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ANC Headphones: Guide to Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

Headphones have come a long way since being used by phone operators in 1890. We have gone from a single earpiece that weighed over 10 pounds and rested on the shoulders to a piece of finely crafted engineering that provides high quality audio to the masses.

ANC headphones (or active noise cancelling headphones) were invented in 1986, but they didn’t become synonymous with headphones until fairly recently. So, we definitely understand if you’re not sure what active noise cancellation is.

In fact, that’s why we’re here. We’ve compiled a guide to ANC headphones that will clear up any questions you might have. 

Noise cancellation in headphones: what is it, and how exactly does it work?

One of the reasons that noise cancelling can be so confusing in the first place is that there are two different types of noise cancelling; active and passive. These are just different methods of achieving the same result.

The naming conventions for these methods can also be a bit confusing. There is active noise cancelling, which is also known as noise cancelling, but then there’s also passive noise cancelling, which is not known as just noise cancelling, but rather noise isolation instead.

Confused? Don’t worry, it’ll make sense. Let’s keep going.

What is active noise cancellation?

Active noise cancellation is when a small microphone inside the headphones records the ambient sound, which exists in the form of a sinusoidal wave, that surrounds the listener. 

Using a small amplifier in the headphones, noise waves are generated that are inverse to the ambient sounds, causing the waves to cancel each other out, thereby eliminating background noise.

The effectiveness of active noise cancellation comes down to the quality of the hardware being used. ANC headphones that are built from lesser quality parts will have a tougher time at filtering out all of that extra sound. 

What is passive noise cancellation (a.k.a. noise isolation)?

The passive noise cancellation method involves simply blocking the ear canal and thereby preventing sound waves from entering. In headphones, the cushion covers the ear, while earbud tips are supposed to rest comfortably inside the ear canal and not leave any gaps.

Because of its low tech nature, passive noise cancelling reduces noise at a lower cost than active noise cancelling headphones. It is important, however, that noise isolation earbuds or headphones are comfortable to wear and adequately cover the ear canal, otherwise the user may need to turn up the volume to excessive levels to compensate. 

Which is better for removing background noise; active or passive noise cancelling?

It’s not necessarily that one method of background noise removal is better than the other. The truth is that both methods work better at different frequencies, and most high-end earphones and headphones actually combine noise cancelling and noise isolation to eliminate as much background noise as possible. 

This is why the Nuraphone has an unprecedented design that incorporates both headphone cushions and earbuds in order to completely cover both the ear and the ear canal. In addition to this implementation of passive noise cancelling, there is also active noise cancellation that the user can turn on and off with the touch of a button.

What ANC headphones can and can't do

Different frequencies are better suited for active and passive noise cancellation. If used properly, active noise cancellation does a better job blocking low frequency noise, such as ambient droning, whereas noise isolation does a better job blocking more immediate high and mid frequency noise.

Essentially, active noise cancellation is typically used with sounds that are long and droning, such as traffic or an electrical hum. Active noise cancellation will not block out short, sharp sounds such as voices or sudden impacts. It’s important to keep this in mind when you’re buying your noise cancelling headphones.

Does ANC improve call quality?

Because the days of the walkman are (mostly) over, and headphones are used with… well… phones, it is important that headphones aid their user to effectively take calls. As a result, different ANC headphones have different approaches towards calls.

For some headphones, active noise cancellation will be shut off in the event of a call in order to allow the user to clearly hear their own voice when they speak. However, other ANC headphones will retain their noise cancelling properties, providing the user with crystal clear call quality by eliminating background noise. However, it’s worth noting that active noise cancelling will not be able to filter background noise from the other end of the call.

Does ANC work without music?

ANC headphones don’t need music in order to block out ambient sound. You can listen to your favourite podcast, meditation app, YouTube video, etc. and still reap the benefits of active noise cancelling. 

In fact, one of the major benefits of active noise cancellation is that you can block out ambient sound in particularly noisy areas such as public transport. That’s right, you don’t have to listen to music to make a plane trip easier. As long as there’s ambient noise, your ANC headphones will work their magic.

Are ANC headphones better than earplugs?

This question is very similar to whether or not active or passive noise cancelling is better, as ANC headphones use active noise cancelling, whereas earplugs use passive noise cancelling.

However, while there is no real answer as to whether active or passive noise cancelling is better, seeing as both work for different frequencies and complement each other effectively, there is a clear answer as to whether headphones are better than earplugs.

