Are noise cancelling headphones bad for ears?

Last Updated on July 9, 2024 by Nurul

Noise cancelling headphones have become increasingly popular due to their ability to enhance the listening experience by reducing unwanted ambient noise. Whether you are in a busy office, a noisy airplane, or simply trying to focus on your favorite music or podcast, noise cancelling headphones offer a solution. However, concerns about their impact on ear health have also risen.

This article aims to explore whether noise cancelling headphones are bad for your ears, delving into the technology behind them, their benefits, potential risks, expert opinions, scientific research, and tips for safe use.

What are Noise Cancelling Headphones?

Definition and Types

Noise cancelling headphones come in two main types: Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) and Passive Noise Cancelling.

  • Active Noise Cancelling (ANC): This technology uses microphones to pick up ambient sounds and then generates sound waves that are the exact opposite (anti-noise), effectively cancelling out the noise.
  • Passive Noise Cancelling: This type relies on the physical design of the headphones to block out noise, often using materials that create a seal around or in the ears.

How Noise Cancelling Technology Works

  • Microphones and Sound Waves: ANC headphones have built-in microphones that detect external noise. The headphones then produce an anti-noise signal that matches the frequency of the external noise but with an inverted phase.
  • Creating Anti-Noise Signals: This anti-noise signal effectively cancels out the external noise, allowing the user to hear only the audio content from the headphones.

Benefits of Noise Cancelling Headphones

Enhanced Listening Experience

  • Improved Sound Quality: By reducing ambient noise, noise cancelling headphones allow users to enjoy their audio content without needing to increase the volume, which can be beneficial for hearing health.
  • Reduced Ambient Noise: They are particularly effective in noisy environments like airplanes, trains, or busy streets, providing a quieter and more immersive listening experience.

Health Benefits

  • Lowered Stress Levels: Reducing exposure to constant noise can lower stress levels and improve overall well-being.
  • Prevention of Hearing Damage in Noisy Environments: By not needing to turn up the volume to overcome background noise, users can protect their hearing.

Increased Focus and Productivity

  • Better Concentration in Work and Study Environments: Noise cancelling headphones can help block out distractions, making it easier to concentrate and be productive.
  • Enhanced Sleep Quality During Travel: They can be useful for improving sleep quality on long flights or in noisy accommodations by providing a quieter environment.

Potential Risks of Noise Cancelling Headphones

Ear Health Concerns

  • Pressure Sensation in Ears: Some users report feeling a sensation of pressure in their ears when using ANC headphones, which can be uncomfortable.
  • Potential for Tinnitus: There are concerns that prolonged use of ANC headphones may contribute to tinnitus, a condition characterized by ringing in the ears.

Psychological Effects

  • Feeling of Isolation: By blocking out external sounds, noise cancelling headphones can create a feeling of isolation, which may not be desirable in certain situations.
  • Over-Reliance on Noise Cancellation: Relying too heavily on noise cancelling headphones can make users less tolerant of everyday noise, potentially affecting their ability to function in normal environments without them.

Hearing Damage

  • High Volume Usage: Users may still turn up the volume to levels that can cause hearing damage, especially if they are not mindful of safe listening practices.
  • Prolonged Listening Periods: Extended use of headphones, in general, can strain the ears and potentially lead to hearing issues.

Expert Opinions on Noise Cancelling Headphones

Audiologists’ Perspectives

  • Common Concerns: Audiologists often express concerns about the potential for increased pressure sensation and the risk of hearing damage if users are not careful with volume levels.
  • Recommended Usage Guidelines: Experts suggest following the 60/60 rule (listening at 60% volume for no more than 60 minutes at a time) and taking regular breaks to protect ear health.

Manufacturers’ Stance

  • Safety Features: Many manufacturers incorporate safety features such as volume limiting and sound monitoring to help protect users’ hearing.
  • User Manuals and Warnings: Manufacturers provide guidelines on safe usage, often including recommendations for volume levels and duration of use.

Scientific Studies and Research

Overview of Key Studies

  • Results and Findings: Research on noise cancelling headphones has shown mixed results, with some studies indicating potential risks while others highlight their benefits for reducing overall sound exposure.
  • Implications for Users: Users should be aware of both the benefits and risks and follow safe listening practices to minimize any potential negative impacts.

Comparison of Noise Cancelling vs. Non-Noise Cancelling Headphones

  • Hearing Health Outcomes: Studies comparing the two types of headphones suggest that noise cancelling headphones can be beneficial for hearing health when used properly, as they reduce the need to increase volume in noisy environments.
  • User Satisfaction and Comfort: Users generally report higher satisfaction and comfort with noise cancelling headphones, especially in noisy settings.

Tips for Safe Use of Noise Cancelling Headphones

Volume Control

  • Recommended Listening Levels: Keep the volume at 60% or lower to reduce the risk of hearing damage.
  • Tools and Apps for Monitoring Volume: Utilize apps and built-in headphone features that monitor and limit volume levels to ensure safe listening.

Listening Duration

  • Safe Time Limits: Limit listening sessions to 60 minutes at a time, followed by a break, to prevent ear fatigue and potential damage.
  • Break Intervals: Take regular breaks to give your ears a rest and reduce the risk of long-term hearing issues.

Proper Fit and Usage

  • Choosing the Right Size and Type: Select headphones that fit well and are comfortable to wear for extended periods. This can help ensure proper noise cancellation and reduce the need for higher volume levels.
  • Ensuring Proper Sealing and Comfort: Make sure the headphones create a good seal around or in the ears to maximize noise cancellation effectiveness and comfort.

Alternative Solutions for Noise Reduction


  • Types and Effectiveness: Different types of earplugs (foam, silicone, custom-molded) offer varying levels of noise reduction. They can be effective in situations where headphones are not practical.
  • Situational Usage: Earplugs are useful in environments like concerts, construction sites, or during sleep when noise reduction is needed without audio playback.

Soundproofing Techniques

  • Home and Office Environments: Implement soundproofing measures such as using heavy curtains, carpets, and acoustic panels to reduce ambient noise in your living and working spaces.
  • Travel Solutions: Portable soundproofing options, such as noise-cancelling sleep masks and travel pillows, can enhance comfort and reduce noise during travel.

White Noise Machines

  • Benefits and Usage Scenarios: White noise machines can help mask background noise, improving focus and sleep quality in noisy environments.
  • Popular Models and Features: Many models offer a variety of soundscapes, adjustable volume, and portability, making them suitable for home, office, and travel use.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Common Concerns about Noise Cancelling Headphones: Addressing issues like pressure sensation, potential hearing damage, and the best practices for safe use.
  • Practical Advice and Solutions: Providing tips on selecting the right headphones, adjusting settings for comfort, and ensuring safe listening habits.
  • Summary of Key Points from the Article: Highlighting the main benefits, risks, and recommendations for using noise cancelling headphones.


Noise cancelling headphones offer numerous benefits, including enhanced listening experiences, reduced stress, and protection against hearing damage in noisy environments. However, they also come with potential risks, such as pressure sensation, psychological effects, and the possibility of hearing damage if not used properly.

By following expert guidelines, utilizing safety features, and practicing mindful listening habits, users can enjoy the advantages of noise cancelling headphones while minimizing any negative impacts on their ear health.

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