Noise-Cancelling vs Sound-Isolating Earbuds: What’s the Difference and Which is Better?

Noise-cancelling vs noise-isolating earphones

Noise-cancelling versus noise-isolating earbuds. If you want to drown out the sounds of the outside world, you’ve been probably curious about the difference, and which is better. There are lots of headphones that claim “noise cancelling” when they’re actually “sound isolating,” further confusing the issue. And although they both reduce noise, how they do it, and how well, is very different.

Enduring myths are abundant when it comes to new technology. In the 90s, it was that video games would create a society of criminals. Then came the “cellphones give you brain cancer” story, one that’s actually still around today. For cameras, you still hear arguments that the more pixels, the better the photo. But when it comes to earbuds, the leading myth is still that noise cancelling is and always will be superior to noise-isolating technology. Unlike the original Star Wars trilogy versus Episode 1, where the answer is obvious, there isn’t necessarily a better technology in the case of earbuds… they’re just different! Here’s why.

Sound Isolating Earbuds

How Noise-Isolating Earbuds Work

The basic difference between sound-isolating and noise-cancelling earbuds is that the former uses a passive technology while the latter is active. In practice, what this means is that noise-isolating earbuds physically block rogue soundwaves from getting into your ears. Think about those cute headsets that parents will put on their babies and small children at concerts. There’s nothing magical about these accessories – they isolate the eardrum so that the wearer is protected in a silence bubble. The same principle works for noise-isolating earbuds and headphones. With earbuds, the physical design of the technology seals the entry to your ear so that all you’re hearing is the sweet tunes being pumped from your iPod or smartphone.

Noise Reduction Levels

As a result, noise-isolating earbuds come with a number of pros and cons. First, they are pretty good at muffling external sound that hovers around 25-30 decibels. For reference, a whisper is about 15 decibels and an airplane cabin after takeoff is around 85. It won’t drown out everything, but a good fit will definitely help.

Power Consumption

Noise-isolating earbuds also don’t need any batteries, as there’s no active technology enhancing their effects.


Noise-isolating earbuds tend to be a bit cheaper, depending on make and model.


But just like any consumer technology, noise-isolating earbuds do have a couple downsides, most of which come from the fact that everyone’s ears are shaped differently. Other than not being as effective as the noise cancelling variety, they’re also not particularly comfortable. Just like foam earplugs, having something artificial crammed into your ear may get tiresome after long periods of use.

Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

How Noise-Cancelling Earbuds Work

Avid travellers swear by noise-cancelling earbuds, using them to defend against everything from the low hum of a jet engine to loudly snoring bunkmates in hostels. They work by deploying a dual-level of protection. First, they use the same approach as sound-isolating headphones, by using physical design to create a barrier against ambient noise. This is especially true for headphones that wrap your ears in a shield of padding.

But more than that, noise-cancelling technology creates and sends out sound waves that match those in the world around your ears except that they are 180 degrees out of sync. When sound waves of meet their complete opposite, it causes destructive interference, eliminating the noise altogether.

Noise Reduction Levels

Noise-cancelling earbuds work wonders for drowning out low decibel ambient noise, like car and airplane engines, and air conditioners, making them generally more effective than noise-isolating only listening accessories. This not only makes your music clearer and easier to hear, but it also means you can listen to it at a lower volume, which your ears will thank you for.

Low, steady sound is easy to cancel out. Higher frequency and transient sounds, aren’t. So, you are still going to hear voices, crying babies etc. However what they do, the best do really well. The TaoTronics Active Noise Cancellation Bluetooth Earbuds dropped ambient noise by an incredible amount.

Power Consumption

As well, because of its integrated electronics, noise-cancelling earbuds require external batteries, or will need to draw more power from your connected devices.

Sound Quality

And finally, if you opt to pick up a cheap pair of noise-cancelling earbuds, they might actually add sound rather than reduce it, in the form of a high-frequency hissing. You can avoid this particular issue by making sure your purchase is from a reputable brand that uses good materials and design in their products.


Even in their most basic form these headphones are still much better than a traditional pair of headphones in terms of keeping outside sound at bay, but if you opt for one of our top picks for the best noise-cancelling headphones, you’ll get a pair that will also make your music sound pretty good in the process.

Talk about a win-win.

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Rebecca Lee has a penchant for writing about all things audio-related for TaoTronics. Her editorial endeavors include testing out the latest headphones to write in-depth product reviews that benefit our readers.

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