Noise-cancelling headphones regularly top lists of essential travel gadgets, but are they worth it? The New York Times
Noise-cancelling headphones regularly top lists of essential travel gadgets, but are they worth it? The New York Times

What's all the noise about headphones?

By Geoffrey Morrison Time of article published May 14, 2019

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A little bit of silence. Sometimes that’s all we want. Whether it’s halfway through a 10-hour flight with a crying baby, or trying to sleep through the snoring from the hotel room next door, the promise of noise-cancelling headphones is one that every traveller probably finds intriguing.

Are they worth it? These headphones are often expensive and, for some people, they don’t live up to the hype.

I’ve spent the majority of the past five years travelling, taking dozens of flights and train journeys and, as someone who has reviewed noise-cancelling headphones for even longer, I can definitively say “maybe.”

How (and when) noise-cancelling headphones work

Noise-cancelling headphones use electronic processing to analyse ambient sound and attempt to generate the “opposite” sound. The result is less noise overall.

Imagine ocean waves. There’s the high part, the crest, and the low part, the trough. If you combined the positive height of the crest and the negative depth of the trough, the result would be a flat sea. Or for the maths inclined: if you add +1 and -1 you get 0. This is essentially what noise-cancelling headphones do: add troughs to crests and crests to troughs. Except instead of seawater, it’s sound-waves.

It’s not perfect. These headphones don’t “create” silence, nor are they able to eliminate noise. The crests and troughs do not perfectly cancel out. The absolute best noise-cancelling headphones merely reduce noise and work best with low-frequency droning sounds. So a loud hum is a quieter hum. 

They also don’t work well for all sounds. At higher frequencies, like the human vocal range and higher, the headphones do very little if anything at all. So if your hope is to block out the cries of the baby in seat 15C, you’re out of luck.

What’s perhaps even more frustrating is not all noise-cancelling headphones work the same. The best reduce a lot of noise, the worst reduce very little or nothing at all. There’s no way to tell, looking at a headphone’s specs, which are which.

Two headphone sets could claim to reduce the same amount of noise, but perform completely differently. Only hands-on testing, ideally with objective measurements, can tell the difference. Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, does these types of measurements for all the noise-cancelling headphones it tests.

Noise-cancelling headphones require a battery to power their electronics. Noise-isolating headphones, which do not require electronics, and therefore can be far cheaper, work by creating a seal in your ear canal to block noise. Basically, they are like earplugs, but with ear-buds inside. If you can get a good seal, these work reasonably well.

Getting a good seal can be a challenge, however, since everyone’s ears are different and not all headphones will fit correctly. And even if you do get a good seal, noise-isolating headphones will not be able to block low-frequency sounds as well as the best noise-cancelling headphones. They will reduce a wide range of frequencies, which can help.

Who really needs noise-cancelling headphones?

If you are a frequent traveller, good noise-cancelling headphones will make any journey in a plane, train or car far more pleasant. Even after a 12-hour flight, I’m not nearly as fatigued on arrival, thanks to the lower auditory onslaught.

In-ear models are easier, though still slightly uncomfortable, to sleep with and are my preference. Over-ear models reduce a little more noise as they are able to passively block some sound because of their design, but they are always bulky on your head or in your bag. After I stopped reviewing these headphones for Wirecutter, I bought a pair of Bose QuietComfort 20s, a long-time Wirecutter pick, and I never fly without them.

However, if you rarely travel, or find higher-frequency noises like people talking, cars hooting and noisy neighbours more annoying than air-plane engine noise or background chatter, these headphones may not be worth it. Cheap earplugs, or perhaps noise-isolating ear-buds, might work well enough. It’s worth keeping in mind that for the same money, regular headphones will likely sound better than noise-cancelling ones.

As earplugs are lower in cost, they might be worth trying first.

I think noise-cancelling headphones are great, but I also travel frequently and have expectations about how well these headphones work. For non-frequent travellers this product might not necessarily be the must-have travel accessory that it might seem. New York Times

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