Sometimes you want to isolate yourself from the sounds of the outside world. The natter of other people in the office, the sounds of traffic in the street, the constant droning of an aeroplane... What you want then is a pair of active noise-cancelling headphones.
While active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones can have a price premium compared to regular headphones, the extra price can be more than worth it if you're a regular commuter. ANC headphones can make even the worst commuter experience slightly more bearable by letting you enjoy your morning podcast or music playlist free of disturbance. ANC can also mean you don't have to crank the volume up quite so high, helping preserve your hearing.
Thankfully, the sound quality of ANC headphones have also much improved over years, so you're not making so great a sacrifice in audio fidelity in exchange for peaceful tranquility.
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When considering headphones like these, there are a few basic questions you need to ask yourself.
First and foremost, do you want in-ear models or a larger over-ear or on-ear type? With in-ear pairs, all the cancelling gubbins is packed into a little remote housing that's built somewhere along the cable or in a collar worn behind the neck. It generally gets a bit annoying, unless you wear clothes that are happy to accommodate a shirt clip. Larger pairs, such as Bose's mega-popular models, fit everything into the earcups themselves. They're therefore a lot neater and easier to live with.
A quirk of Bose's active noise-cancelling on its QuietComfort 25 headphones was that they wouldn't output any sound at all unless cancellation was switched on. Run out of battery and you were well and truly stuffed. Thankfully, the newer wireless QuietComfort 35 can fall back on a completely passive, wired experience when the battery runs out. Of course, this comes at the sacrifice of ANC. Some alternatives pull the same trick, while others don't. Bear this is mind if you know you tend to spend a long part of your day away from a charger.
However, the battery life of ANC headphones is improving. These days, you're looking at around 20 hours, though some offer up to 50 hours of use. Similarly, while many pairs use custom rechargeable units, plenty of others rely on good old AA/AAA batteries.
Some ANC headphones include fancy tech ensuring you can still be aware of the outside world when need be, either my temporarily disabling the noise-cancelling or by toning it down. Headphones such as Bose's QuietControl 30 let you adjust the level of ANC, whereas Sony's MDR-1000X has a clever aware mode that uses the microphones to let you hear what's outside.
ANC headphones use microphones that monitor the ambient sound around you. Then, using some technical wizardry, the headphones create a noise-cancelling wave that is out of phase with the ambient noise, essentially cancelling the external sound out. The result isn't 100% perfect but for consistent, repetitive sounds the effect can work wonders. Noises such as the hum of planes, air conditioning units, fans and to a lesser extent traffic are particularly strong candidates for noise cancelling. The effect of ANC combined with the masking effect of your own music or audio often means you won't hear the vast majority of the ambient sound around you.
Sound quality and comfort has vastly improved from the early years of ANC headphones, too. Old models used to have an annoying electronic hiss and a strange pressure sensation when worn, but most models have managed to remove these annoyances. Sound quality can now rival non-ANC headphones for richness and energy.