Renos make headphones sound like a great idea


If the NSW government isn’t going to protect locked-down apartment residents from renovation noise, then I guess we have to take whatever action we can to give ourselves a break from the earache.

One way is to block out the sound and replace it with something less stressful, like music, audiobooks or podcasts.

For that you will need headphones – but which style is best: in-ear, on-ear, over-ear and passive or active noise cancelling (ANC) or noise isolating?

Stephen Dawson, a Hi-Fi expert with online retailer Addicted to Audio suggests a number of options, from budget, through mid-range to top-of-the line, and explains why some work better than others. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this isn’t sponsored in any way – we just think it’s useful information. On the other hand, if someone could just remind my cats that it’s Fathers Day on Sunday …

Sometimes the world around us is simply too noisy to allow real enjoyment of your music. Whether you’re out in the street or in a bustling office or home, there’s a certain level of ambient sound that can mask the fine details and subtle inflections in music.

There are two solutions here. One is to just turn up the music louder, although not necessarily good for the performance of your system, your ears, or for relationships with your neighbours (if using loudspeakers).

The second is to reduce the noise. And since you’re generally not able to place roadblocks across nearby intersections, you’re going to have to do the blocking locally. Very locally, by using well-chosen earphones or earphones.

The conversation around the best headphones can be equally as noisy, so I want to help teach you what to look for in head gear in order to beat the noise.

Passive noise isolating headphones

This is the most common, obvious and traditional way of providing some protection from the noise around you to better enjoy your music. While your headphones or earphones can’t completely block outside noise, passive models can significantly reduce amount of noise that makes it in. On this front, earphones – in particular in-ear monitors (IEMs) are most effective. Since you can’t just stick your fingers in your ears, passive devices attempt to seal off your ears from the surrounding noise while providing the music.

In the case of headphones, that means closed-back and almost always over-ear. Obviously, open-back headphones allow outside sounds to pass straight through to your ears, and on-ear headphones simply don’t seal off your ears as well as over-ear. These headphones need to be worn properly for maximum effect.

How effective passive headphones prove to be depends very much on their design, fit and construction materials. Some are designed with a particular focus on isolating you from outside sounds, for example DJ headphones.

Pros of passive noise isolating headphones 

  • Some offer superb sound quality
  • No batteries or charging required
  • Easy to use

Cons of passive noise isolating headphones

  • Not as effective at beating noise as active headphones or the best in-ear monitors 

 My top picks for noise isolating headphones:

Passive noise isolating earphones (in-ear)

This may seem surprising, but passive noise isolating earphones, if done right, can be noticeably more effective at stopping outside noise than passive noise isolating headphones. The main key to effective noise isolation is achieving a complete seal between the earpieces and your ear canals e.g. In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) for musicians.

The earphones or IEMS with soft tips must be inserted into the outer part of the ear canal to achieve an effective seal. Most commonly the soft tips are silicone, a rubber-like material that is relatively non-allergenic and somewhat more durable.

However, in my opinion the most effective noise isolation comes from earphones featuring “Comfort” or memory foam tips. Easier to insert, within a few seconds I feel the quiet descending as the tip fills my ear canal.

Pros of passive noise isolating earphones 

  • The best passive noise isolation, challenging the best ANC models
  • Extremely high quality sound available from some models
  • No batteries or charging required
  • Compact and easily transportable

Cons of passive noise isolating earphones

  • Not everyone is keen on having earphones in their ears
  • Generally a bit fussier when donning and removing earphones compared to headphones

My top picks for noise isolating earphones:

Active noise cancelling headphones

Active noise cancellation (ANC) is a relatively recent innovation, with the first consumer model appearing in the late 1990s. Active noise cancelling headphones don’t just try to block out noise, they listen to and actively counteract it.

ANC headphones (there are ANC earphones as well) have one or more microphones on the outside of each of their earcups. These microphones capture the sound of the world around you and invert the waveform, process it and feed it into the signal that you’re listening to.

Your headphones then reproduce that sound, mixed in with the music. When a sound is combined with the flipped version of itself, the two waves destructively interfere with each other, cancelling each other out. So, in theory, you will hear neither the outside noise nor the cancellation signal.

In practice, there are compromises and inaccuracies. For one thing, the noise that the microphones capture on the outside is not the same as the noise that makes it through the housing. ANC headphones are closed, of course. That way they can get a head-start on the noise reduction through a bit of good old passive isolation.

Also, ANC headphones are just about always Bluetooth models (although the early models were wired). Most come with a cable so they can be used wired, but the cable typically feels like a low-cost afterthought. Audiophile performance may well be limited.

Pros of active noise cancelling headphones 

  • Highly effective noise reduction
  • Bluetooth convenience

Cons of active noise cancelling headphones

  • Employ a great deal of signal manipulation which can affect sound quality
  • Have to charge them up

My top picks for active noise cancelling headphones:

Which one is best for you?

There is no hard and fast rule. Headphone and earphone choice is a highly personal matter in all ways, including fit, comfort, a secure feel on the head, sound quality and features etc.

Not all passive noise isolation works the same, and not all ANC works the same. The latter, in particular, has gotten much better over time but there are still plenty of headphones and earphones where the ANC has very little effect.

However, broadly speaking, if you’re travelling a lot by air and you want just one set of headphones, then a quality set of ANC headphones are the way to go. Look for ones with a long battery life if your travel includes international flights. (We can only live in hope -JT)

But if the very best quality sound is the highest priority for you, then passive is probably also the best for you.

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