Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Hearing? An In-depth Review

Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Protect Hearing? An In-depth Review. Noise-cancelling headphones offer a convenient way to block out background noises and enjoy your music or audio without the need for loud volumes. However, it’s crucial to understand that these devices, while reducing ambient noise, do not provide complete hearing protection against dangerously high decibel levels or prolonged exposure to loud noises that can lead to noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.

These headphones work by either passively sealing the ear from external sound waves or actively generating anti-noise sound waves to cancel out lower frequency ambient noises. While effective for music listening and filtering background noises, they cannot substitute proper hearing protection like earplugs during high noise exposure activities. An audiologist can recommend the right noise-cancelling headphones and conduct hearing tests to monitor your ear health.

Types of Passive Hearing Protection

Passive hearing protection devices are products that act as a barrier between the user’s ear canal and potentially dangerous noise levels, without any electrical or digital components. These devices reduce sound levels by physically blocking or absorbing sound waves, rather than using electronic means to cancel out noise. Examples of passive hearing protection include:

  • Foam earplugs: Expandable foam plugs that are inserted into the ear canal to seal out noise.
  • Pre-molded reusable earplugs: Made of silicone or other materials, these can be reused and provide a snug fit in the ear canal.
  • Canal caps/semi-insert plugs: These cover the outer ear without fully inserting into the canal.
  • Earmuffs: Cups that fit over the entire outer ear, creating an acoustic seal with cushions.
  • Custom-fitted hearing protection: Molded specifically to the shape of the user’s ear canal for optimal noise reduction.

The main advantage of passive devices is their affordability compared to electronic/active noise-cancelling options. However, they generally offer less situational awareness and may not be as effective against constant, low-frequency ambient noises. The level of protection provided by passive devices is indicated by their Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), with higher NRR values corresponding to greater noise attenuation.

Noise Reduction Ratings (NRR)

The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is a standardized measurement that indicates the effectiveness of a hearing protection device in reducing noise exposure. It is measured in decibels (dB) and typically ranges from 0 to around 30 dB, with higher values indicating greater noise reduction capabilities.

To determine the actual noise level heard while wearing hearing protection with a given NRR, the following calculation is used:

  1. Subtract 7 from the NRR value.
  2. Divide the result by 2.
  3. Subtract this number from the original noise exposure level in dB.

For example, if the NRR of a hearing protector is 33 dB and the ambient noise level is 100 dB, the actual noise level heard would be:

(33 – 7) / 2 = 13 100 dB – 13 dB = 87 dB

So, wearing this device would reduce a 100 dB noise level to around 87 dB

It’s important to note that the NRR is determined through controlled laboratory testing, and the actual noise reduction achieved can vary based on factors such as proper fit and individual differences. To account for this variability, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to change NRR labels to indicate a range of noise reduction, from minimally trained to more proficient users.

NRR RangeNoise Reduction Level
0-10 dBMinimal protection
11-20 dBModerate protection
21-30 dBHigh protection

While the NRR provides a useful guideline, proper fit and maintenance of hearing protection devices are crucial to achieving the full noise reduction potential. Reusable earplugs, for instance, should be replaced every 3-4 months or when damaged to maintain their effectiveness.

Noise-induced hearing loss is a significant concern in environments with noise levels exceeding 85-90 dB(A). In extremely high noise environments over 100 dB, even the maximum NRR may not be enough to reduce exposure to safe levels, necessitating the avoidance of such noise entirely.

Factors to Consider

When choosing noise-cancelling headphones or other hearing protection devices, there are several important factors to consider:

  1. Noise Levels and Duration: Noise-cancelling headphones can produce noise levels as high as 110 dBA, which can potentially damage hearing. The amount of noise reduction needed depends on the intensity and duration of sounds you are exposed to, as prolonged exposure to sounds exceeding 85 dB can cause hearing damage.
  2. Type of Noise: Noise-cancelling headphones are more effective at reducing constant, low-frequency background noises like engine drones, rather than sudden loud noises like gunshots or explosions. Consider the type of worksite noise or recreation activity to choose the appropriate protection.
  3. Fit and Comfort:
    • Proper fit is crucial for noise-cancelling headphones to be effective.
    • In-ear headphones should create a tight seal in the ear canal for optimal performance.
    • Try different earbud tip sizes and adjust their positioning for the best fit and sound quality.
    • Comfort is also important, as you are more likely to wear hearing protection consistently if it is comfortable.
  4. Communication Needs: If communication is required, look for hearing protection options that incorporate linked communication technology.
  5. Environment and Activity: Consider factors like temperature, humidity, and whether you need to wear other head-level personal protective equipment (PPE) that could interfere with the seal of earmuffs.
  6. Convenience and Ease of Use: The most important factors are the comfort and ease of use of the hearing protection, as this will impact consistent and proper usage.

While noise-cancelling headphones can provide some protection, they are not a substitute for true hearing protection devices like earplugs or earmuffs, especially for sudden, explosive sounds. Proper fit, noise type, and usage are crucial to maximize their effectiveness.

