Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating Headphones– What’s the Difference?

Noise Canceling VS Noise Isolating Headphones

We love listening to our favorite music tracks and getting lost in our world of music. But we hate the noise that invades our imagination.

You must have come across the term “noise-canceling/isolating headphones” when you went to buy one and the salesman told you that this pair of headphones will cancel out maximum external noise so there are no disruptions in your musical world.

True that. But people often mistake the two terms “noise-canceling” and “noise-isolating” for synonyms. In reality, they are two different ways of canceling out external noise.

Let us dig into the details.

Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating Headphones- What’s the Difference?

Noise Canceling-

ANC headphones mechanism
Source: Gadgetbyte

The mechanism is that there is a built-in additional microphone that picks up the external noise signals, creates their exact opposite signals, and sends them to the driver(s).

These two opposite signals (the real noise signal and the created opposite signal) then hit your ears and cancel each other out. Thus, only the desired music signals are left for you to hear and enjoy. It’s as simple as that.

It is also known as Active Noise Cancellation or ANC.

Noise Isolating-

PNC headphones mechanism
Source: TechBesty

On the other hand, Noise Isolating or Passive Noise Cancellation or PNC depends on the physical attributes of the headphones.

Here, the ear cups are designed to seal your ears and block out maximum external noise (depending on the design: open-back, closed-back, over-ear, on-ear). The ear cups are generally made of soft and thick material like memory foam to snuggly fit over your ears and block out noise.

The in-ear earphones (like IEMs) can also be noise-isolating earphones. They are ergonomically designed to fit securely inside your ear canal and form a sealed chamber. The ear tips are made from different materials and come in different sizes to suit different users.

Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating Headphones- Summary of the Differences

Noise CancelingNoise Isolating
It has a built-in microphone to pick up the external noise signals and create its opposite signals to cancel them out. The ear cups are ergonomically made and designed to seal the ears and block out external noise.
Active Noise CancellationPassive Noise Cancellation
Battery-powered Requires no power
Perfect fit is not as crucialPerfect fit is crucial
Better for low-frequency soundsBetter for mid to high-frequency sounds

Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating Headphones- Which is Better?

Ooh, that’s a tricky question to answer. We’ll try our best.

Noise Isolating headphones block out the noise but don’t fully cancel the noise. Now, the extent of reduction depends on the design of the headphones and the surrounding dB as well.

Noise Canceling headphones too reduces the sound and does not exactly cancel out the noise by creating opposite signals. Basically, “+” cancels out “-” and makes 0 (silent point).

The thing is, Noise Canceling or ANC headphones work best for low-frequency droning sounds (on an average 30dB). Like, if you’re on an airplane, the “roar” of the airplane would be reduced to a lot of extent but not fully. A louder hum would be reduced to a quieter hum but not fully silent.

But ANC headphones don’t do much with higher frequency sounds (like human voice). And that’s where PNC headphones come.

Noise Isolating or PNC headphones work best for mid to high-frequency sound (by about 15dB to 30dB). Like, if you’re in a crowded place, PNC headphones will help you get immersed in your world of music. At the same time, it allows you to hear if someone’s talking to you or external emergency signals.

So, which is better?

That really depends on what noise you’re hoping to cancel out. People do often look for ANC headphones but they have little to contribute in crowded/busy areas. PNC headphones are better for blocking out human noise but they don’t work well with droning sounds.

Here are some general pros and cons of the two types of noise-canceling headphones that might help you figure out which suits you best:

Noise Canceling Headphones

Noise Isolating Headphones

Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating Headphones- Which one should you pick?

  • Gym– If you want to be completely immersed in your own choice of music, a pair of ANC headphones is the better choice. (Suggestion: Beats Fit Pro)
  • Traveling– If you travel often via airplanes where the cabin is crowded and worse, you’re seated near the engine, a pair of ANC headphones is the better choice (the reason why Dr. Amar Bose invented the first ANC headphones). (Suggestion: Marshall Monitor II A.N.C)
  • Crowded/Busy places– In such places where there are too many people but you need to hear if someone’s talking to you, a fitting pair of PNC headphones is the better choice. (Suggestion: Sennheiser HD 559)
  • Study Time– It’s the time when you need to fully focus and ANC headphones work best for this purpose. (Suggestion: Bose QuietComfort 35 II)
  • Gaming– You need to fully focus on the game audio as well so ANC headphones, again, are the better choice, (Suggestion: JBL Quantum ONE)
  • Working with loud equipment- ANC headphones can work pretty well to block out the equipment sounds if earmuffs ain’t doing it.


What is the difference between Active Noise Cancelation and Passive Noise Cancelation?

ANC refers to the system that creates an opposite signal to cancel out the real noise signals. PNC refers to the sealed ear cups that block out external noise. ANC is suitable for low-frequency sounds whereas PNC is better suited for mid to high-frequency sounds.

Do PNC headphones work?

Yes, they work effectively. They work for a wide range of frequencies (mid to high) and effectively block out external noise. As the system is so simple and there is no electronic mechanism behind it, the original music is not altered or affected.

Are ANC headphones better than PNC headphones?

When it comes down to “reducing external noise”, ANC headphones are the winner. But they’re generally for low frequencies so a pair of headphones with both ANC and PNC features exceeds all.


Nowadays, people often look for ANC headphones but it is not necessary that they will suit your needs every time. You should first decide in what situation you’re gonna need it and opt for the one that suits your needs.

There are also headphones having both Active and Passive Noise Cancellation features. You can choose a pair of ANC headphones with also the PNC feature to get the best results.

But if you’re on a budget, you should go for PNC headphones which are relatively cheaper. But you can also find cheaper ANC headphones, however, their quality is not guaranteed.

Overall, both PNC and ANC headphones are safe to use but the comfort depends on the user. Theoretically, ANC focuses more on the internal electronics than the earcup seal so they should be more comfortable.

To wrap it up, you should always choose a pair of headphones with noise canceling/isolating features as it protects your ears from hearing loss (if you use them right) and makes the experience all the more immersive.

Noise cancellation headphones do protect your hearing ability but prolonged use of headphones may result in hearing loss! Tap to know more: Can headphones make you deaf?