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Noise Isolating vs Noise Canceling – What’s the Difference?

Aren't They the Same?

Noise Isolating vs Noise Canceling

With so much in your mind and with so much noise around, it’s hard not to think about escaping from it all. At times, it feels like you would give anything to get some time in quiet. The nearby coffee shop can be your escape for a while but only noise isolating or noise canceling headphones can save you from the chaos everyday. But what is difference between noise isolating vs noise canceling headphones?

These headphones have a similar name and one might even think that they function the same way, thus using them interchangeably. But that’s wrong. Headphones that provide noise cancellation are different from the ones that provide noise isolation in design and efficiency to block noise.

In this article, we will talk about all the differences between these noise isolating vs noise canceling headphones, how they work and what purpose they serve. This will be the ultimate guide that will help lead you to the right choice.

What is Noise Cancelation and How Does It Work?

With the market name “Active Noise Cancellation, it works along with a system of components that are placed within the ear cups of the headphones to block the ambient noise.

What is Noise Cancellation and How  Does It Work ?

The process isn’t complex. At first, the miniature microphones “listen” to the surrounding sound and relay the sound waves data to a built-in chipset. This is used to run algorithms for producing opposing soundwaves through the speakers. This, in turn, cancels out the incoming ambient sound waves.

These days, the active noise canceling headphones are generally used to cancel low-frequency sound waves like that of a running car engine. You can even find noise canceling headphones for dogs on the market. Yes, we’re not kidding!

What Is Noise Isolation and How Does It Work?

Also known as, “Passive Noise Cancellation”. This is done to block noise using physical barriers. It’s exactly like covering your ears with your palm, but with foam pads in earcups forming a secure seal. So, these headphones “isolate” your ears from the sound.

What Is Noise Isolation And How Does It Work ?

What bothers us about these headphones is that their efficiency depends majorly on the fit of the user and partly on the material used. The better the seal, the more optimized it is. This is why in-ear monitors or earbuds-style earphones are usually considered better than over-ear or on-ear ones in terms of noise isolation.

What Is Active Noise Cancelation and How Does It Work?

Let’s see how noise canceling headphones work. Active noise cancellation happens when the headphones try to reduce the ambient sounds using noise canceling technology i.e. by using active circuitry in the headphone. Active noise canceling headphones are also capable of creating noise isolation. But, these headphones are equipped with some extra components like a digital signal processor, a small microphone, and a battery unit that especially helps them to cancel out the noise around you actively.

Pros and Cons of ANC

But is this dominant technology full of pros? Unfortunately, no. Let’s look at the pros and cons of noise canceling headphones.

Firstly, active noise cancelation works well with steady unwanted sounds like that of air conditioners or drones but isn’t capable of canceling out rapid changing sounds like people’s voices.

Secondly, as the whole noise cancellation process is an electronic process, it requires a battery to function. With wireless headphones and charging around, people certainly like this idea as it will create a hindrance from the power source.

Lastly, like any other electronic circuitry, noise canceling circuitry will also produce a hissing sound to some degree. Needless to mention that it might cause irritation and or interference while you are enjoying your music.

What is Passive Noise Isolation and How Does It Work?

In regards to passive noise isolation, the blocking of the background noise is done more physically rather than by using any technology. Earbuds, earphones, or in-ear monitors are designed to take the shape of your ear to stop the ambient noise to interrupt your playlist. This allows you to listen to your favourite songs without blasting off the volume even at crowded places.

The best thing about passive noise isolation is that no additional power is required to experience its full effect. Almost all earbuds and headphones provide some amount of noise isolation but nothing can beat the custom-fitted ones in this regard.

Noise isolation headphones have two variants: in-ear and over-ear. In-ear headphones like earbuds plug directly into the ears and completely seal the canal. Whereas, over-ear headphones use high-density foam, thus providing more coverage to your ears from all sides.

Passive Noise Isolation vs Active Noise Cancellation

Sound Quality

Well, try to understand this.

Suppose to cancel out a strong force, you are creating a similar one. In this process, friction is produced and damage is caused. This is called active noise cancellation. Probably you will be expecting better results as technology is involved here but that is not the case. ANC headphones and noise canceling earbuds create a sound to cancel out the external noise. This in turn may cause some distortion.

Gladly, such is not the case with noise-isolating headphones.

Passive noise isolation represents a more true version of the music you are listening to. This happens as they are physically blocking the ambient sound by creating a protective seal around your ears.


The whole debate is based on the mechanism of the two types of headphones.

The ear tips of the active noise canceling headphones put direct pressure on some parts of the ear as they sit right at the ear canal and this will fatigue your ears causing discomfort.

But in the case of passive noise isolation, it can be best achieved by custom-fitted or custom-moulded earbuds and earphones. So no direct pressure will be applied on specific parts of the ear. Earphones such as UE FITS are formed to take the shape of your ears. This makes them feel more natural and comfortable.

Noise Reduction

When talking about noise cancellation and isolation, their capability of reducing noise and to what extent is one of the most important aspects. Though both passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation do a great job at reducing outside noise, they also have their benefits and limitations depending upon the range of frequencies that are being blocked.

Headphones with passive noise cancellation are capable to lessen noises with mid-to high-frequency by about 15dB to 30dB. ANC performs better here as it can reduce ambient noise overall by an average of 30dB and for the sounds coming from lawnmowers, and subway traffic, it can reduce that up to 60dB.

Simply this means ANC deals better with low frequencies than with mid-high frequencies.

