of the seal), you don't have to fight sound with sound. It's akin to solving a problem before it happens. With Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones, the external noise already gets into your ear and music while it is simultaneously alleviated with opposing frequencies. There's no saying that one technology is better or worse than the other--it's just that Noise Isolating gets the vote from me in preserving good audio quality.

47 comments:

  1. Thanks for this useful description and excellent analysis. Many people automatically think of noise cancellation technology first, but it really only works well in situations with steady background noise (like on planes, where it works great). Noise isolation isn't as "sexy," but it has a lot of advantages and it's good to spread the word so more people are aware of canalphones and their benefits.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Please, more stuff like this.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Never needed either, but good to know.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Exellent analys!!!! Like it and more stuff like this. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. nice write up, I always wondered how these things worked. I too would like more like this.

    ReplyDelete
  6. After I bought noise isolating headphones I've felt bad when I had to use the regular ones...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Boy, noise canceling headphones always seemed so much more expensive than isolating headphones.

    ReplyDelete
  8. really nice and informative post

    ReplyDelete
  9. interesting i'll feel like a more informed buyer when i get a nice pair of headphones next time

    ReplyDelete
  10. Good post - I've always been intrigued by how those work.

    ReplyDelete
  11. That was very informative!! congrats

    ReplyDelete
  12. I didn't know about the noice isolation tech.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Good read, I'd have to disagree with you on the choice though. Also noise cancelling actually just emit straight white noise (which is every frequency at once, well 20Hz to 20kHz at least) which can give you legit silence, while isolating headphones do still allow some sound through, mainly the lower frequencies because they are much less useful at blocking them. Obviously if you're looking for in ear stage monitors then isolating are the way to go, but if you're looking for silence behind your music, you can get no better then cancelling. You will NEVER ever hear the white noise emitted from the headphones.

    ReplyDelete
  14. great post! I've been thinking about getting some new headphones to go with my turn tables. Spinning music gets extremely loud and I can hear the outside drum beats while trying to match the inside with drum and bass (which has difficult drum lines if you aren't familiar).

    ReplyDelete
  15. @Xuian: I would suggest getting custom in-ear monitors. Check out the 1964 Quads (or JH16 Pro, which I own--but they are much more expensive), which are relatively cheap in-ear monitors for the quality. You'll get a very good bass response with those custom in-ear monitors. You simply go to an audiologist for an ear impression which gets sent to their lab, and they make a custom in-ear monitor which fits your ears perfectly.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Didn't really think a difference exisisted between the two

    ReplyDelete
  17. I think I would prefer the Isolating rather than the canceling. Great post

    ReplyDelete
  18. i didnt know about this isolating and canceling difference. i used to have a shure isolating earphone which was really good too! so, yeah isolating gets my vote too

    ReplyDelete
  19. That is some rather interesting stuff. I never knew this, I just assumed that you plugged them into your ears and that was what blocked the sound out.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hell man, those ROCK!!! They are so damn sexy...

    I broke my first pair, but they just sent me a new pair (let me keep the broken ones!) since they were under warranty!

    ReplyDelete
  21. i knew there was a difference and now i got proof cool stuff bro

    ReplyDelete
  22. I might have to buy some new headphones after reading this.... :S

    ReplyDelete
  23. I bought open-type sennheiser headphones... I always hear music at my bedroom where the noise is too low.

    ReplyDelete
  24. You forgot to mention that noise isolating headphones are also much less expensive. Great post, though!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Yeah, I was wondering which one was more expensive, and by how much.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Great post! =) More like this please.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Headphones are headphones, either way they give me my sweet, sweet music...

    ReplyDelete
  28. I've always thought that noise cancellation was pointless.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Great advice, I much prefer noise-isolation myself.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I'm lovin my noise isolating IEMs

    ReplyDelete
  31. Love the review! Keep up the great work!

    ReplyDelete
  32. Awesome post! Very well written and informative.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Very nice write up. I never did understand the difference between the two. Cool blog so I'll follow. :)

    ReplyDelete
  34. cool stuff nice to read. these things are cool :D

    ReplyDelete
  35. I've held the same thoughts between isolation and noise-canceling, as you have presented.

    ReplyDelete
  36. So, I'd like to know what brand of headphones you other guys like. Feed my curiosity!

    ReplyDelete
  37. Nice post Sal, I need some new headphones actually. Following.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Very interesting. I'd never heard of noise isolation head phones before.

    I bet a lot of people get hit by cars while wearing these.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Thank you for the info. Now I know I have to buy a Noise Isolating headphone/earphone.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Wow, this is so much more than i've ever found out from taking my stuff apart.

    ReplyDelete