Are Noise-Canceling Headphones Harmful to Your Hearing?

Headphones Harmful to Your Hearing

Noise-canceling headphones are undeniably common, but they aren’t appropriate for everyone. Some people may experience severe distress as a result of active noise cancellation, while others may find that the noises they hoped to suppress are still audible and clear.

Before you buy noise-cancelling headphones, you should know how noise-cancelling technology works and what side effects it can have when it works properly.

Silently suffering

Many people will simply purchase top-of-the-line noise-cancelling headphones, put them on, and relax on their next flight. However, some people can find that wearing noise-cancelling headphones for more than a few minutes causes pressure in their eardrums, a condition known as “eardrum suck” because it mimics the pressure drop experienced while riding a fast elevator. People can end up stuffing their costly noise-cancelling headphones in a drawer (as we did) or throwing them away because of the discomfort.

For some listeners, eardrum discomfort is the least of their concerns; they often report headaches, dizziness, and nausea. And it seems that the more efficient the noise cancellation, the worse the problem becomes. You may be able to solve the issue by turning off the noise-cancelling feature, but then the extra money you spent on noise-cancelling headphones would have been wasted.

Eardrum suck seems to be psychosomatic, since noise-cancelling headphones show no discernible difference in air pressure (and yes, we did try to measure it). We believe it arises because of the way certain people’s brains perceive the dramatic and uneven shift in sound that occurs when active noise cancellation is turned on, after consulting with some engineers who have worked on noise-cancelling headphones. (See our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones for an overview of how successful noise cancellation works.) Even though your eardrums are fine, your brain can perceive this change as a decompression and tell you that they’re being sucked out. However, since the brain controls the body, pain is the outcome.

Active noise cancellation (ANC) is typically only effective at lower frequencies of sound, below 1 kHz. (To hear what such a sound sounds like, watch this video.) This eliminates feedback, or the howl heard when a microphone is placed in front of a PA speaker. As a result, noise cancellation is only available in the bass frequencies (think jet engine noise), but not in the midrange (voices) or treble (hiss from the airplane’s ventilation system).

Thankfully, the results fade away once you avoid using active noise cancellation, and they don’t seem to be long-lasting. Knowing that eardrum suck is a psychosomatic reaction, on the other hand, does little to alleviate the pain.

We couldn’t find any research or papers that looked at how people respond to noise-cancelling headphones. However, with the release of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, a pair of noise-canceling over-ear headphones that can be adjusted on a 0-to-10 scale, we were able to dig a little deeper to help Wirecutter readers make the right decisions about which headphones to purchase.

To get a better understanding of what people’s interactions with noise-cancelling headphones have been, we polled 70 Wirecutter staffers. 18 (52 percent) of the 34 people who said they’d used noise-cancelling headphones said they’d had some amount of discomfort, which they characterised as ear pain, a feeling like their ears wanted to pop, dizziness, headaches, or nausea. Granted, our poll was biassed by the fact that it involved tech-savvy Wirecutter employees, but if we asked random people on the street if they’ve ever had eardrum suck, we’d be detained.

A individual wearing active noise cancellation headphones converses with a person taking notes on a laptop. Someone stands behind the individual who is wearing headphones.

A mobile phone is connected to a set of portable speakers.

A individual wearing active noise cancellation headphones converses with a person taking notes on a laptop. Someone stands behind the individual who is wearing headphones.

The noise isolation of the DirectSound Serenity II headphones is discussed by Wirecutter staff writer Nancy Redd. You can easily get best noise cancelling earbuds under 50x from Amazon.

A individual wearing active noise cancellation headphones converses with a person taking notes on a laptop. Someone stands behind the individual who is wearing headphones.

A individual wearing active noise cancellation headphones converses with a person taking notes on a laptop. Someone stands behind the individual who is wearing headphones.