You should also know that ANC headphones are best for reducing any constant background noise but fails when it comes to sudden transient noises. This is because the sudden sounds happen too quickly for the ANC to detect and combat.

Such is not the case with passive noise isolation. It is capable of reducing all noise by roughly the same amount. Custom-fit earbuds can reduce the sudden sounds to the same extent as they reduce the constant noise.


You can hear music at lower levels both with passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation. So, they won’t harm your ears as such.

But noise isolation is safer than noise cancellation. The active technology creates a noise to counteract the ambient noise and thus is a minor threat to your hearing as more decibels of noise is entering your ears than while using passive noise isolation.

Power consumption

We will have to give passive isolation some brownie points here as well. Even though they use Bluetooth to operate but still consumes less power than those with active noise cancellation.

As ANC has to create a counterfeit sound to cancel another, thus they require more power. But products like UE FITS has longer battery life as they need power only for Bluetooth.

Fortunately, there are earphones and in-ears that doesn’t consume power at all. So, if you find yourself using something like CSX or from the PRO series, then you won’t have to worry about charging it 7 hours before use.


We don’t want you to dig a hole in your pocket but still want you to get the best on the market. There are many high-end brands with the best quality headphones but there are brands that can provide you with great audio quality at only 50$ or less.

You will find a major difference in price between passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation when UE FITS are compared to ANCs that offer very high quality. The price of the FITS is in line with ANCs from other brands.


Passive noise isolation headphones win this round again against noise cancellation headphones as they are lighter than them and thus more portable.

Again, the mechanism of the active technology is to be blamed. ANC headphones require an onboard microphone for neutralizing the ambient sounds.

Remember, portability also depends on the brand that you have purchased. There are brands providing excellent noise canceling headphones that are portable.

Key Differences Between Noise Isolating and Noise Canceling Headphones

Active noise canceling headphones are great for canceling low range sounds like traffic sounds or that from an air conditioner but are not so effective for higher pitch sounds, whereas passive noise-isolation headphones block out the noise of all ranges equally.

ANCs needs a battery and charging as noise cancellation work by producing a similar noise to reduce noise around you. On the other hand, noise isolation work by using the physics of sound and doesn’t need battery works.

Noise canceling at times can change the audio quality as the hissing sound causes distortion to the music but noise-isolation doesn’t change the sound quality at all.

Active noise canceling headphones are a bit pricier as they use ANC circuitry but noise isolation headphones have a variety of cheaper alternatives.

What Is the Fundamental Difference Between Noise Isolating Headphones and Noise Canceling Headphones?

We have already talked about the key differences between noise isolating vs noise canceling headphones. But we want this guide to be more than just a description of both and types, so to make the fundamental difference between noise isolating headphones and noise canceling headphones more clear, we will discuss which one is more ideal in a real-life situation.

You must have been going through buying guides who have talked all about price, comfort, and the specs and those must have left you more confused. So, via these scenarios, we will try to give you an insight as to which pair is best for your personal use.

At the Gym

To get that workout motivation going on, you must have curated a playlist so that you get the right amount of pump. Obviously, at that moment, you wouldn’t want even the slightest sound to interrupt your training.

A pair of active noise canceling headphones would work the best in this situation as it won’t allow any of the noise from the gym’s choice of music to enter your ears.

In Loud Offices

The chatter of all your colleagues right after a hectic journey via the bus. The offices with open floor plans produce more noise than a typical one and after a certain time, it becomes hard to tolerate it.

In these situations, sound-isolating headphones are perfect. They will reduce the noise but you will still hear if someone is trying to talk to you. These headphones can easily mask any minimal to moderate noise levels.

During Travel

Whether you are travelling by train or by flight, the constant noise can easily get on anyone’s nerves. There will be all sorts of noise coming your way from all around from chatty passengers to cranky kids or of the plane engines. All these are equally worse.

The best thing that you can do while travelling is to carry a pair of active noise canceling headphones as only they can help you get some peace or sleep. It seems like these headphones are tailored for travel.

During Study/Work Sessions

It has been scientifically proven that listening to music while studying or doing work that requires your utmost attention can significantly affect the result. In this situation, we think that you can use either of the two headphones.

Noise-isolating earbuds can be used if you are studying or working in a relatively calm surroundings but just need some music to focus.

But if you want to work in a noisy environment, it’s best to use noise canceling headphones. They will help you cut off all the ambient noise so that all your focus goes in one direction.

With Loud Equipment

Usually, earmuffs help get rid of the constant noise of loud equipment like that of a lawnmower, leaf-blower, or that of the power tool. But if it isn’t working, then probably it’s time to put your ANC headphones on.

These headphones will definitely reduce the impact of low-frequency sounds that ranges anywhere between 20 dB to 45 dB. If you are usually around such loud equipment, it is advised to wear noise canceling headphones to help prevent hearing loss.


Noise is that one constant thing in our life that is impossible to avoid. But there are several measures available on the market in the form of headphones. Noise canceling and noise isolating headphones serve the same purpose with different effectiveness. But mind you, that both these headphones are ideal for different situations.

Before deciding on which one to buy or before considering any other specs, you should first ask yourself that when and why you will use it the most. Once you have figured that out, you will see that there are a lot of headphones available on the market that will suit your purpose and obviously your pocket.

Hopefully, you have found this article helpful and have understood the key differences between noise isolating vs nosie canceling headphones. We have tried to help you with as many pointers as we could before you go shopping. Let us know, in the comment section below which type of headphones you prefer to use the most, and when, and why.

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