If you’ve never tried noise-canceling headphones before, you may be wondering how they differ from regular headphones, and with school back in session, now is the perfect time to learn how they can help you work or study. While they do bear some similarities to conventional headphones in the way that they combat background noise, they also have some key differences. Conventional headphones rely on the physical designs of their ear cups (or earbuds) to “block” unwanted noise by isolating your ears from the environment around you. While some isolation headphones do a better job at this than others, it's impossible to block all of the noise from your surroundings, especially in extremely noisy places. So, if you're trying to use conventional headphones in a noisy space, like in a bedroom or office where someone has the TV on in the next room, you end up having to crank the volume up to higher levels to hear the audio over the background noise. This is bad for your hearing and your sanity.
Before this whole pandemic thing, I worked in a fairly noisy row at the B&H offices. Nothing crazy, just the occasional blabbermouth co-worker, absurdly loud construction in the hall, or random laughing fit perpetrated by someone who’s clearly listening to something outrageously hilarious on their headphones. Needless to say, my noise-canceling in-ear headphones came in extremely handy. But now, during these months of working from home, with my daughter home from school, and my wife also working from home, they’ve become indispensable.
When you’re working or studying from home, or in your dorm room, thin walls and loud voices are a bad combo. In my house, it’s either the Bose® or the Jack Daniels.
Noise-canceling headphones isolate your ears from the outside world but take things up a notch by “canceling out” the unwanted noise, allowing you to hear only what’s coming through the speakers, whether that be a teacher lecturing, or your boss taking you to task.
The science behind this technology involves the use of tiny microphones that “listen” for ambient noise that makes its way past your headphones' physical isolation and into your personal listening space. Then, the noise picked up by the microphones is fed into special electronics that produce a signal equal in volume to the original, but with an inverted phase to cancel out the unwanted noise effectively, allowing you to hear your audio in noisy environments without having to raise the volume. Another point to mention is that noise canceling is generally an “active” technology, meaning it requires batteries to work, as opposed to noise isolation being a “passive” technology, meaning that it doesn’t require power.
So, there’s some background on noise-canceling technology. Now, let’s go over some of the best options available to help you work and study more effectively. When you’re shopping for noise-canceling headphones, some questions to ask yourself are how long do you plan on wearing them in each sitting, how much isolation from your environment do you think you’ll need, and do you plan to be active when using them? Another thing to consider is how much talking you’ll be doing as opposed to just listening, because some models feature more robust microphone arrays for picking up your voice than others.
If you’re primarily going to be studying or attending virtual classes, and you anticipate wearing your headphones for many hours of the day, you can’t beat full-size, over-ear style noise-canceling headphones for maintaining the most immersive listening experience. The Bose® Headphones™ 700 are a great solution for the serious worker from home or virtual student. The 700s feature 11 levels of noise cancellation, allowing you to decide exactly how much background sound you want to hear. This is great for working at home with young children, because you can, in effect, “turn down the kids,” rather than blocking them out completely. It’s also a great choice for those who tend to do a lot of speaking on their calls for work, or school, since it sports a 4-microphone array that picks up your voice with clarity and consistency.
If you plan on exercising or running errands in these headphones, in addition to using them for work or school, you may want to consider an earbud-style headphone, like the Sony WF-1000XM3 or the Apple AirPods Pro. These won’t give you quite the amount of isolation from your surroundings that you’d get from an over-ear design, but if you need to be on the move, an earbud will give you the best mobility while still providing ample isolation and noise canceling, for the best of both worlds. Last but not least, if Bluetooth headphones aren’t your thing, and you’re looking for a wired option, the Bose® QuietComfort™ 20 Noise-Canceling In-Ear Headphones are a great choice.
I hope you enjoyed this quick rundown of noise-canceling headphones for school and work. If you have any questions at all, I encourage you to ask them in the Comments section, below.