Noise-Cancellation or Sound-Isolation: What’s the Difference?

Noise-cancelling headphones have become popular in consumer markets over the past few years. This has caused a little bit of confusion about the differences between sound-isolation and noise-cancellation. They’re not interchangeable. In this post, we turned to Shure Manager of Technical and Educational Communications Chris Lyons to explain how each type works and what you can expect.

Noise Cancellation

Noise cancellation is an electronic process. It was originally developed to improve radio communications in noisy environments like aircraft cockpits.  There’s a microphone built into each cup of the headphones that samples the ambient noise near the ear. That noise signal is fed into an electronic circuit that analyzes it and creates a mirror image of the noise, then adds the noise back into the music signal. Some of the real noise is cancelled out by the mirror image inverse noise.

Sound cancellation explained

It works best on steady low frequency noise below a thousand hertz or so, for example, the drone of aircraft engines.  It doesn’t work as well at removing speech or other rapidly changing sounds.  Because this is an electronic process, noise cancellation circuitry requires a battery to function.  And like all circuitry, it has some degree of hiss and even some digital processing artifacts.  Some people complain that when they’re wearing noise-cancelling headphones they hear a whooshing or a rushing sound  – or detect varying air pressure in their ears.

Which Shure headphones are noise-cancelling?

The answer is none. Shure doesn’t manufacture any noise-cancelling  headphones.

Sound Isolation

Sound isolation earphones work passively, the same way that earplugs do.  The soft pliable sleeves that Shure supplies with its earphones fit snugly into your ears and physically block the outside noise from entering the ear.  Just like earplugs, the fit is very important and that’s why Shure supplies multiple sizes and multiple styles of sleeves with all of their earphones so you can experiment to make sure that your earphones are fitting perfectly into your ear.

Sound isolation explained

Sound isolation actually provides greater noise reduction than noise cancellation circuitry does.  In fact, a couple of years ago researchers at Virginia Tech concluded that Shure earphones performed significantly better than other brands when they were measured head to head.   Sound isolation works across the entire audible spectrum, not just low frequencies and not just slow, droning kinds of noise.  Sound isolation is great for blocking speech, a noisy television, music – it works in all kinds of environments whether you’re sitting on a plane, a train or walking down the street.  And no electronics means that there are no batteries, no added hiss, no digital artifacts – nothing except the music, the movie or the game itself.

Which Shure earphones are sound isolating?

The answer is: all of them.

Listen, listen

Everybody wonders whether you can really hear the difference between the earbuds that came with your MP3 player, sound-isolating earphone and noise-cancelling headphones.  The answer is ‘Yes!’ Click on the audio links below to see what differences you can detect.

In an airplane

Here’s a sample recording what you might hear in an airplane using the earphones that came with your standard MP3 player:

This is what you’d hear if you were wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones:

This is what you’d hear if you were wearing a pair of sound-isolating earphones in the same environment:

On the street

Here’s a sample recording what you might hear on the street using the earphones that came with your standard MP3 player:

This is what you’d hear if you were wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones:

This is what you’d hear if you were wearing a pair of sound-isolating earphones in the same environment:

On a train

Here’s a sample recording what you might hear on a train using the earphones that came with your standard MP3 player:

This is what you’d hear if you were wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones:

This is what you’d hear if you were wearing a pair of sound-isolating earphones in the same environment:

Assuming that the earphone are fit properly, which admittedly tends to take a little bit of experimentation, we think that sound isolation does a better job of eliminating the background noise in a noisy environment so that all you have to do is pay attention to the music, the movie or whatever you’re listening to on your music player, computer or tablet.

Creating a seal between your ear and ambient noise is part of the magic of sound-isolating earphones. Shure offers a variety of sleeves with its earphones to assure the listener of a perfect fit.

Shure Earphone Sleeves

Experts and audiophiles like blogger Salman Ashraft tend to agree. Here’s what he had to say in a recent post:

“Sound-isolating headphones simply work better in my opinion. Since sound is never introduced to the ear in the first place (because of the seal), you don’t have to fight sound with sound. It’s akin to solving a problem before it happens. With noise cancelling headphones / earphones, the external noise already gets into your ear and music while it is simultaneously alleviated with opposing frequencies. Sound Isolating gets the vote from me in preserving good audio quality.”

Other considerations

There are two other factors to consider in making a choice: convenience and cost.  It may be a challenge to keep the cords from tangling, but it’s a lot easier to carry a pair of earbuds in your pocket or backpack than it is to tote a big pair of headphones around. Plus they’re inconspicuous and they don’t require batteries.

Since sound-isolating earphones lack the additional electronics needed to cancel noise, they tend to be much less expensive.  All Shure earphones are sound-isolating and are available in a wide range of prices – starting at $99.  Compare that to entry level noise-cancelling headphones three times the price.

Like most decisions audio, making the best choice is just a matter of your personal preferences. Check out the reviews, borrow a pair of headphones from a friend or associate and decide for yourself.

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Davida Rochman

Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a lifelong career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Corporate Public Relations Manager, responsible for public relations activities, sponsorships, and donation programs that intersect with Shure at the corporate and industry level.

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  • Pui Ho Lam says:

    I need something that does both. Isolation to get rid of the mid to high frequency noises. And cancellation to get rid of the low frequency noises.

  • Lee says:

    Shure SE215 earphones have great sound isolation. I also have tried Shure SE115 (budget model). Both of them are not as effective as Etymotic Research MC5. I don’t know when Shure will provide the tri-flange eartips.
    Lee from

  • Ivan Berger says:

    You might be interested in IEEE P2650, a new standards working group that meets for the first time in January. It will cover pre-screening for hearing deficiencies, using mobile devices, and part of the standard will be about noise isolation in headphones.

  • Markus says:

    Can someone help me with this please: this site lists Bose’s QC25 as their top recommendation. Since I am not a big fan of Bose headphones but have always loved Shure products I would like to know which Shure NC headphone would be most similar to the Bose QC25 in terms of noise cancelling quality and being a HiFi headphone?

    • Davida Rochman Davida Rochman says:

      Hello Markus! Shure does not make any noise-cancelling headphones, so we do not have a direct product competitor to the Bose QC25. Shure offers sound isolating earphones which are better than the Bose products as they attenuate noise across a wider range of frequencies. And, since these are earphones, they also have the added benefits of no batteries, no added hiss, and no digital artifacts. Thanks for the question, and thanks for being a fan of Shure products!

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