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 though the snoring from the hotel room next door, the promise of noise-canceling headphones is one that every traveler probably finds intriguing.
Yet 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 traveling, taking dozens of flights and train journeys, and as someone who has reviewed noise-canceling headphones for even longer, I can definitively say “maybe.”
How the headphones work
Noise-canceling headphones, also called active noise-canceling headphones, use electronic processing to analyze 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 math inclined, if you add +1 and -1 you get 0. This is essentially what active noise-canceling 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-canceling 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.
What’s perhaps even more frustrating is not all noise-canceling headphones work the same. There’s no way to tell, looking at a headphone’s specs, which are which. Only hands-on testing can tell the difference.
Noise-canceling 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 earbuds inside. If you can get a good seal, these work reasonably well.
Who really needs them?
If you are a frequent traveler, good noise-canceling headphones will make any journey in a plane, train or automobile far more pleasant.
In-ear models are easier to sleep with, though still slightly uncomfortable, 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. I bought a pair of in-ear Bose QuietComfort 20s, and I never fly without them.
However, if you rarely travel, or you find higher-frequency noises like people talking, cars honking and noisy neighbors more annoying than airplane engine noise or background chatter, these headphones may not be worth it. Cheap earplugs, or perhaps noise-isolating earbuds, might work well enough. And it’s worth keeping in mind that for the same money, regular headphones will likely sound better than noise-canceling headphones.
Overall, I think noise-canceling headphones are great, but I also travel frequently and have expectations about how well these headphones work. For non-frequent travelers, however, this product might not necessarily be the must-have travel accessory that it might seem.