If you’ve ever shopped for headsets or headphones, I bet you’ve heard the term “noise cancellation” used once or twice. I can also bet that you weren’t always quite sure what it meant. It’s not your fault: Depending on the context, noise cancellation can mean a number of things, and companies aren’t exactly consistent in how they use the term. Let’s try to unravel the riddle.
First off, there are two broad types of noise cancellation – one in the microphone(s) and one in the headphones themselves. The first type helps the person on the other end of the line to hear your voice instead of the ruckus in the bar you’re calling from. The second type protects you – the wearer – so that you aren’t disturbed by that same bar noise.
Now let’s look at each one of them in a bit more detail.
Noise cancellation in the microphone
This doesn’t actually benefit you directly. Instead, it helps others hear you better. Noise-cancelling microphones are built to pick up your voice while ignoring the background noise. We’ve already covered noise-cancelling microphones in an earlier post.
This noise cancellation can be achieved in different ways, including microphone shape and positioning, digital signal processing, and other tech words. Some headsets even come with a special wind sock that practically eliminates all wind noise.
More advanced headsets use multiple mics to truly take noise cancellation up a notch. How? In a nutshell, the two mics have some distance between them, which means one of them is closer to your mouth than the other. While the first one picks up your voice, the other one picks up more of the surrounding noise. Combined with some digital algorithms, they “subtract” the surrounding noise from the equation, leaving just your voice. This may sound like voodoo, but it works.
Companies use different branding for their dual-mic noise cancellation. Jabra call theirs Noise Blackout™, for example. In the end, the basic principle is the same: Your voice gets the green light, while the background noise is stopped at the door.
So if you don’t want to be the friend who always sounds like they’re in a wind tunnel or on the set of an action movie, a headset with noise-cancelling microphones might be for you.
Noise cancellation in the headphones
This is what most of us tend to think of when we hear the words “noise-cancelling headphones.” It’s what helps the wearer drown out ambient noise and focus on talking to someone or listening to music. You see people wearing these types of headsets on long flights to tune out screaming babies and airplane engine noise.
To make things even more confusing, there are two kinds of this noise cancellation: passive and active. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked…
Passive noise cancellation
This refers to noise cancellation achieved by the headset’s physical features, like design and materials used. It’s really just a fancy term to describe the effect you get from simply wearing the headset. Those bulky earmuffs you see construction workers wearing? Yup: passive noise cancellation.
Passive noise cancellation is best for filtering out irregular, high-frequency sounds, like your colleague Bob who won’t stop talking excitedly about the last episode of his favorite TV show. While this is typically used in music headphones, some new office headsets are also designed to fully cover your ears and block external sounds. If you work in a busy open office, these can be a godsend!
Active noise cancellation
Active noise cancellation uses more advanced technology to – surprise – actively counter noise. Basically, it detects and analyzes the sound pattern of incoming noise and then generates a mirror “anti-noise” signal to cancel it out. The end result is that you hear a drastically reduced level of noise.
This type of noise cancellation works best for steady, low-frequency sounds, like ceiling fans, engine noise, or that same colleague Bob who won’t stop humming the theme tune from his favorite TV show. You usually find active noise cancellation in stereo headsets, which have the chance to block both of your ears and truly eliminate noise, but some mono headsets also use it to help you hear better. You can learn a lot more about active noise cancellation in this article.
Most modern headsets use both microphone and headphone noise cancellation to make the conversation sound better on both ends of the call.
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