You’ve probably seen noise-canceling headphones on some online marketplace and wondered if it would work well for music production. Let’s explore it in this article.
Noise-canceling headphones are often advertised as the perfect headphones for noisy environments. They block out the world around you so that you can enjoy the music or podcast you are listening to. And they protect your ears by allowing you to listen in lower volumes. While all of this sounds great, we need to figure out how it affects music production.
Are Noise-Canceling Headphones Good For Music Production?
Headphones with active noise cancelation introduce inverted sound waves to cancel the noise it picks up. And since music production generally requires a louder monitoring level, the headphones can detect your music as noise and cancel it. Still, they’re indispensable when you can’t avoid a noisy environment.
How Do Noise-Canceling Headphones Work?
There are two kinds of such headphones. The first uses passive noise isolation, which does what plugging your ears with your fingers does – physically reducing the noise you hear. And the second type uses mics inside the headphones that listen to the noise and cancel it. It’s called active noise cancelation.
As you know, a sound is a vibration. And a vibration has a frequency, often depicted as a waveform with peaks and valleys. Interestingly, if you play the exact sound with its wave inverted so that the peaks become valleys and vice-versa, you’ll cancel out the original sound and have silence.
This concept is what active noise cancelation (ANC) uses. So, the mics inside the headphones actively record the ambient noise. Then, the headphones generate inverted audio of the noise, and the audio cancels the noise. Then, your ears only pick up the non-canceled audio, which is likely your favorite music or podcast. The rest of the article focuses on this type of headphones.
Noise-Canceling Headphones Vs. Studio Headphones
Noise-canceling headphones use phase inversion and build design to reduce ambient noise.
Studio headphones prioritize audio transparency and flat frequency response.
Noise-canceling headphones are meant for listening to music, podcasts, etc., casually. So, they often use boosted bass and treble response.
Studio headphones are for identifying minute details while working with audio. Therefore, they do not add any enhancements to the sound.
They often use a closed-back design to help isolate environmental noise. Furthermore, the design helps prevent false readings when using active noise cancelation.
While closed-back studio headphones are also common, the most preferred ones for producing music are open-back. The sound leakage and blending help create a sense of space.
Noise-canceling headphones are wireless, sometimes with an optional wired input.
Studio headphones are almost always wired with either a 3.5 mm or a TRS jack.
Noise-canceling headphones require a dedicated power supply for their wireless functionality and active noise cancelation.
Studio headphones are powered by the audio interface. Most require a dedicated headphone output on an audio interface due to a higher resistance (measured in ohms).
Issues With Noise-Canceling Headphones
So far, the concept sounds perfect, and these headphones do work remarkably well. I would suggest them if you are just listening to some music while traveling on the train or having a coffee at a public place. However, everything changes when it comes to music production, which isn’t a surprise. So, let’s have a look at the issues that active noise cancelation brings to headphones:
- False Positive
Many noise-canceling headphones with ANC are notorious for falsely identifying the sound of the audio you are listening to as noise. Hence, the headphone might cancel out your music. It mainly occurs when the headphones are turned up relatively loud, which is often the case for music producers, and when the environment isn’t boisterous.
This issue is somewhat related to the previous one. Since noise-canceling headphones use phase cancelation for noise reduction, it leads to inconsistent frequency response. Furthermore, they work better with constant drones like fans, AC units, airplane noise, train rumble, etc. So, dynamic sounds like people talking can cause the noise-cancellation system to give you trouble.
And while the issue may be arguably inobtrusive when listening to music or podcasts, a music producer will notice and be affected by the frequency phases shifting due to environmental noises. This inconsistency will result in you adjusting your mixes constantly to no avail.
- Build Design
Most noise-canceling headphones use a closed-back design for passive noise isolation and preventing false readings. Unfortunately, closed-back headphones aren’t the most reliable for mixing, although they are ideal for recording when you don’t want the sound to leak out. And when the sound doesn’t leak out, it creates no sense of space, which is the primary reason why musicians prefer speakers or at least open-back cans.
- Faux Silence
As you know, the higher the frequency, the faster the sound wave moves and the more difficult it is to cancel it accurately. So, mid to high-frequency noises like dogs barking, water splashing, high-pitched mechanical noises, etc., are difficult to cancel.
Hence, to solve this problem, many noise-canceling headphones use some form of white noise to create an artificial, constant noise. Our brains tend to neglect continuous noise over time, making the fake silence work well for masking the actual noise. However, it’s indisputably unacceptable for music production and mixing.
I’ve questioned people to understand the consensus, and most tended to agree that noise-canceling headphones are often uncomfortable and strange to wear. Some headphone models with inaccurate cancelation might even make you feel extreme pressure in your ears that could be harmful. Similarly, you might dislike being cut off from your environment.
Fortunately, headphones with phone apps allow you to control the amount of noise cancelation it provides. These are ideal for people who dislike the feeling of wearing noise-canceling cans but would still like to reduce the noise to a small degree.
