Noise Cancelling Headphones: Are They Worth it?


So you’re getting distracted at work, while studying or during sleep. You’re left wondering: are noise cancelling headphones worth it? Or should I use a different noise blocking solution?

It’s important to realize that noise cancelling headphones are not a universal solution to every noise problem out there. If that were true, we’d all be wearing them all the time, because noise is a universal complaint. They are great in some situations and not so much in others.

I own a set of noise cancelling headphones and use them occasionally. I think it’s definitely worth having them around because the situations when they come in handy are pretty common. But I’ll also share a few situations when there are better solutions.

That should give you a better idea on whether they’d be a worthy investment for you personally or not. Instead of just saying that they’re awesome in any situation, which simply isn’t the case.

When Noise Cancelling Headphones ARE Worth It

1. Great for studying/doing online work in a coffee shop type environment

For example, you can read a book or do online work in a park or a coffee shop without being disturbed by the loudness of the place.

You can also walk down a busy street and immerse yourself in a good audiobook or a podcast without having to up the volume to an uncomfortable level.

Related post: Best Noise Cancelling Headphones for Studying

2. When it saves you money on soundproofing

Do you have loud roommates, neighbors, or perhaps live in a busy neighborhood, plus the sound isolation in your apartment is crap?

Typically these issues are dealt with by investing in soundproofing products. Which is definitely a good long-term solution. But soundproofing projects can cost a lot of money.

In comparison, excellent noise cancelling headphones can be bought for $100-200. This really might be all you need, especially if the noise is only bothersome occasionally, not all the time.

3. In order to enjoy music and podcasts on lower volume

There is a real danger of damaging your hearing with headphones and earbuds. That’s the case because so many of us increase the volume to a dangerous level in order to deal with external noise.

This is especially prevalent with audiobook and podcast listeners since it’s important for them to hear every word, so they’re extra vigilant about eliminating surrounding noise.

With noise cancelling headphones this problem can be dealt with successfully because they can eliminate anywhere from 20dB to 80dB of noise. Active noise cancelling headphones are superior to the passive ones so they’re the preferable choice.

4. When it’s too noisy to sleep, especially travelling

I’ve addressed the five downsides of wearing noise-cancelling headphones for sleep. Nonetheless, they can be very useful for some sleepers (or insomniacs more like it).

I personally listen to ASMR or binaural beats in bed to get extra sleepy and I remove them afterwards. When I had noisy neighbors on the other side of the wall I frequently fell asleep with my NC headphones on. I’d remove them later in the night when things got quieter and then I’d switch to the side, which is a healthier sleeping position.

Also, if you’re on the go, for example on a bus or an airplane, they can be of great use for getting some sleep in the midst of crying babies and overly talkative passengers.

5. When you can’t focus on work

Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Still Worth it?

If you’re in an office cubicle and there’s a lot of chatter surrounding you, then I don’t have to tell you how annoying that is. Especially if you’re a noise-sensitive introvert.

I have a home office and pretty good sound isolation (I wrote about the best solutions here), but when my sister-in-law and the baby stayed in the adjacent room for a few days, I could barely do any writing without my NC headphones. The crying and screaming were insufferable.

So if you have ADHD or you’re simply noise-sensitive, noise cancelling headphones can be a sound investment (no pun intended).

When Noise Cancelling Headphones are NOT Worth it

1. Shouldn’t be the first option against snoring

I know many people wonder if they should get these headphones to cancel their snoring partner. In my opinion it’s not the first line of defense.

You should tell your partner to tape their mouth with medical tape or use an anti-snoring chin strap first. They can also use those little nose vents that keep the sinuses open.

This can literally stop them from snoring and improve their sleep. If this doesn’t help, then you can consider investing in NC headphones.

2. If you can’t sleep on your back

For most people, it’s a real struggle because you can really only sleep on your back. It’s possible to sleep on the side by moving the pillow a bit higher so that the ear piece is under the pillow.

Perhaps using a special pillow designed for this purpose could also work, but I fail to see how. In any case, it’s not ideal. You’d be better of sleeping with noise cancelling earbuds instead because then you can then sleep in any position you like.

3. If you can’t be bothered to recharge

This may or may not be an issue for you, depending on the availability of additional power sources for recharging purposes.

Active noise cancelling means that the headphones are actually performing an active function to cancel noise. They’re not just passively cancelling noise with the material that’s covering your ears, there is an active electronic component at play.

Regardless of whether they’re wired or wireless, most of these headphones are powered by a rechargeable and/or a replaceable battery. How long a battery lasts varies from one set to the next.

Typically it’s around 20-40 hours and the headphones can be charged through a USB cable and a charger or by directly plugging it into a plugged in device like a laptop.

4. When you’re strapped for cash

Noise cancelling headphones are more expensive than regular ones. Especially the active type, which are superior to the passive. It’s true that you can find ANC headphones for less than $50, but you’ll have to sacrifice something. Either they’re less durable, or more often the sound quality isn’t great. If you’re looking for better quality sound, be prepared to spend from $100 and upwards.

I own the Bose QuietComfort 45 Headphones. They’re definitely not the cheapest, but I’m really happy with how quiet they are AND the sound quality is way better than any regular headphones or earbuds I’ve owned that were similarly priced.

Typically, the opposite is true because the active noise cancellation distorts the sound to some degree. But the Bose engineers are the top Gs of the headphone industry after all.

5. Too dangerous for busy traffic

This point is especially pertinent if you’re thinking about buying NC headphones for a kid. Wearing them outside can be dangerous because they can isolate the person from all the noise. With cars, bikes and scooters around that’s never a good option.

It’s also not safe to walk at night with headphones on. You should be aware when someone is approaching you from any direction, in case they have ill intentions.

Hearing their steps is often the main clue we have, especially if a potential attacker is approaching from our back side. So it’s important to use these headphones sensibly and in a safe environment.

Conclusion: Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Worth it?

To conclude, noise cancelling headphones are worth it if you’re dealing with distractions in different rooms and situations.

The main advantage of having them is their portability. You can minimize the noise or eliminate it completely while studying in a library, a coffee shop or perhaps in your living room while your neighbors are yelling or playing music. This is a big advantage when compared to soundproofing solutions that can only be applied to one room.

The downside is that you probably won’t feel like wearing noise cancelling headphones all the time. They can be uncomfortable to wear while sleeping because you’ll be forced to sleep on your back.

At the same time, there is little reason to use regular headphones when there are excellent ANC headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 45 that sound even better. That way you can have the best of both worlds: great sound quality AND the elimination of noise, except that coming from your conscience!

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