Marc Henshall,

What is the difference between Sound Isolating & Noise Cancelling Earphones/Headphones?

The difference between sound isolating and noise cancelling designs is understandably confusing. The terms sound quite similar don't they? On face value, they appear to offer very similar results (less disruption of your listening experience and less infliction of your musical taste on those around you). Thankfully, it's not as complicated as it sounds, and once you're in the know, making an informed choice becomes really simple.

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What are Sound Isolating Headphones?

Sound isolating earphones were originally developed as Personal Monitor Systems to allow musicians to hear their performances in loud onstage environments. Sound isolating earphones work by using soft, pliable sleeves to block background noise, allowing small, high-performance drivers to deliver incredibly precise sound directly to the ear. These professional-quality earphones have since been developed further to extend their appeal for use with all of your portable digital devices, including your smartphone.

What's the difference between Sound Isolation and Noise Cancelation?

The seal created by sound isolating earphones successfully blocks most background noise. Active noise cancellation "headphones" on the other hand are battery-driven, which often results in a larger, heavier design. The active cancellation process negates selected frequencies through a complex process, which in simple terms works as follows:

There's a microphone built into each cup of the headphones that samples the ambient noise near the ear. The noise feeds into an electronic circuit, which analyses the signal and creates a mirror image. The noise is then added back into the music signal. Some of the real noise is cancelled out by the mirror image inverse noise. This process however can introduce unwanted digital processing artefacts. For example, some people complain that while wearing noise-cancelling headphones they experience a whooshing or rushing sound  - or detect varying air pressure in their ears.

Which Shure headphones are noise-cancelling?

None is the answer. Shure doesn't manufacture any noise-cancelling  headphones.

Which is best: Sound Isolation or Noise Cancelation?

The natural sound isolation properties of a properly fitted in ear earphone exceeds the performance of even the most expensive active noise cancellation alternatives. In fact, our friends at Shure Inc have a detailed blog post on this topic, which includes audio examples demonstrating the difference in performance between standard mp3 earbuds, noise cancelling, and sound isolating earphones.

So, which models of Shure earphones are Sound Isolating?

All of them; and you can get started with a pair for as little as £46 RRP. You can view the complete range of Shure earphones page here. Happy listening!

About the Author

Marc Henshall

Marc forms part of our Pro Audio team at Shure UK and specialises in Digital Marketing. He also holds a BSc First Class Hons Degree in Music Technology. When not at work he enjoys playing the guitar, producing music, and dabbling in DIY (preferably with a good craft beer or two).