One of the features that has been making a lot of noise (oh, the irony) in the audio world is active noise cancellation (ANC). Once a feature that came mainly with premium, fancy earphones that cost a bomb, ANC has of late become far more accessible. In fact, today, you can get earphones with ANC that cost as low as Rs. 3,000. Just how well it works on them is a different question altogether, though. Small wonder then that whether it is wired, wireless, or truly wireless; whether it is buds or cans; whether it is for casual listening or as workout motivators, ANC is a feature that almost everyone seems to want on their ear hugging audio companions.
But just because it is more affordable. does that mean you actually need ANC?
Keeping the noise out
Active noise cancellation or ANC is basically a technical way of keeping ambient noise out of your audio experience. All earphones/ headphones come with some sort of noise-canceling on board from the get-go. In many cases, it is as simple as ear covering cans, extra padding, or in-ear plugs that cut out some of the noise that can interfere with what you are hearing on them. This is called passive noise cancellation – basically anything that keeps out or minimizes the noise that depends on the build and design of the headphones. ANC, on the other hand, is a feature that is added to a pair of earphones and is not as simple as passive noise cancellation, which is basically about how well you can cover your ears or how snugly you can fit buds into it.
Earphones with ANC support come with microphones that cancel out the external noise to make your audio experience relatively noise-free. These microphones first measure the wavelength of noise around you and the system then produces a counter sound wave of a similar wavelength to cancel that noise out. ANC is not a physical barrier between external sound and the sound in your earphones – it is actually a mechanism that hears the external sounds and then cancels them by producing a different sort of sound wave. Sounds complicated (pun intended)? Well, it is.
The feature, when it works well, can make a huge difference to your audio experience. It allows you to be in a crowded situation and still focus on what you are trying to hear, literally leaving external sounds outside (where they are meant to be). The important point to remember, however, is that not all headphones with support for ANC work the same. A lot of how ANC works on a pair of headphones depends on the location of the microphones, the build quality of the headphones, and the technology used to eliminate noise.
Not about sound quality really
With all the buzz around ANC, many think that having support for ANC is necessary to have good audio quality on your headphones. Or that ANC is synonymous with good sound.
Disclosure time: That is not really true.
ANC is a tool that can improve your audio experience by cutting out external noise. But the feature really has nothing to do with the quality of sound that your earphones produce. It is more about the sound outside the earphones than the sound in them if you know what we mean. A pair of earphones could have really good ANC but might sound really bad. Or vice versa.
The sound quality on a pair of headphones actually depends on factors like the size of the drivers, sensitivity, frequency response, and impedance. ANC is not one of them. ANC is more about letting you focus on the sound in your earphones, not improving its quality.
Drains battery…and the bank balance
What’s more, ANC has its share of negatives. For starters, headphones with support for ANC generally come at a higher price as compared to headphones with no ANC. The reason behind it is simple, adding extra technology and components costs money. So, putting a set of mics that produce counter sound waves to cancel out ambient noise fr would obviously cost more than just adding more padding or a few more different sized ear tips. If you are getting a pair of ANC headphones at a surprisingly low price, the chances are that corners have been cut in the ANC department. A Rs 3,500 ANC headphone will not keep sound out the way a Rs 15,000 one will.
There is also the matter of battery – the ANC feature often needs a separate power source (which is why even wired headphones with ANC come with a separate ANC component, as in the Bose QC 25). If you are using wired headphones, you will often need to charge the ANC component separately and if if you are using wireless ones, ANC will drain the headphones’ battery. This is why you often see battery lives for ANC headphones mentioned in terms of “with ANC” and without it. Your wireless headphones are likely to last longer with ANC switched off. And if you are using wired headphones with ANC, you would have to keep the battery unit dedicated to ANC charged to be able to use it.
To top it all off, many audio purists actually do not like ANC for pure sound quality reasons. The feature creates counter sound waves which in many cases leave a notable buzzing/hissing sound in the background which many feel affects the audio quality. It is very rare to see ANC headphones being used in studios or by audiophiles.
Who needs the noise out? And by how much!
This leaves us with a simple question– do you really need ANC on your next pair of earphones? Well, that actually depends on your requirements and where you plan to use them. ANC is great for people who work or spend time in crowded, noisy and more stationary surroundings (cutting out ambient noise while crossing a road or even walking might not be the greatest idea) and get disturbed because of all the noise there. ANC is perfect for them. It makes the experience more immersive and allows you to focus on what is important — the audio coming out of your earphones. In fact, sometimes the ANC itself is so good that some folks just put the headphones on and switch it on without playing any audio on the headphones – just to minimize external sound. A friend of ours uses his Bose QC 35 to sleep on long flights – switching on ANC drowns out the buzz of aircraft engines. So yes, we can see business travelers and those who perhaps work out of cafes having a genuine need for ANC.
But if you mainly use your headphones in relatively quieter spaces and tend to move around a lot with them (say in a gym or just while walking or traveling) or are a “pure audio” fanatic, then in all likelihood, you do not really need ANC. Even well-padded headphones or snugly fitting earbuds can work pretty well for you – you can always invest the money saved in earphones with better sound quality. And that is the point one really needs to remember – ANC is very cool and convenient, but it is not necessary for a great audio experience.