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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If the user is in an environment where ANC would be useful (eg, in flight, on the subway, at the beach), she may be less concerned about ultimate audio quality than she is about simply being able to hear the music over the outside noise. ANC would rarely be necessary while enjoying music at home, so the high-end products don’t need it, especially at the cost of highest-quality sound; but those products designed for use on-the-go (like fully wireless earbuds and maybe the SR-series) would probably benefit from ANC.

Just my $0.02.

Joe Matejkovic

Definitely agree..!!

Dimitris Diakakis

I agree with the premise of this article. Even non-audiophile reviews for ANC technology will tell you that there is a distinct loss of sound quality in an already compromised audio signal. Having said that, as an audiophile, I’m intrigued by true wireless technology although I would never consider it to be a replacement for wired fidelity. But much of it is actually quite good.

As far as ANC is concerned, I think it would be an acceptable technology as long as it’s used in situations that would (1) make listening to music more “palpable” in noisy environments, and (2) not used when one wishes to listen more critically. I think ANC has a place when listening for fun and in noisy environments. Otherwise, It really doesn’t benefit the listening experience if you really care about music. I think it’s almost as effective to focus on obtaining a good seal to block outside sounds rather than create a series of algorithms to do it for you. Ironically, you need to have a really good seal in order for ANC to be the most effective so, unless you like listening to music behind a roaring jet engine, having a good seal is the best way to go.

Randall Collins

So not interested in a ANC product from Grado, I dig Grado for the audio quality not for following a tech fashion trend.

m thrasher

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