Proper Fit and Usage

Ensuring proper fit and usage is crucial for noise-cancelling headphones to provide effective hearing protection. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Proper Fit:
    • Earplugs should fit comfortably and securely in the ear canal to create a tight seal.
    • Earmuffs should completely cover the ears, with the cushions forming an acoustic seal around the ear.
    • For in-ear noise-cancelling headphones/earbuds:
      • Gently pull up on the top of your ears and insert the earbud tips into the ear canal.
      • Twist the headphones into place to ensure a snug fit.
      • Wait about 10 seconds for noise isolation earbud tips to stabilize in your ears.
      • Check if the earbud tips fit snugly and provide sufficient noise cancellation.
      • Use the “Determine Optimal Earbud Tips” function in compatible apps to test the fit.
      • If the fit is not optimal, try gently pushing the earbud in or using a different size tip.
  2. Maintenance and Cleaning:
    • Proper cleaning and maintenance are essential to ensure continued effectiveness of noise-cancelling headphones.
    • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and maintaining the headphones.
  3. Usage Guidelines:
    • Wear hearing protection devices like earmuffs and earplugs when operating noisy equipment or in environments with high noise levels.
    • Noise-cancelling headphones should be worn in loud settings like auto races, sporting events, concerts, and industrial/workplace environment.
    • When using noise-cancelling headphones for personal audio/music listening, balance effective noise reduction with an enjoyable listening experience.
    • Some hearing protection devices limit music volume to 85 dBA or less, while noise-cancelling headphones/earbuds may not have such controls.
  4. Situational Awareness:
    • Passive hearing protection like earplugs can significantly reduce situational awareness, making it difficult to hear important sounds or communication.
    • Noise-cancelling headphones may allow better situational awareness compared to passive protection, but caution is still advised in environments where hearing critical sounds is essential.

By following these guidelines for proper fit, maintenance, and usage, noise-cancelling headphones can provide effective hearing protection while still allowing for enjoyable audio experiences.

Maintenance and Care

Proper maintenance and care are essential to ensure the longevity and optimal performance of noise-cancelling headphones. Here are some key guidelines:

  1. Water Resistance and Cleaning:
    • Understand the water-resistance capabilities of your specific headphone model before attempting any cleaning.
    • Water-resistant headphones can withstand minor exposure to moisture like sweat or light rain but should not be submerged.
    • Non-water-resistant headphones should be kept completely dry during cleaning to avoid damage.
  2. Cleaning Process:
    • For detachable ear cups/pads:
      • Remove them and soak in warm, soapy water for 5 minutes.
      • Gently wipe clean, rinse thoroughly, and dry completely before reattaching.
    • Clean headphone jacks by dipping a cotton swab in hydrogen peroxide and carefully cleaning the jacks, ensuring they are completely dry before plugging in headphones.
    • Gently wipe headphones with a soft, dry cloth after each use.
    • Avoid using alcohol, acetone, waterless hand cleaners, or products containing lanolin.
  3. Storage and Handling:
    • Store headphones properly in their case when not in use.
    • Keep them dry and avoid exposing them to moisture, humidity, or extreme temperatures.
    • Be mindful of the cord and avoid pulling, wrapping tightly, or running it over with chairs.
    • Store cables in loose coils or figure-eights to prevent damage.
    • Regularly inspect for physical damage, sound quality degradation, and replace worn components like ear pads/tips if needed.
  4. Additional Tips:
    • Clean the ear muffs with mild soap and water, but avoid immersing the entire headset.
    • Use cotton swabs soaked in soapy water or mild detergent to remove dirt or particles from the pads.
    • For pleather/velour earpads, avoid using leather conditioners, as they can damage synthetic materials.
    • For in-ear monitors (IEMs), clean the IEMs and your ears regularly to prevent debris buildup.

Properly caring for noise-cancelling headphones can improve audio quality with age, increase their longevity, and lead to financial savings from less frequent replacements and repairs.


In summary, noise-cancelling headphones offer a convenient way to reduce ambient noise and enjoy audio content without excessively high volumes. However, they do not provide complete hearing protection against dangerously loud noises or prolonged exposure to high decibel levels. While they can be effective for filtering out constant low-frequency background noise, proper hearing protection devices like earplugs or earmuffs are still necessary in environments with sudden, explosive sounds or extremely high noise levels.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of noise-cancelling headphones in protecting your hearing depends on several factors, including proper fit, noise levels and duration, type of noise, and usage. By considering these factors, understanding the limitations of noise-cancelling technology, and following guidelines for proper maintenance and care, you can maximize the benefits of these headphones while ensuring adequate hearing protection.


Can Noise-Cancelling Headphones Serve as Hearing Protectors?

Answer: Utilizing noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds instead of proper hearing protection can lead to permanent hearing damage. This is because they are not designed to shield ears from the high levels of noise found in occupational environments. Furthermore, they might distract you, increasing the risk of accidents.

What Are the Drawbacks of Using Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

Answer: While noise-cancelling headphones excel at blocking out background noise, this feature can also diminish your awareness of your surroundings. This lack of environmental awareness can be hazardous, especially in situations where being able to hear noises around you, like when cycling in traffic, is crucial for safety.

How Effective Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones at Blocking Noise?

Answer: Noise-cancelling headphones are most effective at reducing low-frequency sounds, decreasing noise by about 30 dB. Although they also work on midrange and high-frequency noises, the effect is less pronounced. This reduction can significantly lower the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

Why Might I Still Hear Sounds While Using Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

Answer: Noise-cancelling headphones combine active and passive noise reduction technologies to block many types of sounds. However, they might not eliminate all noises completely. It’s common to still hear high-pitched noises, such as sirens or human voices, but their volume should be significantly lower.

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Sophia Davis

My initial goal to shield my daughter from the danger of having ear phone constantly has evolved into a commitment to share my findings with wildest community possible to know sharing different knowledge and expert on audio technologies. As the risk of exposure continues to grow, numerous methods technology exist to safeguard ourselves. Knowledge is power, the more you know the better you become.

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