If you’re looking for headphones to tune out of the environment and improve focus, you’ve come to the right place. All you need to do is choose between sound isolating and noise-cancelling headphones. On the surface, they sound like the same thing. Nevertheless, they differ in how exactly how they tune out ambient noises.

What is the difference between sound isolating and noise-cancelling headphones?

Sound isolating headphones passively isolate the ear from ambient sounds through their overall design. Over-the-ear options are often tight-fitting and made with extensive padding. Truly wireless in-ear headphones seal outside noise as you push the tips inside the ear canal. They are extremely effective at removing high-pitched sounds. 

In contrast, noise-cancelling headphones electronically remove low humming noises. Built-in microphones detect ambient noises and sounds. An electronic circuit board inside the headphones receives the noise and creates a polar opposite, 180-degree signal to cancel it out. 

The signal is sent to the headphones and the ambient noise is removed in real-time. As such, they’re known as Active Noise Cancelling Headphones (ANC). This feature can be enabled or disabled at any time. Over-the-ear, in-ear, and earphone models are available with ANC technology. 

Jabra Elite Active 75t

How to choose sound isolating or noise-cancelling headphones

How you intend to use the headphones will largely dictate the type of headphones to purchase.

If you have a long commute on transit and want to tune out traffic sounds, noise-cancelling headphones are a good option. This is especially the case when the ambient noise is a low hum like on an airplane or train. Removing ambient noises through active noise cancellation can also help people fall asleep in noisy environments.  

Active noise-cancelling headphones are great in the gym. They allow you to focus on your own playlists and help to keep you motivated while exercising.  

In contrast, sound-isolating headphones work great in office settings with open floor plans. The earpad design does an effective job tuning out ambient noises like nearby conversations and miscellaneous office sounds. This helps you focus on your work while allowing enough ambient noise to hear someone nearby talk to you. 

Marshall Major IV On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones

Final thoughts on sound isolating and noise-cancelling headphones

When you’re shopping, you’ll find more sound-isolating headphones in both style options and price points. These can range from over-the-ear, on-ear, and in-ear earbud models. If you need to focus at work or gaming at home, noise-cancelling headphones are a great choice. They help you get in the zone and keep you focused by eliminating auditory distractions in your environment.  

If you’re an audiophile and want to listen to music the way it was intended, sound-isolating headphones are also a better option. Because there is no active circuitry, the sound is more accurate to the original intentions. 

In short, there’s a variety of ways to reduce ambient noise with headphones. Choosing between noise-cancelling or sound-isolating headphones ultimately depends on how and where you plan on using them. Now that you know the difference between the two, you should easily find the right headphones for you at Best Buy.

Andy Baryer
Andy Baryer aka “Handy Andy” is a technology journalist, gadget reviewer, and DIY/how-to content creator. Known as the handyman of tech, Andy enjoys fixing poor wireless networks, building smart homes, and cooking with the latest kitchen gadgets. He’s a competitive whistler, a budding woodworker, and loves gardening in his home-built smart garden.


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