Active vs Passive Noise Cancelling Theory: Behind the Scenes

Written by: Kaushik Jethva

Last Updated: November 7, 2023

active vs passive noise cancelling
Active vs Passive Noise Cancelling

Noise-canceling headphones are becoming increasingly popular in today’s world, where unwanted noise can interfere with our work, concentration, or relaxation. They are designed for ambient noise reduction and eliminate unwanted background noise, allowing you to enjoy your audio devices without any distractions. There are two types of noise-canceling headphones: Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) and Passive Noise Isolation. Both work in different ways and have their own advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we will explain the differences between active and passive noise cancellation and help you choose the best option for your needs.

1 Passive Noise Cancellation vs Active Noise Cancelling Headphones: Which is best for you?

Passive Noise Isolation

Passive noise isolation, also known as passive noise cancellation, is the most basic form of noise reduction technology in headphones. Passive noise cancelling headphones work by physically blocking out the surrounding noise through the design of the ear cups or earbuds. The tight seal created by the ear cups or in-ear earphones helps to prevent outside noise from entering your ear canal.

Passive noise cancellation is achieved by creating a physical barrier between the ear and the outside environment. The headphones or earphones are designed in such a way that they fit snugly around your ears, creating a tight seal. This tight seal helps to prevent sound waves from entering your ear canal, which reduces the amount of outside noise you hear.

Passive noise-canceling headphones are ideal for environments where there are low-frequency noises, such as aeroplane engines or a noisy coffee shop. They are also great for people who prefer not to have electronics in their headphones, as they don’t require batteries or any active components. However, passive noise cancellation doesn’t work well with high-frequency noises like car horns, and it can also cause some sound degradation due to the physical barrier between the ear and the outside environment.

Pros
  • Cost-effective: Passive noise-cancellation headphones are generally less expensive than active noise-cancellation headphones, making them more accessible to a wider range of users.
  • No batteries required: Passive noise cancellation headphones do not require a power source or battery, which means that you can use them whenever you want without worrying about running out of battery life.
  • Lightweight and portable: Passive noise cancellation headphones are generally lightweight and easy to carry around, making them ideal for travel or for use in a variety of settings.
  • Minimal interference: Passive noise cancellation technology does not interfere with the sound quality of the headphones, meaning that you can enjoy high-quality audio without any distortion.
Cons
  • Limited noise cancellation: Passive noise cancellation headphones are not as effective at blocking out noise as active noise cancellation headphones, especially when it comes to low-frequency sounds.
  • Uncomfortable: Some users may find that passive noise cancellation headphones can be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods, especially if they do not fit properly.
  • Limited versatility: Passive noise cancellation headphones are generally designed for a specific purpose, such as noise reduction for studying or sleeping. They may not be as versatile as active noise-cancellation headphones, which can be used for a wide range of applications.
  • Limited customisation: Passive noise cancellation headphones do not offer as many customisation options as active noise cancellation headphones, which can be a disadvantage for users who want to tailor their listening experience to their specific needs.

Active Noise Cancellation

Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is a more advanced form of noise reduction technology that uses miniature microphones to monitor the surrounding noise and then generates the opposite noise to cancel it out. ANC technology is capable of reducing both low-frequency and high-frequency ambient noises and can achieve better sound quality than passive noise cancellation.

ANC works by using miniature microphones placed on the outside of the ear cups or in-ear earphones to pick up ambient sounds. The headphones then generate the opposite noise to cancel out the external noise, creating a more immersive sound quality. Active noise-cancelling headphones require batteries or a power source to operate the electronic components that generate the opposite noise.

Active noise-canceling headphones are best suited for environments with high-frequency noises, such as car horns or aircraft engines. They are also ideal for people who want to block out surrounding noises entirely and achieve a higher level of concentration or relaxation. However, ANC technology can sometimes create an uncomfortable feeling of pressure in the ear, and the quality of the noise-cancelling performance depends on the exact shape of the ear cups or earbuds and the tuning quality.

Pros
  • Reduced ambient noise: One of the main benefits of active noise cancellation headphones is that they can significantly reduce ambient noise. This can be especially useful in loud environments such as on aeroplanes, crowded public spaces, or busy offices, as it can help improve concentration and reduce stress.
  • Better sound quality: With active noise cancellation, you can enjoy your music or audio content without the need to turn the volume up as high, resulting in a better listening experience.
  • Improved battery life: Active noise cancellation technology can help extend your headphones' battery life, as they do not need to work as hard to produce sound.
  • Comfort: Active noise cancellation headphones can be more comfortable to wear for longer periods, as they can help reduce the need for higher volumes, which can be damaging to the ears.
Cons
  • Cost: Active noise cancellation headphones can be more expensive than other types of headphones.
  • Reduced sound quality: While active noise cancellation can improve sound quality, some people may find that noise-cancelling technology interferes with the sound quality of the headphones.
  • Dependence on battery: Active noise cancellation requires a power source, which means that the headphones will not work without a charged battery. This can be inconvenient if you forget to charge your headphones or if you are in a location where you cannot charge them.Dependence on battery: Active noise cancellation requires a power source, which means that the headphones will not work without a charged battery. This can be inconvenient if you forget to charge your headphones or if you are in a location where you cannot charge them.
  • Limited effectiveness: Active noise cancellation technology is not always effective at blocking out all types of noise, especially sudden and high-pitched sounds.

2 Hybrid ANC

Hybrid ANC is a combination of passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation. It is becoming increasingly popular in noise-cancelling headphones as it provides a higher level of noise reduction and better sound quality. Hybrid ANC uses both the physical barrier of the ear cups or earbuds and the active noise-cancelling technology to create a more comprehensive noise reduction experience.

Hybrid ANC headphones are designed with well-designed ear cups that create a tight seal around the ear, preventing the entry of outside sounds. The active noise-cancelling technology then generates the opposite noise to cancel out any remaining external noise. Hybrid ANC headphones are best suited for people who want to achieve the best possible noise reduction while maintaining a high level of sound quality.

3 Wrapping Up

In conclusion, both active and passive noise-cancelling technologies have their strengths and weaknesses, making them suitable for different types of environments and user preferences. While passive noise isolation is ideal for low-frequency noise, active noise cancellation is better suited for high-frequency noise. Hybrid ANC headphones offer a combination of the two technologies, providing a higher level of noise reduction and improved sound quality. Ultimately, the choice between active and passive noise cancellation comes down to individual preferences and the specific use case for the headphones.

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Kaushik Jethva
Written by: Kaushik Jethva author

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Updated: November 7, 2023
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