What Is The Difference Between Noise Cancelling And Active Noise Cancelling Headphones? 1
by Aether in
Audio Tech

Last Updated on July 16, 2019 by Aether

So, you want to buy new headphones with noise-cancelling? That’s great, but do you know the comparisons between passive and active noise-cancelling headphones? If you don’t, then don’t worry. We’re here to help you sort out the differences.

To keep things brief, active noise-cancelling headphones require batteries. Above all else, it can cancel ambient sounds up to 100%, giving you full silence and full treatment to great listening. On the other hand, passive noise-cancelling headphones are exactly like earmuffs but with electronics. It may not be as technologically advanced as the active ones but it sure does come in much cheaper in stores.

And if you would like to know more about the differences, let’s break them down to their specifications. Also, we’ll be discussing all the contrasts in layman’s term to make it easier for not-so-audiophiles to understand what’s what between the two types of headphones.

Before anything else, make sure to check out HeadphonesLab’s Best Audiophile Headphones for 2019. But if you want to check out some great noise-cancelling earbuds, click here.

Noise-Cancelling Strength

When it comes to ambient noise reduction, the active noise-cancelling headphones do a great job at suppressing sound emissions. Truly, you can achieve up to 100% noise reduction especially if you have a well-known brand of headphones.

As for the passive noise-cancelling headphones, it can only go as far as 70% in noise reduction. This isn’t all that bad; in fact, you can still barely hear anything if you put it on, especially when you’re at home. But when you go out to the busy streets, you can tell how much lesser its resistance is to background sounds compared to an active one.


Since active noise-cancelling headphones include batteries, don’t expect these to feel like cotton on your head. If you’re not used to such headphones, you’ll feel a significant heaviness once you put them on. Fans of lightweight headsets may not like how it generally feels based on the weight alone. However, if you so happen to be an audiophile or a competitive gamer that favors crisp sound quality, this shouldn’t be a problem.

As for the passive headphones, they’re much lighter compared to active noise-cancelling headphones. This is because the main material used to block out background sounds are the cups that surround the speakers. This is more favorable for casual headphone users that love to carry around their headset a lot wherever they go.

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Sound Quality

Honestly, both active and passive noise-cancelling headphones have very good qualities in terms of overall sound delivery. But be warned; not every noise-cancelling headset is good. It really depends on the brand and the price you’re willing to pay. Some headphones may have 100% noise-cancelling but the sound quality is a bit muffled; while some headphones lack treble and bass (sometimes due to the main resources going into the noise-cancelling tech).

Additionally, most of these headsets have built-in surround sound technology too, making them ideal for gaming days and movie nights.


If there’s anything that is equally important as the noise-cancelling percentage, it’s the overall comfortable design of the earcups. Pads come in different materials; some use the usual fabric while others go as far as using memory foam so it feels like having small pillows on your ears.

However, cheap active noise-cancelling headphones have the tendency to easily slip off from your ears because of its weight. Contrastingly, the passive headset feels softer yet has more grip due to the weight being just right. Sure, it may be slightly heavier than generic headphones, but it checks out.


Don’t expect active noise-cancelling headphones to be inexpensive. Since it uses the latest tech in providing the best noise reduction feature, buying one will cost you a lot. Audiophiles don’t mind spending on this one since the benefits are more than enough to appreciate their music (or Netflix streams).

Passive noise-cancelling headphones are a tad bit cheaper than active noise-cancelling headphones due to excluding batteries and additional wires.

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When’s the best time to use these?

If you’re the gamer type, the meticulous audio critic or the aspiring musician that would like to know every detail of the song you made, it’s always best to use an active type.

When you’re a competitive gamer, you know how listening to in-game sounds is very important. Footsteps, distant gunfire, the roaring engine behind you, they all account into winning an online match, whatever your game may be.

If you love to play music and want to playback all your recorded stuff, it’s a no-brainer to use active noise-cancelling headphones. This is what recording studios always use in order to feel the acoustics while listening to a playback.

Also, I’d like to point out that this is much better to use at home or at work. Bringing active headphones to the streets everyday may not be wrong, but hearing the environment while traveling is very important. The last thing you want is bumping to other people or not knowing what’s going on just because you were too focused on your audio while noise-cancelling mode is activated. But if you just want to relax at home after a long day and want to listen to classical music until you fall asleep, it’s always best if you use headphones with 100% noise cancelling.

On the other hand, if you always commute it’s better to go on with a passive headset. At least you can still proceed with caution while you cross the street with headphones on you and listening to your favorite EDM artist at the same time.

A passive noise-cancelling headset also works best for casual listeners and anyone looking for top-quality headphones while on a budget.

Which is better to buy?

In all honesty, it really depends on your preference. If you got more than enough to spend on headphones, Get the active noise-cancelling type just because it has superior sound reduction while maintaining high-quality sounds. Although, don’t expect it to feel light at all. But if you’re just looking for headphones to minimize the sounds from the outside world, just get a passive type. It’s cheaper, lighter and great for casual listening.

I hope this article was simple enough to understand the basic differences between the two types. Time for you to stop the world from making noises, put on a good noise-cancelling headset and indulge in audio bliss.

Aether has been playing World of Warcraft since 2006. In his youth he raided 7 days a week, but now just plays with friends doing Mythic dungeons and Arena. He swaps his main more often than he should.
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