Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Really Cancel All Noise? Here’s What You Need to Know

It is only natural to wonder whether noise-canceling headphones cancel out all noise. Like ear-splitting screaming kids, head-ache-inducing jackhammers, and loud office co-workers – especially because high-end noise-canceling headphones are not cheap!

Noise-canceling headphones do not cancel all noise. They are more effective at canceling low-frequency, sustained ambient noise. Active noise-canceling headphones use microphones to detect incoming sounds and generate opposing phase sounds to cancel out the noise. Passive noise-canceling headphones use noise-absorbing materials to block out sounds.

Even though noise-canceling headphones do not cancel all noise, they are efficient when used in the right environment, particularly if humming noises are driving you to distraction. So if you want to know whether it is worth spending your hard-earned cash on pricey headphones – read on!

Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Cancel All Noise?

How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Cancel Noise?

Before we delve into the pros and cons of noise-canceling headphones, it’s essential to first get to grips with the two main types of headphones and how they block out noise. 

Particularly if you want to invest in headphones that will suit your needs and tune out sounds in your immediate environment, here are the two main types of noise-canceling headphones.

Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

Active noise-canceling headphone technology is mainly reliant on physics. Phase cancellation is based on the principle that sounds move in waves and noisily stir air molecules on their journey.

These sound waves move through the air and enter our ear canal, where they start vibrating in our eardrums. 

However, when an incoming noise is detected by the microphone, the headphones generate opposing anti-noise waves to cancel out the external sounds before they are heard by the listener.

Even though this is a simplified explanation, that’s how all active noise-canceling headphones work.

Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones

In contrast, passive noise-canceling headphones use the concept of noise isolation. Or a physical barrier comprised of high-density foam or other robust sound-absorbing materials to deflect or absorb sound. Therefore, most headphones possess a sound isolation ability.

Even though the best passive noise-canceling headphones can reduce sound by 15-20 decibels (dB), they are cumbersome and incapable of blocking out or muffling sounds like aircraft cabin jet engine noises that range between 75-80 dB. So, there’s clearly much room for improvement!

Do Noise Cancelling Work Without Music?

Fortunately, noise-canceling headphones still work without music. 

So even though playing music enhances your headphones’ ability to tone down ambient noise, The noise-canceling feature can still significantly reduce the ambient noise when no music is playing.

What Kinds Of Noise Do Noise-Canceling Headphones Cancel?

These headphones are more effective with ambient noise or consistent low-frequency sounds (50 Hz – 1 kHz) like air-conditioners, and motors, including airplane engines, and not unexpected loud sounds like gunshots.

Lower-frequency sound creates longer waves that are easier to match or line up. In stark contrast, higher-frequency sounds like screaming babies are far more challenging to line up or silence.

Therefore, most noise-canceling headphones start to falter when sounds reach a 1 kHz level. Although the technology behind nullifying high-frequency sounds is currently in the research and development phase, it will take some time before it is widely used.

Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Block Out Voices?

Human voices tend to be higher-frequency sounds. Thus active noise-canceling headphones that are good at muffling low-frequency sounds will not be that effective.

However, should you wish to muffle high-pitched sounds like loud office co-workers or kids playing in the park? Then, cheap passive noise-canceling headphones (used in recording studios) will be your best option to get a little peace and quiet.

Will Noise-Cancelling Headphones Block Out Dog Barking?

Passive noise-canceling headphones are the most efficient in blocking out the noise of your neighbor’s barking dogs. This is because they are manufactured with robust sound barriers. 

Even though there are several affordable passive noise-canceling headphones on the market, most of the more expensive headphone brands offer the best of both worlds, with active and passive sound reduction features.

Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work At Concerts?

There is much debate on whether noise-canceling headphones work at concerts. Some believe they work in enclosed concert arenas with soundproofing but not in open-air spaces.

While that may be the case, you would be far better off wearing protective earplugs, especially if you plan to be close to the band and the noisy pulsating loudspeakers.

Besides running the risk of losing your headphones and potentially looking ridiculous, they cannot reduce high-decibel sounds or provide any level of hearing protection.

Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Block Construction Noise?

Unfortunately, construction noises ranging between jackhammers and other pounding hammering sounds are incredibly difficult to silence as they consist of high-amplitude sounds.

So, even if you have top-of-the-range active noise-canceling headphones. You will regrettably still be able to hear construction noises in your immediate vicinity.

Do Noise Cancellation Protect Hearing?

Some people assume that noise-canceling headphones provide hearing protection because they cover the ears. However, they do not eliminate all noise and therefore do not provide enough protection in high-noise situations. But they do have the advantage of allowing the listener to hear audio at a lower volume, which can help reduce the risk of hearing damage over time in moderate-noise situations.

Suppose you work in a very noisy environment, such as a loud factory or a construction site, or you are frequently exposed to loud noises in your daily life, your hearing may be permanently damaged if you don’t wear an accredited hearing protection aid.

Can You Use Noise Cancelling Headphones For Shooting?

Gunshots are high-intensity transient sounds and are not continuous. Thus your noise-canceling headphones will not effectively block out the gunshot sounds when you go to the shooting range.

Most importantly, these headphones will not protect your hearing, so use hunter’s cups or earplugs to safeguard your hearing.


Even though most people mistakenly believe that noise-canceling headphones can silence their noisy neighbors, screaming kids, and obnoxious construction workers. They do not cancel all noise due to the laws of physics or phase cancellation. 

However, noise-canceling headphones are highly efficient in tuning out low-frequency, sustained ambient noise like airplane engines and daily public transit commute noises. So, they’re an excellent investment if you want some peace and quiet! 

  • Levi Scott

    Levi Scott is a seasoned tech industry professional with a deep-rooted passion for technology, especially in the realm of wearables. His journey began with building DIY PCs, fostering a skillset that led him to work on innovative tech projects. Levi is adept at demystifying complex technologies and integrating them seamlessly into daily life.