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Noise Cancellation vs. Noise Isolation

Noise cancellation and noise isolation are two distinct technologies used in audio devices to minimize or block out unwanted external sounds. Understanding how they function – and essentially their purpose – is often misunderstood, though it is crucial when choosing the best fit for your needs. Here we discuss the differences between “noise cancellation” and “noise Isolation.”

What is Noise Cancellation? 

Noise cancellation, also known as active noise cancellation (ANC), is a technology that uses electronic means to reduce or eliminate unwanted ambient sounds. It's commonly used in headphones, earphones, and certain audio systems such as car systems. The primary goal of noise cancellation is to enhance the listening experience by minimizing external noises and allowing users to focus on the audio they want to hear.

1. TechnologyHow Does Noise Cancellation Work?

    • Active Technology: Noise cancellation is an active technology that uses microphones to pick up external sounds and then generates sound waves to counteract or "cancel out" those unwanted noises.
    • Electronic Circuitry: This process involves electronic circuitry that analyzes the incoming sound and generates an "anti-noise" signal.
    • Anti-Noise Generation: After analyzing the incoming noise, the device generates sound waves with the same amplitude but with an inverted phase (180 degrees out of phase) as the detected noise. This is often referred to as the "anti-noise" signal.
    • Addition of Anti-Noise to Audio: The generated anti-noise is combined with the audio signal that the user wants to hear. When the anti-noise is added to the ambient noise, they cancel each other out.
    • Resulting in Noise Reduction: The combined signal (original audio + anti-noise) is then played through the device's speakers or earphones. As a result, the unwanted external noise is effectively canceled or reduced, providing a quieter and more immersive listening experience.

    2. Effectiveness:

    • Effective for Low-Frequency Sounds:Noise cancellation is particularly effective at reducing low-frequency sounds, such as the humming of engines or the rumble of machinery.
    • Less Effective for High-Frequency Sounds: It may be less effective for canceling out high-frequency sounds like voices or sharp, sudden noises.

    3. Power Requirement:

    • Battery-Powered: Noise-canceling headphones require a power source, usually provided by a built-in battery, to operate the electronic circuitry that cancels out external noise.

    4. Use Cases:

    • Travel: Ideal for reducing the constant hum of engines during air travel or the noise of a train.
    • Open Offices: Useful for minimizing background chatter in open office environments.
    • Audio streaming: When hearing protection is not essential, but most importantly you want to listen to music or phone calls coming through the hearing device without ambient sounds.

    What is Noise Isolation?

    Noise isolation, also known as passive noise cancellation (PNC) or sound isolation, refers to the physical blocking of external sounds by using a barrier or seal. Unlike active noise cancellation, which relies on electronic components to reduce external sounds, noise isolation achieves this by creating a physical barrier between the ear and the ambient environment. This method is considered "passive" because it doesn't involve the generation of anti-noise signals.

    Here are the key aspects of noise isolation:


    1. Physical Barrier:

    • Passive Technology: Noise isolation is a passive technology that relies on physical barriers to block out external sounds. 
    • Physical Seals: Noise isolation is achieved through the physical design of the headphones or earphones. The ear cups or ear tips create a seal or barrier between the audio output and the external environment.

    2. Ear Cups & Tips:

    • Over-Ear Headphones: Over-ear headphones typically have large ear cups that fully enclose the ears, providing a physical barrier against external sounds.
    • In-Ear Earphones: In-ear earphones use snug-fitting ear tips that enter the ear canal, forming a seal and blocking external noise.

    3. Material & Design:

    • Materials: The materials used in the construction of the ear cups, ear tips, and any other relevant components play a role in the effectiveness of noise isolation.
    • Design Features: The overall design, shape, and contour of the headphones or earphones contribute to how well they isolate noise.

    4. Effectiveness:

    • Broad Range of Sounds: Passive noise isolation is effective against a broad range of frequencies, including both low and high frequencies. This makes it suitable for reducing various types of ambient noise and providing hearing protection. 

    5. Power Requirement:

    • Noise isolating earmuffs and earbuds on their own do not involve electronic components like microphones and signal processors, and therefore do not require a power source. However, Bluetooth earplugs and earmuffs that provide passive noise isolation as well other functions such as audio listening, will require use of a battery. 

    6. Use Cases:

    • General Noise Reduction: Suitable for reducing ambient noise in various environments, from busy city streets to the loudest of workplace environments.
    • Hearing Protection:Across various industries from musicians to factory workers, noise isolating earbuds or earmuffs enable one to work in a heavily noise polluted environment while protecting their hearing.


    • Combined Approach: Some high-end earplugs, earmuffs, or headphones use a combination of both noise cancellation and noise isolation for more effective sound blocking.
    • Comfort: The effectiveness of noise isolation can be influenced by the fit and comfort of the earphones, earmuffs, or headphones.
    • Price: Noise-cancelling headphones are often more expensive due to the additional technology involved, though that doesn’t mean they’re always the best option for your needs.


    In summary, noise cancellation actively counters external sounds electronically, while noise isolation physically blocks sounds through a seal or barrier. The choice between the two depends on personal preferences, use cases, and the specific environmental noise one wishes to address. Some users might prefer battery-powered active noise cancellation such as Bluetooth earplugs, earmuffs, or headphones for specific scenarios, while others may opt for the safety-rated effectiveness of noise isolation, including Bluetooth options.

    ElginUSA has a wide selection of Bluetooth hearing protection products that not only provide noise isolation to provide hearing safety for the individual, but also for large companies wanting to provide hearing protection for their employees.

    Shopwww.ElginUSA.com for OSHA compliant and ANSI certified Bluetooth earplugs and Bluetooth earmuffs with up to 27 dB Noise Reduction Ratings (NRR), or contact us today to see how we can help serve your company needs. 

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