Choosing a new pair of headphones can be a challenge. Should you get in-ear, or over ear? What brand is best? And nowadays a common decision involves the option of getting noise cancelling or noise isolating headphones. What’s the difference? Are noise cancelling worth the additional cost, and what situations and uses are better suited to noise cancellation versus noise or sound isolation?

What is Noise Cancellation?

First off it’s important to know what’s meant by noise cancellation. Noise cancelling is a technological term that refers to the use of inaudible sound waves to cancel out other unwanted external sound waves.

How does it work? Tiny microphones in noise cancelling headphones ‘listen’ to outside sounds, then create an sound humans can’t actually hear to mask it, essentially electronically cancelling it out. The technology is actually far more complex than that, but hopefully you get my drift.

What is Noise Isolating?

Think of ‘noise isolating’ as noise blocking — there’s not really much technology involved. Noise isolation uses physical barriers to block out sound, like thicker padding in ear cushions or a tight fitted seal in an in-ear model. In a nutshell, noise isolating refers to the physical process of isolating your ears from outside sound waves.

Situations where noise cancelling headphones are ideal

  • At the Gym

Working out at the gym usually comes with being forced to listen to someone else’s music choice over the speakers. Too often it’s loud and annoying — or consists of songs you’ve heard way too often.

Noise cancelling headphones can help block out that wanted music, so you can hone in on your own tunes.

The Bose QC 20 are an in-ear noise cancelling headphone so they won’t slip around on sweaty ears.

Another option (with added sport coaching!) is the Jabra Sport Coach.

  • Loud offices, cafes

If you’re one of those people who can focus no matter the noise level around you — congratulations. For the rest of us, having some semblance of quiet is essential. At the office, gossipers, loud phone-talkers, and heavy typists can become a real distraction.

Maybe you work in more public places like a cafe. They too can be a challenge. This is where having a good pair of noise cancelling headphones comes in. You can block out all that distraction and focus on what you need to do.

These over ear models — the Bose QC 35 — can block out distractions easily.

  • Traveling

Business and frequent travelers know there are two things that are important: getting your work done and sleeping well in an unfamiliar place.

Outside noises can disrupt your sleep in large urban centres, while currying babies on airplanes and trains can really mess up those couple hours where you wanted to get some work done before landing.

This is where you’ll be glad to have a pair of Beats By Dre over ear noise cancelling headphones.

If you need to wear some headphones to help you sleep, you’ll likely want something a little less bulky. Check out the Sony’s 1000X in-ear truly wireless earbuds, which can block out noise and still let you lie comfortably in bed.

Situations where noise isolating is better

Maybe you work in a library, or… a morgue, and it’s already quiet. Perhaps you’re a runner and you like to keep tabs on cars and hazards on your route. There are some situations where you won’t want full noise cancellation, and maybe some sound isolation will do the trick.

In that case, save some money on the feature, and invest it instead into an even better pair of quality headphones, like these Beats By Dre Studio 3 Wireless or these by Monster.

There is one more option; a pair of headphones where you can let noise in when you need it and block it out when you don’t. The Jabra Elite Sport headphones use Hear Through technology — which you control — to allow ambient noise in (like the kids getting up to no good) or keep it out.

Before you shop, consider what you’ll be using your headphones for most often, and what your environment is typically like. Once you’ve established that, you’ve got plenty of choices.

Find even more noise cancelling headphones at Best Buy.


Erin Lawrence
Editor TV and Home Theatre
Erin is a journalist, writer, and TV producer with a fascination for technology and a love of gadgets. Check out her blog