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Noise Isolating vs Noise Cancelling Earbuds – What is the Difference?

Noise Isolating vs Noise Cancelling Earbuds

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The pros and cons to noise isolating vs noise cancelling:

Noise isolating vs. noise cancelling, they sound the same and can be pretty confusing. Most people don’t even realize there’s a difference, but they actually utilize different active noise reduction technologies.  It’s worth understanding the nuances of their sound quality and noise suppression, so you can make the right decision about which one makes the most sense for your needs.

Noise Isolating

Noise isolating, while a useful method of noise suppression, is less about mechanical design, and more about the physical structure of the headphone or earphone. Tight inner ear seals, thick padding, and heavy cushioning create a barrier between your ears to keep your music and podcasts in, and the rest of the world out. They are ideal for blocking out ambient sound, if you’re studying in a cafe or want to hear less chatter at the office.


They use less power, and/or battery than noise cancelling, and they are softer on the budget than noise cancelling, because they are not as sophisticated.


It’s really important that a noise isolating headphone fits properly in order for this device to suppress passive noise, and depending on the type of disturbance you’re most concerned about, you might not find them as effective as noise cancelling.

Types to consider:

Types to consider
Noise Isolating vs Noise Cancelling Earbuds - What is the Difference? 6

Over the head:

To avoid the sizing problem, if you have above or below average sized ears, the over-the-head model might be the best choice, like these isolating headphones from Artix. They are well priced, and easily adjustable, with a built in microphone, and come in three cute color combinations.


These earbuds from MINDBEAST come with three sizes of silicon earbud tips to assure a secure placement in your ear canal. They are sweat-proof and universally compatible, making them ideal for quick workouts or long walks in the sun, where you don’t want to be bothered.

My pick:

Plugphones makes actual earphones out of ear plugs with memory foam. If you’ve ever used earplugs to help you sleep, you know exactly how well these work, and can really muffle any noise. They are my first choice for noise isolation.

Wireless earbuds:

iHome’s wireless noise isolating earbuds have great audio quality, and come in pink, white, black and blue. They also promise up to 25 hours of playback time with the charging case in range. With noise isolation properties, they will shield your ears from din, while offering touch control and one step pairing.

Noise Cancelling

Noise cancellation is exactly as it sounds. Inaudible sound waves are utilized to cancel out external noise. But how does it know which waves to cancel out and which to keep? In simple terms, the headphones are actually equipped with tiny microphones that pick up on the noise external to the headphones, and then create waves at a frequency we can’t hear, to mask the unwanted noise. Cool, huh?


The countering sound waves can overall offer better sound quality and noise reduction, even if they aren’t an exact fit.


The biggest issue is that while the silent sound waves can cancel out low to mid-frequency noise, it’s not going to be that effective at cancelling out higher-pitched distractions. The term “cancelling” makes it seem like they will magically eliminate all other commotion, but that is simply not the case. They can only do so much to reduce the noise around you, and are best used for things like travel, where the dull sounds of an engine or other machinery can more easily be corrected. Just make sure to pack an extra battery pack.

Types to consider:

Noise Canceling Wireless Headphone
Noise Isolating vs Noise Cancelling Earbuds - What is the Difference? 7

Over the head:

These hybrid headphones from VANKYO are a top seller, and utilize a dual combination of noise blocking techniques to reduce other sounds by up to 90%. I love quick charging headphones, and these are no exception. Even a ten minute charge can yield up to 2 hours of playback time, which is great for me because I always forget to recharge my electronics after use.

My pick:

My favourite ANC (active noise cancelling) option are these from Skullcandy, in part because I just love their aesthetic and branding, but also because I find they offer the best results. They are definitely on the upper end of what you pay for headphones, but every time I have invested in a pair of these, they have lasted years of heavy (and borderline abusive) use.


So here we have a very interesting ANC design from HIGHEVER, which looks absolutely ideal for long overnight flights. Not only does it protect you from background noise, it also blocks out light, allowing you to drift off to your favourite podcast or perhaps some soft ambient music. That’s not all though, you can wear the headband at a different angle for the perfect jogging wear. The material is soft, durable and 100% washable.

Wireless earbuds:

These Elite earbuds from Jabra actually have different levels of noise cancellation that you can customize via their Sound+ app, which will run a hearing test for each ear individually. Not only will the app automatically calibrate the noise level for you, but if you don’t think it’s optimal, you can adjust it yourself with the manual equalizer. Sounds pretty plus to me.

All this being said, it’s important to remember that you get what you pay for, and that a really good quality pair of well-fitting noise isolating headphones will perform better than a mediocre noise canceling pair. When shopping, make sure you know which type of technology you’re actually getting, as these terms sometimes get misused, even by retailers. Now that you understand the subtle differences, you should be able to make the best decision for your auditory needs. Whatever your preferences are, happy listening!

A passion for writing and ongoing research projects gives Catherine an incredibly broad knowledge of all things. She has authored an incredible number of articles and can be found in the wilderness when not attached to technology or listening to podcasts.

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