Noise-canceling headphones seem like an oxymoron: a piece of audio technology that creates silence, rather than noise. They’re useful on planes, in crowded offices, and for light sleepers trying to catch some shut-eye in a thin-walled apartment, but how can a pair of headphones make sound disappear?
The first component of noise-canceling headphones’ formula for success is passive noise control, or the slightly more sophisticated technological equivalent of putting your hands over your ears to block out incoming noise. Certain ear buds or headphones are shaped specifically for the purpose of physically preventing sound waves from reaching your ears; these are the types generally marketed as “noise-isolating.” Whether by creating a closer external seal around your ears and using sound-absorbing material like high-density foam, as in the case of headphones, or simply fitting better into the shape of your ear canal, as in-ear buds do, noise-isolating accessories can block up to 20 decibels of background sound.
When 20 decibels of quiet won’t quite cut it, noise-canceling headphones step in with active noise control, or ANC. Pioneered by MIT graduate and Bose Corporation founder Amar Bose and inspired by the intolerable loudness of jet engines on a transatlantic flight, ANC technology is what distinguishes noise-canceling headphones from noise-isolating headphones. Rather than simply preventing unwanted outside sound from reaching a listener’s ear, ANC uses “destructive interference” to cancel out ambient noise. The process involves placing a microphone as close as possible to where sound will be entering the ear, which will pick up on the frequencies of the incoming noise; the headphones will then generate a frequency exactly 180 degrees out of phase with the unwanted noise—an “anti-noise” output that directly cancels out the input. While ANC is most effective at lower frequencies, noise-canceling headphones can reduce overall noise by up to 80 decibels—just about the amount of irritating background racket produced by commercial jet engines, so you can get at least some peace and quiet on your long-haul flight to wherever.