The Difference Between Noise Isolating and Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise Cancelling Workout HeadphonesThe world has become a very noisy place, which can make it very difficult to focus while working out.  If you require or enjoy working out without being disturbed by the ambient noise then you might already own a pair of workout headphones with noise isolating or noise canceling features. But what’s the difference? It is important to know whether you need workout headphones with noise isolating or workout headphones with noise canceling abilities. Choosing properly can drastically effect the amount of noise reduction you actually get from your headphones.

Noise Isolating Headphones

Noise isolating is also called passive noise reduction. Passive noise reduction occurs when the construction and materials of the headphones reduces the amount of background noise that reaches the listeners ears. Passive noise reduction can be achieved with a variety of methods.

The material or padding used in the ear cushions of headphones

With over-the-ear headphones, the amount and type of padding used in the ear cushion will affect the amount of background noise it blocks. Generally, the larger the headphones, the greater the amount of padding that can be used to block out noise. A dense sound-absorbing foam is used in the ear cushions for greater sound-isolation.  The negative of using larger ear cushioned headphones is that they tend to be heavier.

The seal between ear cushion and your ears

If the headphone cups fit snugly around your whole ear, then you will get greater noise isolation then if you are wearing loose or smaller headphones. The type of headphones with the greatest amount of noise-isolation are circumaural headphones which completely enclose the listener’s ear and form a tight seal. One downfall of achieving a good seal around the ear is that sometimes the headphones can be too tight and uncomfortable to wear for extended time periods.

The depth, fit, and material of earbud tips

Passive noise reduction can also be achieved by using some earbuds. High-quality earbuds with gel material earbud tips create a seal in the ear canal to block out external noises. The greater the depth of the earbud will also enhance the noise-isolation. Some earbuds come with different size earbud tips to ensure a good fit. The better and tighter the fit of the earbud tip, the better the noise isolation.

Passive noise reduction or noise isolating headphones can reduce some of the ambient noise so you can enjoy a more relaxing listening experience. This is an important feature with day-to-day headphone use in this noisy world. Passive noise reduction is good at smoothy out those sudden, transient noises such as a dog barking or horn honking. However, the maximum amount of noise isolation that passive noise reduction headphones can achieve is about 20 decibels. That is not much, when you consider that the consistent hum of an airplane from your seat can reach 75 decibels. So, if you are someone who is a frequent airplane traveler or uses your headphones on daily public commutes, then you will probably need the increased noise reduction of noise-canceling headphones.

Here are some of our top picks for noise isolating workout headphones:

Noise Canceling Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones are also called active noise reduction. Active noise-canceling headphones can generally do everything passive noise reduction headphones can do, by using the construction of the headphones or earbuds to block external background noises. However, noise-canceling headphones take it a step further which includes an active process to cancel out or erase the ambient noises. How does this work? there are four main components to active noise-canceling headphones:


Active noise canceling headphones all have a microphone on the outside of the earcup that is constantly sampling the environmental sound. That information is then sent to the next component:

Sound wave inverter

Within the earcup of the headphones is the noise-canceling circuitry which actually takes the sound wave of the external noise (detected by the microphone) and completely inverts it. This results in a sound wave that is 180 degrees out of phase of the incoming sound wave. When the two waves are put together the external sound wave is essentially erased.


The “erased” sound wave is sent to the speaker of the headphones, along with intended sound (audio). The ambient noise is reduced by the “erased” sound wave but does not affect the intended sound wave (your music).


Since noise canceling headphones require an active process to occur, they need energy to produce this response. This energy is supplied by a rechargeable battery, necessary in all active noise-canceling headphones. One negative of this is that it usually results in heavier headphones.

Active noise reduction or noise-canceling headphones will reduce background noises about twice as much as passive noise reduction, or noise-isolating headphones. They are especially efficient when there is a more consistent external noise source, such as the hum of an airplane or traffic noise. So, if you are a constant traveler, or yearn to have a more peaceful listening experience with your music or other audio, then be sure to find a great pair of noise canceling headphones. Don’t be tricked into thinking that if headphones are advertised as noise-isolating that they are doing the same thing as noise-canceling headphones. As you can see from this article, there is a big difference. One easy way to tell is if a battery is required. If not, you are not going to get the added benefits of noise-canceling.

Here are some of our top picks for noise cancelling workout headphones:

Be sure to check out our article on how workout headphones can be damaging to your hearing if not used correctly.  We address the potential need for noise cancelling or noise isolating headphones.

We also want you to be aware that noise cancelling or noise isolating headphones may not be appropriate for the sport you’re involved in.  Make sure you always consider your safety first.