A regular pair of headphones would work fine by merely plugging it into your computer or audio interface. Conversely, a noise-canceling headphone requires a separate power source to function. Often, this power source is a rechargeable battery built inside the headphone. And although it is arguably dismissible, music producers tend to work long hours, and having to charge your headphones is inconvenient.
Listening to headphones that reduce the ambient sounds increases the risk while walking or even just sitting. You might not hear someone approaching, or you might miss your plane. Therefore, most noise-canceling headphones don’t offer complete noise isolation by design. Still, it’s a factor worth mentioning because musicians tend to listen at a loud level.
When Should I Use Noise-Canceling Headphones For Music Production?
Always prefer studio headphones over noise-canceling ones for music production. However, if you are often in a noisy environment, consider noise-canceling cans for composing. They keep your ears safe in a noisy environment by negating the noise instead of turning up the volume as you would on regular cans.
Sensitive tasks like mixing and mastering require you to listen to your music accurately. And that is best achieved on monitor speakers in a well-treated room, although professional studio headphones are a close second. If you’d like to learn more about choosing between headphones and monitor speakers, have a look at my article here.
Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Safe?
Noise-canceling headphones are not dangerous to human health. On the contrary, these headphones help protect your ears against constant loud noises by negating the audio waves physically. Furthermore, when you don’t hear any noise, you will listen at a lower volume, which is safer for your ears.
However, there are secondary risks that arise with noise-canceling headphones. The first is not being able to hear approaching vehicles and other important sounds. Hence, I don’t recommend these headphones in traffic or anywhere else where you might need to be stay alert.
The second risk is design-imperfections in headphones creating pressure in your ears. This potential issue occurs when the inverted audio isn’t perfectly in sync with the noise. The two waves add up instead of canceling each other out when that happens.
Similarly, it could also occur when ultra-low frequencies are not canceled. The isolated low-frequency sound waves can stimulate your vestibular system (the part in your inner ear responsible for balancing your body) and cause it to falsely signal that you are moving. The result is that you might get headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc. So, to avoid these issues, I suggest trying out multiple pairs of headphones before you purchase one.
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones For Music Production
Now that you know the benefits and limitations of noise-canceling headphones, perhaps you’re looking to try one out. Sure, you could walk into a shop and try the one on display, but if you want to produce music on these headphones, you want extra flexibility and quality sound. Hence, I’ve done a fair share of research to ensure the following three offer the most comfort and audio quality fit for music production.
Note that noise-canceling headphones are specifically only for people with special use cases where they can’t avoid noisy environments. If you are looking for headphones to use in a studio environment, look into proper reference headphones instead. They are ideal for every stage of music production, including composing, mixing, and mastering. Now, let’s move on to the list:
1. Sony WH-1000XM4 (Best Overall)
Correction Support: Reference 4
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a wireless set of headphones with 40 mm drivers and a mic that lets you make phone calls and control the built-in Alexa. It offers 30 hours of battery life with fast charging. However, the bass may be somewhat over-powering. Fortunately, it allows you to control the EQ via its phone app. So, you could use the EQ to match the sound to your monitoring headphones/speakers, or you could use Sonarworks Reference to flatten the frequency response.
2. Soundcore Life Q30 (Best Budget)
Correction Support: None
Soundcore Life Q30 is an incredibly full-featured pair of noise-canceling headphones that costs less than half of the price for which you’d expect to find such headphones. It has 40 mm drivers and multiple modes that let you control the amount and type of noise cancelation. Furthermore, it has a custom EQ in its phone app to customize the sound. And to a musician’s delight, you can also use it with a 3.5mm AUX cable.
3. Beats Studio Buds (Best Portable)
Correction Support: Reference 4
Beats Studio Buds are quite famed for their relatively moderate price and excellent performance. It has three sizes included with the product to help you find the perfect fit. And it also features a mic in each earbud dedicated for calls and other uses. Furthermore, while it may not have many options for configuring the sound, it is reasonably transparent, and the earbuds are supported by Sonarworks Reference software.
Music production requires monitoring gear with transparent and flat frequency response, especially during mixing and mastering. However, you could use just about any headphones while composing and recording. And if you find inspiration outdoors, noise-canceling headphones could be the perfect monitoring device for you.
Fortunately, you can find headphone correcting plugins that support many mainstream headphones like the ones I’ve listed above. Such software plugins allow you to listen to a way more accurate frequency response on commercial hardware. Hence, you can use noise-canceling headphones for mixing and mastering to a degree, although they aren’t meant for professional use.
Overall, noise-canceling headphones are quite beneficial if you often find yourself in a noisy environment, whether or not you make music there. However, if you are looking for a pair for your studio, I would not recommend noise-canceling or other commercial headphones. Instead, I suggest you have a look at wired monitoring headphones.
And with that, we reach the end of this article. I hope I shed some light on how noise-canceling headphones work and how they could affect music production. It’s a relatively new technology, and we’ll likely see more of it in the future. And I’ll be back to talk more about them when we do. Until then, happy music-making!
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K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica.