Noise-canceling vs. noise-isolating while gaming: What's the difference?

It’s not a trivial difference. Depending on how you intend to use them and a few other factors, you might be more interesting in noise canceling over noise isolating, or vice versa. Here’s the difference.

Noise isolating is, basically, passive, something to wedge in your ears to block out sound. And noise canceling works are actually rather cool. Microphones built into noise-canceling headphones listen to and analyze the sound waves of the world around you. Then, an inverse of that wave is created by the headphone. Sending a trough when there’s a peak, and sending a peak when there’s a trough. Sending a compression when there’s a rarefaction, and sending a rarefaction when there’s a compression. When the «real» sound of the outside world and this manufactured «opposite» sound hit your ear, they cancel each other out.

Instead of waves if you want to think in numbers, if the outside world is creating a +1, the headphones create a -1, so your ear gets a 0. The sweet 0 of silence. Well, mostly. But we’ll get to that.

Done well, the results are impressive. The best noise canceling headphones can reduce certain noises significantly. They work best on droning sounds. Aircraft engines and car tire are a great example. However, most sounds are not affected by noise canceling. Fast, transient sounds, like an alarm beeping, or higher-frequency sounds like babies crying, aren’t going to be reduced by much, if at all. They reduce sound, they don’t really «cancel» it.

As you’ve probably figured out by reading this far, noise isolating is the far easier way of reducing noise. It’s basically the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears, though probably a bit more comfortable.

Most in-ear headphones that go into your ear canal are, to some extent, noise isolating. How much ambient sound noise-isolating headphones reduce is a combination of their design. In our case, our headphones are made to fit in your ears. However, everyone’s ears are different, and getting the right fit is crucial with any headphone. Doubly so if you’re trying to keep out the noise around you. Not only will a bad fit let in more ambient noise, but it will «let out» bass. Changing the foams on your earbuds regularly could radically change the sound, and perhaps greatly improve their noise isolation abilities.

The main advantages of noise isolating headphones is that they’re typically cheaper than noise canceling and they’re passive. No batteries.

Presuming you get a good fit, and they’re made to isolate sound, you can get a fair amount of noise reduction with noise-isolating headphones. They’re far more reliant on fit, however. A good set of noise-canceling headphones will outperform all but the most heavy-duty noise-isolating headphones, at least when it comes to situations like playing video games.

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