Noise-cancelling headphones are a revelation – why didn’t anyone tell me?

If, like me, you’ve contented yourself with any old headphones, it might be time to try something new.

Even though noise-cancelling headphones have been around for a while, I was content to stick with my old, perfectly adequate headphones. They do the job they were made to do, and as the truism goes: You cant miss what youve never had.”  

That was until this past weekend, when I came into possession of the Apple AirPods Pro 2 noise-cancelling headphones.  

Whenever Ive used technology, Ive always been mindful of trying to make it last as long as possible. Partly because I hate wasting money, and partly because I hate the idea of creating yet more environmental waste. But every now and then, there are technological leaps forward that really do justify making that new purchase. And for me, noise-cancelling headphones are the latest example. 

Apple AirPods Pro 2 in their charging caseCredit: Saga Exceptional

What do noise-cancelling headphones do?

Noise-cancelling headphones manage to reduce the amount of ambient noise that you hear while youre wearing them. If, like me, youre someone who likes listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks when youre out for a walk, you may be familiar with those moments when traffic noise (among other things) makes it virtually impossible to hear what youre listening to, without turning the sound all the way up to 11 – which isn’t ideal. After all, studies have shown that prolonged exposure to loud noises is bad for our hearing. 

By using noise-cancelling headphones, we can reduce both the volume of the external noises we are exposed to, such as traffic and roadworks, and in turn, keep the volume down on whatever we are listening to, without compromising the ability to hear whats going on. 

“Noise-cancelling headphones mean I can now thoroughly enjoy the sound of silence.”


How do noise-cancelling headphones work?

While Id love to imagine that a tiny imp is holding an even tinier pillow against your ear whenever a loud noise presents itself, the reality is more practical. 

There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones: passive (sometimes known as PNC); and active (ANC). PNC devices physically soundproof your ears and this type is common in over-ear headphones, which have a cup to cover your ear. 

ANC headphones are a more recent technology and is what were primarily talking about. According to Sony:  

[Active] Noise-cancelling audio devices use a built-in microphone to analyse the ambient sound waves around you and generate the opposite sound waves to reduce surrounding sound.” 

In simple terms, the microphones on your headphones detect the external noise, and immediately generate opposing sound waves to neutralise (or reduce) whats heading your way, in a process known as phase cancellation.

This is most effective for sounds in the low to medium pitch range. So sounds such as traffic, trains and aeroplane noise will be greatly reduced (although not totally blocked). 

Many of the best noise-cancelling headphones, including the Apple AirPods Pro 2, or Sony’s WF-1000XM5, use adaptive noise cancellation. This feature automatically adjusts the level of noise cancellation to suit the level of ambient noise in your surroundings. Overall, this will offer a better experience compared to a set that don’t have this feature. 

Noise-cancelling headphones will also offer some form of transparency mode, that allows you to be more aware of your environment when it suits you. Happily, this isn’t exclusive to premium devices either, and many cheaper models (including Sony’s WF-C700N) will also offer features of this sort.

Featured product

Sony WF-C700N Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

RRP: £99.99

Sony WF-C700N Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Featured product

Sony WF-1000XM5 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

RRP: £259.00

Sony WF-1000XM5 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

There are plenty of benefits to using noise-cancelling headphones, but there are a few potential drawbacks to be aware of as well.  

Pros of noise-cancelling headphones

  • Improved listening experience – by reducing the amount of ambient noise, you’ll enjoy clearer music or speech, and be better able to hear whatever you’re listening to. 
  • Benefits to hearing health – as we mentioned earlier, turning up the volume too high can be bad for your hearing. Being able to reduce the volume on your headphones can protect your hearing.  
  • Reduced ambient noise/overwhelm – for some people, loud environments are unpleasant and sometimes overwhelming. Noise-cancelling headphones can help to reduce the amount of noise you have to deal with and make those environments more tolerable. 
  • Clearer phone conversations – noise cancelling headphones can also help if you use them during a phone call, as they will make it easier to hear what the other person is saying to you, without the distraction of all the noise going on around you (it won’t, however, reduce any noise from their end). 
  • Transparency mode/adaptive noise cancellation

Noise-cancelling cons

  • Cost – prices do vary, but a top-quality set of noise-cancelling headphones will almost certainly be more expensive than a bog-standard set of earbuds, especially those that don’t offer noise-cancellation (although it’s worth acknowledging that you don’t necessarily have to buy a premium product to get the features and performance you want).  
  • Reduced awareness of what’s going on around you – while it’s lovely to reduce the amount of noise around you, there’s an obvious drawback if you’re crossing roads or are in other busy places. There’s a risk that you may not hear oncoming traffic, fire alarms, or other important aural alerts. This means a potentially higher risk of being involved in an accident if you aren’t paying attention. 

My experience

Given the vast benefits of walking, I enjoy going out for a regular stroll. Usually, Ill head out and listen to an audiobook or podcast. My old headphones were generally adequate if I was out walking somewhere quiet.  

But I did notice that as soon as I walked anywhere that was busy, or if traffic passed me, it became extremely hard to hear what I was listening to. In some cases, for example when a bus or lorry was driving by, I would have to consider turning the volume up to maximum to be able to hear anything other than road noise. And as weve already mentioned, thats not good for your hearing. 

I was keen to try the Apple AirPods Pro 2 when I got the opportunity. And in summary, they did not disappoint. From the moment I put them in my ears for the first time, it was like being cocooned in a bubble of quiet. Everything was noticeably clearer, and I have never had to turn the volume up beyond about half on my phone to hear my podcasts.  

This was regardless of the setting. Ive had HGVs, buses, and even an overly enthusiastic Porsche driver going past me, without needing to massively increase the volume. Traffic noise is reduced to little more than a whooshing sound that resembles the sound of the sea a far more pleasant experience than a loud engine.  

Thats not to say that the world was silent. While I did make sure to follow the Green Cross Code every time I crossed a road, I was still aware of vehicles and the outside world. Everything just felt a little further away, and a little less intrusive. For me, noise-cancelling headphones have been a revelation. 

As I wrote earlier, you dont miss what youve never had. But now that Ive experienced the difference high-quality noise-cancelling headphones make, I know Ive crossed the Rubicon. Theres no going back. Noise-cancelling headphones mean I can now thoroughly enjoy the sound of silence.

Featured product

Apple AirPods Pro 2

RRP: £229.00

Apple AirPods Pro 2
Steven Shaw

Written by Steven Shaw he/him


Steven Shaw has been a freelance writer for a variety of outlets, most notably TechRadar. His degree in Medieval History prepared him less adequately for his career than you might expect, but the years spent working in technology focused retail were much more helpful.

Outside of work, Steven is passionate about health and fitness, and particularly enjoys high-intensity interval training, weight training, and increasingly, spending time recovering. Steven loves reading, films and a wide variety of sports. A particular highlight was watching Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar batting together in an exhibition match.

He wishes he could travel more. He can also tell you a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Carolingians. Most of his non-work time is spent with his young children, who are the living embodiment of high-intensity training.