Sound canceling vs sound-isolating, it sounds like a coin toss. But that tiny difference in wording makes a huge difference in the audible performance of your digital portable music. Reducing the amount of background noise that makes it to your ears while listening will always improve the quality of playback.
Depending on what you are looking for in a pair of music headphones, the competing features could make or break the deal when you are looking to upgrade your listening experience.
Dynamic, not semantic
When you choose the right pair of headphones, you know that it is an instant upgrade for the quality of your whole music collection. Either isolation or canceling will help reveal a lot of detail that you could otherwise miss out on. Although it would be technically possible to have headphones that both isolate and cancel noise, you typically see a company choose one strategy or the other. The difference between the two approaches is significant. Noise isolation is a basic but very effective concept. Imagine earplugs with headphones inside them and you get the idea. The advantage is that there is no extra battery needed, and all external sound is treated equally.
A microphone in the headphone
Active noise canceling uses some pretty sophisticated electronics in the headset. It involves a microphone that picks up outside noise, and then amazingly, plays that exact same noise a fraction of a second later through the speakers in the headphones. The magic here is that this tiny delay takes the noise out of phase. The peaks and valleys of the noise’s wave become exactly opposite in the original against the playback signal, so they cancel each other out. That’s the idea anyway. Most noise cancellation works on specific frequencies, like the low sounds that you would hear in a car or an airplane. If you listen often in such environments, noise-canceling is ideal. For the frequencies targeted, cancellation eliminates more noise than isolation. And these days with so many sophisticated listening options using Bluetooth wireless technology, the headphones already have a rechargeable battery, so you may as well put it to work canceling noise.
The bottom line is that either option will serve you well if you are listening in a distracting environment and want to hear more of your music. And with all the location options that digital portability gives you, this is a hard feature to ignore. Keep an eye out for the frequencies listed in the cancellation headphones. If those fit the noise where you are, go with active cancellation. But for general quiet that fits more unpredictable and varied locations, isolation solutions will serve you well.
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