Noise-Canceling Things
June 6, 2011 5:48 PM   Subscribe

Noise-canceling headphones, or noise-cancelling earbuds, or earmuffs, or earplugs, or some combination? I need to protect my ears from both subway noise and loud co-workers.

I tried earplugs on their own, and they don't work very well. I've never used noise-cancelling headphones/earbuds, so I don't know how well they work, but I heard they can only block white noise and don't work on voices. They're also very expensive, so I'm thinking about other options.

I had the idea of using earmuffs--the type that construction workers have--since they must be able to block a lot of noise and are cheaper than fancy headphones. And if I had earmuffs, wearing earplugs under them would work even better, or on the subway I could listen to music by wearing my regular earbuds underneath. (No, I don't care about looking ridiculous.)

I want to figure out how to combine any of these to get maximum noise-blocking capability. Let me know if you've tried any of them, especially if you've tried more than one.

Specific questions:
1. Can noise-canceling headphones block voices or other irregular sounds?
2. How do earmuffs compare to earplugs and noise-canceling headphones in terms of effectiveness?
3. Is there any reason I would not be able to wear earmuffs and earbuds at the same time?

By the way, if I get headphones, I don't care at all about sound quality--especially since I won't be listening to music while at work.
posted by Chicken Boolean to Technology (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Earplug sound isolation varies widely, and is measured by its noise reduction rating (NRR) in decibels (dB). I use these for shooting (guns), and if they can block out gunshots they can probably block out human voices. These other ones might be better, but I haven't tried them. I also found this review of a bunch of different types of earplugs.
posted by mnemonic at 5:52 PM on June 6, 2011

Instead of earmuffs/earbuds, I'd recommend you go with in-ear earbuds, especially those with foam tips. Superb noise isolation even without any music playing, and with music it's like being alone in your own little world - when I use them at work, people have to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.

I use Westone UM1s myself, but that might be overkill for you, especially if you don't care about sound quality.
posted by Xany at 6:09 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

My partner and I share a pair of Audio Technica noise-cancelling headphones. When the noise-cancelling function is on, I can barely hear other people, and even myself, speak. I would recommend that you listen to music with noise-cancelling headphones though. You'll get so much more out of your music. And it'll block out just about every human voice around you.

You can go to a Bose store to see how they work, then shop around to see if you can get anything cheaper if price is an issue. We got the Audio Technicas for that reason as they got pretty good reviews too.
posted by peripathetic at 6:09 PM on June 6, 2011

I've tried most of these options, both on the subway and in an office.

I've only tried a few of types of earplugs that you can get at the drugstore -- foam and plastic. Those industrial earmuffs are a little less effective at blocking noise than earplugs.

Wearing earplugs inside of earmuffs worked a little better, but when you have to remove them to talk to a coworker, it's a pain in the neck. I stopped doing that after one day. Also, you need to use the foam earplugs; the plastic ones stick out too far, and the earmuffs press them back into your ears.

I have a pair of Sony in-ear-canal earphones (EX-81?). About as good as earplugs if you're sitting still. However, if you walk around, the cable rubs against your shirt and the vibrations sound really loud in the earphones.

I also have a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. They are great for walking around or riding transit -- they reduce the ambient car- or train-noise considerably. They do not cancel voices, though; they only reduce the volume a little. In the office, the noise cancellation alone is not enough to drown out my coworkers. But listening to music through them usually works.

I've never tried earphones inside earmuffs, but I imagine they might get dislodged by the pressure of the earmuff on the earphone cable.

I'm pretty happy with the Bose headphones, but I can listen to music at work. (Disclosure: work paid for them. But I think they're worth it.) Seriously though, somebody needs to step up and invent a cone of silence.
posted by blue grama at 6:14 PM on June 6, 2011

In-ear headphones will work better than noise-cancelling headphones for this.
posted by grouse at 6:20 PM on June 6, 2011

I would recommend that you listen to music with noise-cancelling headphones though. You'll get so much more out of your music. And it'll block out just about every human voice around you.

I came in to recommend the exact opposite of that, but since you don't care at all about sound quality, active noise cancelling headphones are probably what you're looking for in the "headphone only" department.

Although I'm guessing that if you go with the "earmuffs overtop of in-ear headphones" solution, the earmuffs will possibly interfere with the active noise cancelling features of the headphones, rendering them effectively passive earplugs.

But no matter what combination you choose, ditch your earbuds for real in-ear monitors (IEMs). Your earbuds are quite probably causing your hearing damage if you are using them in public at volumes that you can hear them. IEMs will passively block sound, which allows you to listen to your music at much lower volume.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:22 PM on June 6, 2011

Response by poster: Do earmuffs have enough space inside to fit earbuds underneath? I assumed they would because they're big, but I really have no idea.

And are "in-ear earbuds"/IEMs basically just earbuds surrounded by earplug material?
posted by Chicken Boolean at 6:36 PM on June 6, 2011

In my experience, noise-cancelling headphones really don't work all that well - They'll remove well-behaved sound (whines and hums that remain more-or-less constant over at least a few seconds at a time); they'll remove low frequency noise (the sort you feel more than hear, so take that with a grain of salt); but things like white noise and speech, not so well.