We then checked 11 employees who claimed to have experienced eardrum suck to ensure that they were actually experiencing eardrum suck and to determine what level of ANC caused the effect. We began by playing a mix of noise captured in four separate jet airliners through portable speakers, and then putting different headphones on our subjects from behind, so they couldn’t tell what they were wearing.

We knew that if our subjects recorded eardrum suck with the DirectSound Serenity II, they were actually feeling some other kind of discomfort, so we disqualified them. At this stage, four people were disqualified.

We then went on to the MEE Audio Matrix Cinema ANC, which we found to have a moderate noise-cancelling effect in our tests, and then to the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II, which we found to have excellent noise cancellation but a heavy eardrum suck. Finally, we asked the participants to put on the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and change them until they find the perfect balance of eardrum suck and efficient noise cancellation.

With the Bose QC35 II and NC 700, all seven remaining test subjects experienced eardrum suck, so they used Bose’s app to tweak the NC 700’s ANC to a point where they didn’t experience eardrum suck but still got a useful amount of noise cancellation. 

Since the outcomes of our test subjects varied so widely, we can’t tell with certainty which headphones will cause eardrum suck and which won’t. We may, however, measure headphones to determine the frequency range at which their noise cancelling is successful, and if it’s close to what we found with the Bose NC 700 at a setting of 4 or 5, we can alert you that the headphones can cause eardrum suck.

Find out if you’re prone to eardrum suck before investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Many Bose stores have active displays where you can try on the headphones. All of the over-ear Bose models we tested will trigger eardrum suck, but not the QuietComfort 20 or QuietControl 30, which are earbuds rather than over-ear headphones—and we’re not sure why earbuds seem to cause the effect less frequently. You may also be able to borrow a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones from a friend.

If wearing noise-cancelling headphones causes you pain, look for a model with adjustable ANC or a pair with a milder (but less effective) ANC. Alternatively, noise-cancelling earbuds like the 1More Dual-Driver BT ANC are a good option. With the exception of the latest Apple AirPods Pro, none of the noise-canceling earbuds we’ve tested have caused eardrum suck.

Even if you don’t get eardrum suckage when you wear these headphones, it’s a good idea to buy from a store with a generous refund policy in case you get a headache after a few hours.

Also Read: Delta Airlines Flight Booking & Managing Phone Number

What are noise-cancelling headphones and how do they work? 

Another factor that might detract from someone’s enjoyment of noise-cancelling headphones is getting unreasonable standards. Many people assume that noise-cancelling headphones would shut out any noise that bothers them, but this is not the case.

As previously mentioned, successful noise cancellation is normally limited to sound frequencies below 1 kHz. (If you want to see what that’s like, watch this video.) The system has the potential to completely eliminate jet engine noise. But what if the noise you’re trying to eliminate isn’t in the low frequencies, where jet engines and Barry White can be heard? What if you want to isolate yourself from the chatter of coworkers, the howl of a neighbor’s dog, or the screams of a distressed child? Other types of headphones may be more effective at blocking these more frequent (and irritating) noises: The actual nature of the headphones—that is, the material the earcups are made of and the way the earpads close around your ears—provides salvation, not fancy circuitry.

Earcups and earpads on many of the best noise-cancelling headphones are designed to block as much mid- and high-frequency noise as possible. Any passive (non-noise-cancelling) headphones, on the other hand, might suffice. Almost any closed-back, over-ear headphones would do a decent job of blocking out the sounds of people talking, children playing, and Starbucks’ gurgling espresso machines. The best passive attenuation over-ear headphones, like the DirectSound Serenity II pair we discussed earlier, can’t fully block these higher-frequency sounds, however they can muffle them to the point that they’re not as distracting.

We’ve found that using earbuds built to go deep into your ear canals, such as the Campfire Audio Comet, the top choice in our best earbuds guide, is the most effective way of blocking higher-frequency sounds. Many audiophile-style earphones with over-ear cable routing, which allows the earphones to go further into the ear and fill up more of the earlobe, have proven to be effective at blocking out ambient noise For more information, visit:


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