Earbud Decision: Noise Cancellation vs. Audio Quality-4OurEars

Earbud Decision: Noise Cancellation vs. Audio Quality

Noise-canceling earphones may enhance your listening experience and make your surroundings somewhat more serene, whether you are in a noisy plane or train. But for audiophiles, those drawn to the purest of sound quality, the choice between ANC and non-ANC headphones is not that simple.

How noise cancellation works

The Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) concept is about creating anti-noise that reflects and cancels the surrounding noise. Noise-canceling headphones and earphones leverage electronic processing to assess ambient noise and produce the "inverse" sound. The outcome is relatively less noise.

ANC headphones and earphones pick up low-frequency sound and soften it before it reaches the ear. The sound frequency is inverted at 180 degrees to the unwanted noise, leading to cancellation and 'zero' noise frequency.

Users may have an easy time listening to music or making phone calls in a busy street. ANC enthusiasts love that the headphones let you 'hear yourself think,' that they 'turn on the quiet' and so forth.

Caveats of ANC earbuds and headphones

The truth? Noise cancellation is not yet a perfect technology. ANC headphones and earbuds do not produce absolute silence. Their efficiency in noise elimination is lackluster at best.

The headphones and earbuds simply turn down the noise. They don't mute it. Their ANC capabilities perform well for low droning sounds. For sudden high-frequency sounds such as heated conversations, crying babies, or hooting cars, ANC is for the birds.

The canceling techniques used, feed-forward cancellation, feedback cancellation, and hybrid cancellation, significantly impacts outputted sonic quality.

Most users report a background hiss to the audio, interference that disappears the moment you turn off noise cancellation.

Everything feels compressed and closed off, especially for high-frequency audio. If you have experienced hi-res music on state-of-the-art headphones and earbuds, ANC can be a pain in the back. The good thing about ANC headphones is that most of them have a switch to turn the noise cancellation on and off.

Audiophile earbuds and headphones

Turning on ANC waters down the sonic output quality. Choosing noise-canceling ANC headphones is choosing to forego the clarity, crispness, rhythm, energy, and superb sound arrangement of a non-ANC headphone.

Non-ANC headphones have impressive sounds that capture the entire range of frequency in the movement of the sound. They can handle messy and challenging songs in a way that ANC cannot.

The bottom line

ANC headphones use destructive interference to eliminate the noise. However, in the noise reduction process, audio quality is greatly impacted. If you seek to experience natural sounds, splendid and untouched by coloration and curve, turn off ANC on your ANC headphone, or choose a non-ANC headphone or earbuds.

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ANC is a necessary evil when you are out and about. I remember when I first tried ANC headphones at an airport electronics store, the airport went away. It was amazing – I could focus on the music again!

Ultimately, you either deal with the relatively minor noise that comes from the ANC or the vibrations coming from outside your non-ANC headphones and the vibrations coming from inside your body. The latter is particularly vexing because your steps mess with the pitch of the music. Modern ANC over-ear headphones can deal with this very well, leaving a higher % of music to enjoy when you are out and about. I maintain that an ANC headphone that doesn’t block vibrations coming from inside your body, is not a very good ANC headphone. It’s too bad that the technology to block these vibrations has not found its way to earbuds yet.


Life is all about trade offs. Getting “good” audio is better than getting none. For a five or six hour flight, my experience with ANC over the ear headphones has made these trips tolerable. My most recent ANC headphone acquisition were British, costly, but the ANC is app-driven and provides nice filtering options. Most of all they reproduce music quite well. Commercial jet noise is terrible and better ANC designs greatly alleviate that.

John Hyman

I don’t have a problem that Grado doesn’t make noise cancelling headphones, but there’s certainly a place for them in my world. At her request, I bought a pair of noise cancelling headphones for my wife, who requested them for air travel. There are amazing for air travel, whether you’re listening to music, a movie, or just trying to get some peace and quiet. Sometimes she wants to watch something on the television while I read or do something on my laptop on the other side of the living room. When I’m wearing my Grado’s, which I love, I find myself turning the volume up almost uncomfortably high to drown out the sound of the television. When I borrowed my wife’s ANC headphones one night, I was so relieved that I could listen to my music at a more reasonable volume, and I could practically not hear the television at all. Not only would I not drive or walk down the street wearing the noise cancelling head phones, I’m not even comfortable sitting in my house alone with them on. I just feel uncomfortably isolated from the rest of the world. I wouldn’t even hear someone knocking at the door or if my neighbor’s house exploded! And, as I said, I do love my Grado’s; so, even audio quality aside, they are essential.

Lawrence Siskind

I agree. Accoustic noise cancellation is the only way to go. I’ve only experienced good results with IEMs, which have their own challenges.

Joshua Walfish

I have your GR10E….great job of blocking out noise, and fabulous sound. Just what I needed for my Sony Walkman Digital Music Player. ..always brings me happiness….not like my very expensive high end system in the living room

Stanley Green

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