Ear plugs (good ones) may work best; Personally, though, I find they make my ears ache after a few hours of wearing them (though you could probably get something custom-fitted to reduce that effect).

BTW... Coworkers? Do you work in a call center or something with a high level of background noise?
posted by pla at 6:38 PM on June 6, 2011

With my Shure SE115 ear buds in, I can't hear a damn thing happening in the outside world. I commute via motorcycle 80 miles a day 5 days a week, and I can listen to podcasts at a pretty low volume and they still block out the wind noise under my helmet. Occasionally I'll hit the end of a playlist and the audio will stop, and at that point I think it's still a quieter ride than even using ear plugs.

It looks like they're discontinued, but when they finally die I'll probably replace them with the Shure se215.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:59 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Can noise-canceling headphones block voices or other irregular sounds?

Noise canceling headphones basically don't work against sudden or irregular sounds. If the background murmur of voices is fairly constant, it can make a difference. There are noise canceling earplugs/earmuffs intended for loud sudden noises, they are normally marketed toward people using guns or really loud machinery. For example the">Etymotic BlastPLG

2. How do earmuffs compare to earplugs and noise-canceling headphones in terms of effectiveness?

They can be in the same general range of NRR of 18-24 dB.

3. Is there any reason I would not be able to wear earmuffs and earbuds at the same time?

Some earbuds (including my favorite ETY Plugs) have a bit sticking out from the ear that will run into the earmuff.

I regularly use these AO Safety Folding Earmuffs combined with Etymotic hf3 headphones (the headphones provide noise reduction just like earplugs) when in server rooms. For lengthy wearing, those particular earmuffs are hot and not entirely comfortable. When working with someone in a server room, I use the ETY Plugs (link above) as they dull all noise in a reasonably consistent way, which means I can still generally hear my partner talking to me.

Both the Etymotic earplugs and the headphones take time to insert and get seated. As much as I love the headphones, I can't practically use them at work as it takes too long to take out and put back in. I use AKG K-271 MKII headphones at work. These are closed back and sit around the ear. They muffle a good portion of the noise in cubicle land and with some nice Brian Eno or light classical I hear little around me.

A former job had AO Safety Professional Hearing Protector earmuffs inside the server room door for IT use. They were much more comfortable and easier to take on and off.
posted by fief at 7:00 PM on June 6, 2011

I haven't tried it, but someone recommended custom earplugs to me when I asked about coping with my spouse's snoring. You would go to an audiologist to get them made.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:13 PM on June 6, 2011

I came here to recommend my Shure's as well, which I bought after asking this related question. I have the 215se (which replaced the previously mentioned 115se) and I am so impressed at their sound isolation abilities. I found I did have to use the foam tips though for them to be really effective (they come with both foam and rubber tips). It also took my ears a little while to adjust to having them in (they're almost like hearing aids in how you wear them) but once I got past that, it's been awesome.
posted by cgg at 7:20 PM on June 6, 2011

Nthing any Shure earbuds. The best reason to get Shures is the warranty, the second-best is the differently-sized tips of varying material that you can use to get the best fit, which obviates most of the complaints folks have about earbuds: poor fit, vibration, pain, sound quality. Some people like Etymotics more, but six of one, half dozen of the other.. YMMV. The sweet spot for either seems to be just under $100.
posted by kcm at 7:29 PM on June 6, 2011

And are "in-ear earbuds"/IEMs basically just earbuds surrounded by earplug material?

Basically, yes.
posted by Xany at 11:09 PM on June 6, 2011

I am wearing these headphones (from a previous answer) right now, and they have served me well for years now. Noise, especially conversation, really, really (really...really) bothers me when I am trying to concentrate, and these work for me. They are those industrial earmuffs with headphones sort of rigged inside them. I know I look like a huge dork but conversation bothers me so much that I would do pretty much anything to escape it when I am trying to concentrate, and now I don't think twice about wearing these things under whatever circumstances.

If I don't want to listen to music, I pipe in some white noise instead, either via my computer or an MP3 player. I have tried earplugs, in-ear earbuds (fancy noise cancelling ones), wearing earplugs underneath the earmuffs, and this is what works best for me. It is also nice because if someone needs to get my attention I can easily remove one side of the whole setup to talk to them, then replace it without having to mess with earplugs or in-ear earbuds or whatnot.

Also, this may pass with time, but I find the sound of my own breathing starts to sort of freak me out when I use the earplugs + earmuffs combo, and the white noise prevents that problem nicely, so I don't find myself getting dizzy after realizing I've been holding my breath for way too long.
posted by ZeroDivides at 12:33 AM on June 7, 2011

Also, these have an advantage for me over just wearing the earmuffs over in-ear earbuds, because it's more of a production taking it off if someone needs to talk to you (like earplug + earmuff) and I don't think earbud + earmuff would be very comfortable.
posted by ZeroDivides at 12:36 AM on June 7, 2011

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