Noise cancellation in headsets: What exactly is it?

by Noise cancellation in headsets: What exactly is it? Daniel Gniazdo

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.

Evolve_80_active_noise_cancellation

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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21 Responses

  1. Pam Presley June 30, 2015 / 09:54

    Will these headsets keep out the sounds of babies crying and/or puppies barking? If not, do you know a set that will? I work from home and need to be sure that my clients will not hear the background noise.

  2. Markus July 28, 2015 / 18:08

    I don’t think passive noise cancellation exists. The term cancellation stands for adding the signal onto itself with inverted polarity so that both signals cancel each other out. This cannot be done passively but requires an active circuit.

    • Daniel Gniazdo July 29, 2015 / 08:29

      Hi Markus,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Sounds like you’re spot on when it comes to the more technical definition. Maybe the word “suppression” better reflects the idea behind passive noise reduction. Wikipedia, for example, uses the more appropriate “passive noise control” in the article about active noise control: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_noise_control

      At present, “passive noise cancellation” is a commonly used headset industry term to refer to the specific scenarios I’ve described above. We can only hope that industry terms will more accurately reflect the technical definitions in the future.

  3. Thomas Garner October 26, 2015 / 10:43

    People who travel to offices do were ear phones or microphones & people who chat and work in offices wear head sets both should have noise cancellation

    • Daniel Gniazdo October 26, 2015 / 12:18

      Hi Thomas,

      You’re right. Noise cancellation can help in any number of situations.

  4. Vik March 4, 2016 / 08:19

    Is both type of noise cancellation available in Jabra stealth and eclipse? Is it already activated or one needs to install some kind of app?

    • Daniel Gniazdo May 3, 2016 / 13:21

      Hey Vik,

      Both the Jabra Stealth and Jabra Eclipse come equipped with dual microphones that help cancel outgoing noise. This means the person you’re talking to will hear you better. You don’t need to get any apps or activate this feature – it’s always on.

      However, neither headset offers active noise cancellation that blocks the noise around you. This usually works best on stereo headsets. However, the Jabra Supreme does offer ANC, even though it’s a mono headset:

      http://www.jabra.com/products/bluetooth/jabra_supreme__new_/jabra__supreme_new

      Hope that answers your question,
      Daniel

  5. tom March 12, 2016 / 11:44

    I`m using the Evolve 80 for quite some time now, and I love it! It blocks the sound from your surroundings just enough that in case your girlfriend keeps talking all the time, you will not be so much distracted but still hear enough to avoid the term “you are not listening to me” XD

    The odd thing of active noise cancellation is that, if you are in example walking,somehow the air pressure you generate with it is also partly reflected in the headset. Therefore I don`t like them being in active noise cancelling mode when I`m walking or doing any other physical activities.

    • Daniel Gniazdo May 3, 2016 / 13:22

      Hey Tom,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s good to hear you’re a fan of the active noise cancellation and the Jabra Evolve 80.

      All the best,
      Daniel

  6. Jose Chinea March 14, 2016 / 12:50

    Hi, I’m an over the phone interpreter working from my home, can I buy one Jabra Biz 24 II directly from you?
    Can this headset be used with a landline dial pad?

  7. Margaret June 14, 2016 / 19:31

    My experience is that the technology is also canceling out the sound of my own voice. When I talk into a phone receiver…I can hear myself talking through the earpiece. This is helpful to let me know if I am talking too loud or not clearly. However, if you turn off that feedback and you have this great protection against sound, you can’t hear yourself talk…it is very muffled.

  8. headsetfactorydirect August 14, 2016 / 12:11

    Plantronics headsets will offer you amazing voice quality which will transport your mood to a different world. At Headsetfactory you will find varying such items for an affordable price. For more information visit our sitetoday.

  9. Anand August 29, 2016 / 11:43

    Its good to hear that now we have the headphone in which noise cancellation facility is available.
    after going through this article i came to know that how much advancement is there going in the field of headphones. Very nice articles.

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  12. Chris Kyle December 19, 2016 / 14:02

    Hi to all,

    It’s one of the comfiest pair of cans on the market, and one of the best noise-cancelling, too. If it had a better sound quality for the vast majority of cell phone users it would be an easy recommendation but, as it stands, really makes the most sense at checkout when purchased alongside Samsung’s Next Big Thing.

    Best regards
    Chris

  13. David Couto January 23, 2017 / 23:49

    Thank you for clarifying differences in noise cancellation. Clearly headphone producers use “noise cancellation” as marketing bait rather than an accurate spec description. I think market needs more regulation to prevent broad misleading labeling of headphones and other supposedly “noise cancelling” devices…but thank you for bringing this up.

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