Audiophiles want the best sound quality, and many people believe noise canceling headphones are the best way to achieve that. But are they really? With so many technologies out there, it’s often difficult to determine if you’ll be sacrificing quality for a better listening experience. So, does noise canceling affect sound quality?
Noise canceling can affect sound quality. Good passive noise filtering will often improve your perception of the sound quality because there’s less interference, though it doesn’t really improve the quality. Active noise canceling can adversely affect audio quality because of how it processes sound.
Many variables can affect the extent to which noise canceling technologies affect sound quality. Let’s look at the different ways they can do so and what impact it will have on your audio.
Will Passive Noise Canceling Affect Sound Quality?
Passive noise canceling technology is also known as noise filtering. It doesn’t really cancel out external noise, but it attempts to seal your ears from your environment as much as possible. There’s no sound processing or anything that counters sound waves.
The result is pure sound. The headphones don’t affect the sound quality in any way apart from the quality of the components, so the noise filtering has no impact at all.
However, there will be a difference in how you perceive the sound quality. Because there’s less external interference, you will be able to more easily detect the nuances and subtle audio waves in the music. It will seem like the sound quality is higher than on headphones with poor noise canceling.
Of course, all of this depends on the quality of your headphones or earphones more than anything else.
How Active Noise Canceling Affects Sound Quality
Unlike passive noise filtering, active noise canceling (ANC) has a definite impact on sound quality, and not in a good way. ANC reduces sound quality for two main reasons.
Active noise canceling processes sound waves. Your headphones or earphones have tiny external microphones that detect environmental noise and feed it through processing chips. The earphones then generate sound waves on the opposite frequencies of the noise. The result is that the noise is canceled entirely (if it works 100%, which it doesn’t).
The problem is that many of the noises could be on similar frequencies to some parts of the music or audio you’re listening to. With this in mind, it’s entirely possible that some parts of your sound will be canceled out along with the noise canceling. The result is a definite drop in sound output quality.
This is even worse because many headphones (notably the Apple AirPods Max) also have internal noise canceling. This technology detects noise coming from your body, like the rubbing of the ear cups against your scalp or hair, the earphones bumping as you move around, or even the crunch of food as you’re eating. The headphones try to cancel those sounds, too.
The result is even more anti-noise sound waves, reducing your audio quality even more.
Having active noise canceling in your headphones or earphones means that there will be more electronic circuitry. The headphones must accommodate the noise-detecting microphones, the processing chips, and all the components that connect them and help them function.
Meanwhile, the trend is to make the devices smaller rather than larger, especially for in-ear earphones. So now you have more components that must fit into a smaller package. The result is that manufacturers sacrifice other parts to accommodate the noise canceling.
Consequently, many noise canceling headphones have lower-quality audio drivers than they would have otherwise had. That’s not to say that the audio drivers are low quality, but if the manufacturer did not have to fit noise canceling components into the package, they would have been able to fit better drivers or speakers with the same size and for the same price.
Apart from that, noise canceling needs more power to work as you now have a miniature computer built into the headphones. That processor demands a better battery than you would have otherwise required. The result is that you now have a larger battery in the same package, too, taking up even more space.
How Will The Lower Sound Quality Affect Me?
People constantly argue about whether the reduced sound quality will even be noticeable, and the simple answer is it differs from person to person.
Some people are more sensitive to small changes in sound quality. For example, most people are happy to listen to MP3 audio and believe the statement that MP3 compression only removes frequencies that humans can’t hear anyway. But a small percentage of people claim they can clearly hear the difference.
People usually experience lower sound quality in one of three ways:
- They don’t notice any difference. These tend to be casual listeners who listen to music during their commute or while busy with something else. They may appreciate the reduced noise that ANC offers, but they experience the audio quality as exactly the same.
- They may find the audio quality better. Even though we know that the quality is technically lower, these people perceive it as better with ANC because they can’t hear all the external noises. Some people are easily distracted by other sounds, and when they are absent, they can more thoroughly enjoy their music and appreciate the sound quality.
- Serious audiophiles will notice the difference quite clearly and often prefer a good pair of high-quality headphones with passive noise filtering rather than active noise canceling.
It’s also important to note that manufacturers are aware of these limitations and problems and are constantly working on ways to improve the technologies they develop. ANC and its impact on sound quality are already much better than they used to be, and it will likely continue to evolve in the future.
How To Minimize The Negative Effects
There are a few ways you can try to minimize how much ANC reduces sound quality:
- Buy better quality headphones or earphones. Better quality devices are more likely to deliver better results than cheaper models.
- Keep your environment as quiet as possible. If there’s less noise to cancel, the headphones won’t lower your sound quality as much.
- Try to sit as still as possible. Moving around more will create more noise to cancel, especially on headphones like the AirPods Max with their internal noise canceling components.
- Start with higher-quality sound. If you listen to sound at lower quality settings, active noise canceling will likely make it even worse. On the other hand, high-quality audio (like the lossless audio standards that Apple Music and Spotify now support) will retain better quality even after ANC processes it.
Active noise canceling will adversely affect sound quality, but that doesn’t mean you will necessarily notice it. People process sound differently, and many people still prefer to listen with ANC on, despite the slightly lower quality. It’s a matter of personal preference in the end. If you plan to buy, test out a few models first to see which ones give you the best sound quality.