Teach me about noise-cancelling headphones
May 8, 2020 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations for inexpensive ($60 max) noise-cancelling headphones. I was considering Anker Q20s when they were on sale for $40 a few weeks ago, didn't jump on that fast enough but am now resigning myself to maybe just paying full price. I've never used noise cancelling headphones before so I don't have a sense of how much variation there is or if most things in that price range will meet my needs equally.

I'm sensitive to noise. I've heard varying things about how useful active noise cancellation can be for the sorts of noise that bugs me so I'm trying to have reasonable expectations but at this point it feels worth trying it out. Is there substantial variation in what sorts of noise different headphones can block? I am perpetually sensitive to thumpy bass noise but I've had problems lately with hearing housemates' work-from-home phone conversations (not that loud, just close living quarters and thin walls) and neighbors' footsteps (ditto.)

-main priority is the quality of the noise cancellation, especially when used on its own/while NOT playing music or podcasts
-second priority is comfort (the only "can" style thing I've used recently is some non-adjustable 3M industrial earmuffs, which squeeze my head uncomfortably tightly. Will most headphones be better?)
-I don't care about sound quality, probably anything will be good enough for me in that respect
-I don't need or care about having a microphone
-I prefer something that's on-ear rather than earbuds
posted by needs more cowbell to Technology (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you are not a sound snob, TaoTronics has over-ear ANC headphones in the $50-100 range (with promo codes frequent, so check google if you go for them). I have a set, my husband has Bose that cost more than twice as much, and we find the noise cancellation comparable. I also find the TaoTronics very comfortable and not squeezy at all for extended wear, though I do have a small head.
posted by LadyInWaiting at 8:08 AM on May 8, 2020

As a baseline, Wirecutter budget pick is the aforementioned Anker Q20.
posted by zamboni at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2020

I purchased the Anker Q20 last December as a gift to myself and they've been a lifesaver during quarantine. (My neighbor thinks she's the next Amy Winehouse.) Things to consider: I need to listen to white noise (specifically, the sound of rain) to fully drown out external distractions. The over-ear cups are comfortable but very warm, which isn't great as we head into summer. And I've had some issues getting the headphones to work properly during Zoom calls, but I suspect that may be my fault.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:35 AM on May 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think you need to realize what active noise canceling headphones do. The headphone listens to the ambient sounds and cancel it electronically. They work best at cancel consistent background noise, such as noise from machinery. I have a pair I wear on airplanes and they work great for canceling the background plane noise and actually allow me to hear the announcements and people around more clearly.

The earbud passive style usually work by blocking sound from entering your ear and masking with the music form the source. These will work better where the background noise in inconsistent such as people talking.

You may find it difficult to block bass sound as while the headphones may lessen the sound you hear, you will also feel the sound.

I wish you luck in finding silence.
posted by tman99 at 9:11 AM on May 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have these BÖHM B76 (in black/silver) and I really like them. I mostly use them for mowing the lawn and flights (where I use earplugs and the headphones to help with anxiety). They also work well with a TV at low volume in the room.
posted by terrapin at 9:46 AM on May 8, 2020

I've used an older Anker model ($) and currently use the Sony WH-1000XM3 ($$$) noise cancelling headphones. Even the high end noise cancelling headphones only take the "edge off" human voices and footsteps... in other words, voices and footsteps sound further away than they actually are (but don't disappear entirely). Given your budget and situation, I think you might want to try ear plugs and white noise first.
posted by oceano at 9:58 AM on May 8, 2020

Response by poster: I should have been clearer that I'm not currently looking for other advice about noise or how noise works, just about choosing among sub-$60 headphones, which I have decided to buy to add to my arsenal of strategies.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:10 AM on May 8, 2020

I have misophonia. I've tried multiple more expensive and less expensive over-the-ear headphones.

I've used those 3M earmuffs too (painfully) - almost any noise cancelling headphones you get should be more comfortable.

I'm not a music/sound expert so can't real weigh in on that aspect of it but I have found the noise cancelling functionality to not be very helpful in any products I've tried or to vary much across them. In general it maybe works some for very specific sounds like lawnmowers but not for most stuff.

The headphones I use now and which are my favorites are Bose over-the-ear but not noise-cancelling ones, mainly because they are the most comfortable for all day use, I don't think the sound blocking functionality on the Bose noise-cancelling ones or on the regular over-the-ear ones is significantly better than other, less expensive ones I've tried. For example, I used to have these Edifier noise isolating (not noise cancelling) headphones and they were almost as good as the Bose ones for misophonia purposes, just not as comfortable for long periods of wearing. Basically, while I don't have a specific under $60 noise-cancelling headphones recommendation, I think that if you try any decently reviewed ones, like the ones you linked, you'll get a good enough version of what current noise-cancelling technology can do.

I realize that this is not answering your question, but I don't believe that it's possible for noise-cancelling headphones in silence (without music etc.) to block out most sounds like talking, kitchen sounds, etc. It may not be an option for you, but for me the best solution is over-the-ear headphones playing white noise, with foam ear plugs as well if the situation is particularly bad.
posted by dogwalker3 at 11:54 AM on May 8, 2020

It's not clear if you tried the following, so I want to mention it in case it's a helpful alternative idea. I have a similar problem with being unable to tune out sounds, and the need for silence when trying to concentrate. When we lived in an apartment some years back, out of desperation I tried earplugs after finding headphones and earphones insufficient, and it was a life-changing event. The kind of soft foam earplugs that insert into your ears are very good at tuning out most sounds (for me, anyway – maybe they will for you too). I use Moldex SparkPlugs Tapered Foam plugs most of the time, although if I have to sleep with earplugs (in hotels, or airplanes) I find that Mack's Ultra Soft Foam Shooting Earplugs are slightly softer and more comfortable when the side of my head is pressed against a pillow. I had to experiment with several different brands & sizes before I found ones that are comfortable to wear for many hours on end, so if you do try this route, maybe buy a bunch of different small batches and try them out before buying bulk sizes.
posted by StrawberryPie at 12:23 PM on May 8, 2020

The Anker Q20s are on sale for ~$40 routinely, if you can wait. I got mine for that price a while back and have seen them on Slickdeals pretty routinely at that price. Actually, using the search feature, I see they were available for $43 as recently as yesterday. I love them; they're great as both wireless and wired headphones.
posted by Betelgeuse at 1:44 PM on May 8, 2020

I don't feel any hearing difference yet, but I have been told by doctors that my hearing is gone for certain frequencies and that it is common and the reason is almost always use of in-ear speakers i.e. earbuds/earphones.

I am sure many people who are recommending in-ear headphones in this thread are meaning well, but I'd suggesting reading about how our ears respond to noise/decibels and what are safe and unsafe durations for different decibel levels.

It was a chance test. A hospital was doing free hearing tests where some of us were visiting an admitted friend. Two of us failed some frequencies and we both use earphones quite a lot (though not excessive). After that I double/triple checked with two more doctors just to be sure and yes I have hearing loss even though I don't feel it at all.

I was told not to worry about it, but I had to cut on in-ear sound usage. Because if I didn't it might become noticeably bad. All of them suggested headphones - over the ear ones. They were very specific about it - "over the ear", not on the ear. Preferably noise cancelling (as it helps in lowering the decibels). They didn't recommend any brands even after I asked.
posted by amar at 5:14 AM on May 9, 2020

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