Because most headphones use both active and passive noise cancelling, they arguably make earplugs redundant, as they’re more effective at blocking out background noise. The main advantages that earplugs would have over headphones is that they are smaller and cheaper, which can be convenient.

Can you still hear with ANC headphones?

It can be difficult to hear the outside world when you’re wearing ANC headphones (after all, that’s the point). However, sometimes it’s important to be able to hear your surroundings, even when you’re wearing your ANC headphones.

We understand this, which is why the Nuraphone has added functionality so that you have control over noise cancellation at all times. Social Mode is a setting in the Nuraphone that allows you to disable noise-cancelling, so you can hear the outside world perfectly without having to remove your headphones.

What is personalised sound and how does it aid ANC?

Personalised sound is the function that separates the Nuraphone from all other headphones. While its superior build blocks out background noise, its personalised sound functionality provides a specially catered sound experience.

Through a sophisticated process, the Nuraphone monitors how you listen to audio by reading otoacoustic emissions (OAEs) that resonate from your ear drum when you listen to a certain tone. The Nuraphone then generates a personalised profile that caters its audio playback to you.

Are there any downsides to ANC?

Much like with any sort of technological advancement, there are always skeptics, and the advanced technology of active noise cancellation is no exception. This can range from people thinking said technology is overrated or even potentially hazardous. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with some perfectly healthy skepticism. It’s important that people aren’t damaging their hearing for the sake of an audio experience, and it’s good that people are raising these concerns.

In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity for us to address some of the questions that people who aren’t so enthusiastic about ANC headphones have and assuage their concerns.

Is ANC bad for your ears?

Noise cancelling is not bad for your ears. There are no health risks directly associated with noise cancellation. 

However, it is possible, though unlikely, for noise cancelling headphones to cause discomfort. This discomfort is caused by the brain perceiving a change in air pressure that is not there due to the sudden removal of low-frequency noise, similar to what happens in airplanes. 

There have also been attempts to link noise cancellation to tinnitus, but there isn’t any scientific evidence to back these claims. If you are concerned about ANC headphones and the effects they have on your ears, your best course of action is to exercise caution when listening and avoid cranking the volume to excessive levels.

Does ANC affect sound quality?

Typically, active noise cancelling does affect sound quality. But, for the vast majority of ANC headphones, this is at such a small scale that it’s not that perceptible to the user's ears.

However, the Nuraphone is a very atypical pair of headphones. Any effects that ANC could possibly have on sound quality are effectively mitigated by the Nuraphone’s personalised sound technology. 

It’s hard to notice sound imperfections when your headphones are delivering sound that has been specifically augmented to best suit your ears.

Does ANC affect battery power?

Because active noise cancelling involves the use of additional technology, it does use more battery power than passive noise cancelling.

And we get it. Wireless headphones are useless if you have to charge them every few hours just to use them? It's a pain to be halfway through a song, only to discover that your headphones are no longer powered.

However, you can listen to your favorite music for up to 20 hours on a full charge with the Nuraphone's lithium-ion battery. In addition, the Nuraphone shows you how much battery you have left at any time.

You’ll get ANC functionality with a battery that’ll last long enough for you to enjoy it.

Are ANC headphones worth it?

If an audio experience free from interruption is what you’re looking for, ANC headphones are absolutely worth it. As well as a heightened listening experience, ANC headphones also offer additional benefits, such as:

- A boost in both concentration and cognitive performance.
- A more comfortable trip on noisy transportation, particularly planes.
- Clearer phone conversations.
- The prevention of health hazards that stem from noise pollution exposure.
- Aid for people with sensitive hearing or sensory overstimulation.
- Ear protection from excessive volume.

How much should you pay for ANC headphones?

The only thing that ANC headphones should be cancelling is background noise, not your savings for that week. That’s why we offer the Nuraphone at an affordable price. 

Additionally, if you decide you don’t want to purchase the Nuraphone outright, we offer the Nuranow subscription service as an alternative. For an upfront payment, followed by small monthly transactions, you can use the Nuraphone with the option to cancel any time after the first three months.

How to choose the best ANC headphones

Why settle for a good pair of ANC headphones when you could get the best? 

Seriously, a lot of headphones offer active noise cancelling, but if you’re looking for ANC headphones with:

- Long-lasting battery life
- Quality build materials
- A comfortable fit
- Extensive and customisable controls
- Comprehensive noise cancelling/isolation functionality
- An unparalleled personalised listening experience that was developed specifically for your ears...

… go with the Nuraphone.

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