Active noise cancellation sounds great in theory, but can distort your music. Try these alternatives instead for a better listening experience.
Shopping for noise-cancelling earbuds can be overwhelming. If you’re caught between choosing active noise cancellation and passive noise isolation, hear us out—active noise cancellation isn’t the way to go.
In this article, we’ll recommend alternatives to active noise cancellation that offer improved comfort and sound quality.
What’s Active Noise Cancellation?
Active noise cancellation, or ANC, uses built-in microphones and speakers to send your ears phase-inverted audio that neutralizes the ambient noise around you. Essentially, noise from your surroundings is cancelled out with an equal but opposite signal.
Although ANC is a popular and affordable way to eliminate common background noise, there are also some big downsides to be aware of.
What are the Downsides of Active Noise Cancellation?
Ironically, the biggest downside is that it actually distorts your music. Purists beware—no matter how sonically balanced ANC earbuds claim to be, you still won’t hear music recreated as faithfully as possible. You’ll also hear subtle artifacts (often a hiss) looming in the background, which comes from the phase-inverted signal.
To put it bluntly, ANC earbuds aren’t the way to go if you’re hunting for true, uncolored audio without background noise.
The reason companies use ANC is because it’s often cheaper than ensuring a good fit, which naturally blocks outside noise. By contrast, custom earbuds with passive noise isolation, like UE FITS, offer the comfort and premium sound that ANC earbuds lack.
Another downside of ANC has nothing to do with audio fidelity. Because the small microphones used to pick up external noise must receive continuous power, ANC drains battery life rapidly, resulting in fewer hours of listening time.
Bad Alternatives to Active Noise Cancellation
Before we get into our recommended alternatives to active noise cancellation, let’s examine some of the ways people try to overcome noisy environments in the real world—and how they can hurt more than help.
Find Quieter Places to Listen to Music
Some prefer to shut the door and block noise the old fashioned way. We’re fans of noise isolation, but locking yourself away in your room can offer too much isolation if you need to constantly step away from the noise. For some of us, it just isn’t practical.
Turn Up the Music to Block Outside Noise
Think twice before you decide to pump up the jams. Turning up your music too loud is unhealthy for your ears and might ruin your ability to hear effectively. Over time, listening at extremely loud volume levels may afflict you with a permanent form of noise cancellation—loss of hearing.
Start your engines? NASCAR engines and environments reach sound levels as high as 130 dB, which can cause hearing damage in as little as 30 seconds. Those big ear muffs are great for shooting ranges or activities that involve extreme volume, but we don’t recommend them for isolating your earbuds because they’re bulky and uncomfortable.
Actual Alternatives to Active Noise Cancellation
Are you open to some better solutions than ANC? Let us steer you in the right direction. Here are some recommended noise-cancelling alternatives that offer better passive noise isolation, so you can enjoy your music exactly the way the artists intended it to be heard.
Unlike ANC, passive noise isolation naturally blocks out ambient noise by creating a seal between the music and the environment around you. All earbuds or headphones offer some level of passive noise isolation, but it’s minimal. Custom-fit options, on the other hand, can offer as much noise reduction as ANC while maintaining the purity of the music you’re listening to.
For efficient passive noise isolation, consider custom-fit earbuds. Custom-fit earbuds use passive noise isolation to block ambient noise, so they don’t require ANC. The custom fit means you won’t suffer from the physical factors of earbuds that lead to ear fatigue or physical discomfort.
UE FITS are the world's first Quick Custom-Fit, Truly Wireless earbuds that mold to the unique shape of your ears in under 60 seconds, blocking noise naturally and leaving you with full, warm and detailed sound.
If you’re looking for a listening experience that’s an upgrade from off-the-shelf earbuds, custom-made earphones are the next step up from custom-fit earbuds like UE FITS.
Handcrafted earphones like the UE CSX range reach the first bend of the ear canal for a listening experience that offers even more noise isolation than custom earbuds—up to 26dB of noise reduction.
In addition to superior noise isolation, handcrafted earphones produce a clean frequency response that spans wider than the nominal range of most ANC earphones, which usually stops at 20kHz. UE CSX earphones produce treble frequencies up to 40kHz. On the bottom end, you’ll be able to feel tight bass at depths as low as 5Hz.
In-ear Monitors (IEMs)
Like our CSX earphones, our UE PRO IEMs, offer 26dB of noise reduction—that’s on par with a lot of ANC offerings—without sacrificing fidelity. The difference is the fit. IEMs reach the second bend of the ear canal, which gives a more secure fit while moving around on stage compared to CSX earphones.
UE PRO IEMs offer superb isolation, transparency, clarity and extra dynamic range. For a balanced sound, the crossovers are carefully designed to ensure an even reproduction of bass, mid and high frequencies across a wide spectrum.
A Better Way to Block Noise
Overall, ANC isn’t as effective as passive noise isolation when it comes to blocking outside noise while retaining the purity of the music you’re listening to. Despite its ability to block sound, ANC presents more negatives than positives, including decreased battery life, less fidelity and unwanted hissing. Instead, choose a custom solution with passive noise isolation.