Are Noise Canceling Headphones Safe?


As we’ve discussed in our previous post, noise-canceling headphones use a complex scheme to cancel external sounds by phase cancelation. It takes whatever waveform information about outside noises and plays an identical opposing signal, zeroing both values. As a result, we perceive silence.

Although this technology is highly useful for routine uses, and most people enjoy wearing ANC (Active Noise-Canceling) headphones during the commute, some questions can arise regarding their safety. There is no scientific thesis showing that noise-canceling headphones can aggravate any health-related issues in the wearer.

Even though ANC headphones have proven valuable and safe, there are still discussions one can make considering the amount of time you wear them, their overall design, built-in microphone, and effectiveness.

These discussions can lead to insights about noise-canceling headphones’ benefits and risks. The first vital piece of information regarding these models of headphones is that they can have substantial positive impacts, which commonly overshadows any detrimental features they may have.

Are noise-canceling headphones safe? yes, they are very safe.

Let’s discuss various health-related topics regarding noise-canceling headphones, including:

  • Period of use
  • Loudness
  • Headphone’s design
  • The Noise-Canceling effectiveness
  • Material quality
  • Benefits for the health

Period of use

The number of hours one person spends wearing headphones can cause issues independently of the headphone type. Although ANC models are the main focus of this article, it’s essential to debate on general things that can sum damaging consequences about the practice of wearing headphones.

It’s also necessary to segment the wearer’s needs. Is the person wearing the headphone doing it for professional reasons or just casually using the gear?

One might already know that wearing headphones for long periods can cause discomfort on the outer ear, which can develop into more severe symptoms. Various health personnel has already come up with research material about how detrimental headphones can be after extremely long periods of use.

As one can read on this health website, headphones can develop hearing loss after intensive use, which can become permanent or temporary. The reason for that is that since the earcups are in close contact with the outer ear, vibrations are amassing quite quickly into the ear canal. As a result, hair cells will vibrate enough to lose their sensitivity, bending excessively.

Other problems that can develop are:

  • Dizziness from pressure
  • Ear infections from ANC Earbuds
  • Ear wax buildup
  • Ear pain and soreness

Analyzing it through different perspectives will provide us with the necessary insight into the matter and how to approach it correctly.

People who use headphones professionally

This can be a bit challenging for the audio engineers, mixers, or masters out there who need to spend long hours with headphones. Valuable considerations can promote a healthier way of working extensively under headphones.

Taking regular breaks and resting your ears for 5 minutes from time to time is a fantastic solution to ear fatigue. Not only is this an excellent tip for ear health, but it’s also a valuable mixing practice that can restore your neutral hearing.

Another approach one can take on this matter is to give preference to open-back headphones instead of ANC ones. The reason for that is because by choosing an open-back model, you’ll be allowing the vibrations to set in the air, avoiding any pressure buildup in the earcups. Your ear canal won’t suffer as much from loud noises or heat buildup, even diminishing ear wax concentration.

A different perspective that can be taken by avoiding ANC headphones during professional mixing or mastering activities is to create a safer mix. A noise-canceling headphone might jeopardize a mix’s soundscape by its cancelation feature, which can cancel frequencies that otherwise would have been helpful to hear.

Mix or master engineers prefer open-back headphones since they allow a more room-like sensation, which is valuable to create industry-standard mixes.

People who use headphones casually

There are many convenient approaches to avoid health-related issues for regular folks who use ANC headphones during short walks, jogs, travels, or the commute. Since people who use earbuds or headphones casually do not depend on them, like professional audio engineers, they will find more practical solutions to health-related issues.

Finding break times to remove headphones and count a 15-minute rest for your ears is a straightforward approach that will cut short a lot of soreness on the ear. You can also try and find bulkier models if you’re going to use ANC headphones in the house for their spacious earcups, enabling ears to breathe better. However, bulky headphones won’t work precisely well during outdoor activities.

One can also select earpads that are either made of velvet, suede, or fiber since they enable heat to disperse better. Models that feature these materials will enhance breathability inside the earcups, also diminishing ear wax concentration.

These alternatives are optimal for people who use headphones for a massive amount of hours.

Loudness

High-amplitude volumes are generally unhealthy on their own; either be it on speakers or headphones, there is no coming back from the damages that extremely loud sounds can make on the eardrums. Cautionary measures must be at the train of thought’s first cart when you’re considering cranking the volume knob up, even with ANC headphones.

Independently on what source you’re using to listen to music, always make sure you hear sounds at a healthy level. This can be even more valuable for ANC headphones since the louder you hear the signal, the more vibrations will amass in the ear canal, for ANC headphones’ low-leakage characteristic.

Since noise-canceling headphones are excellent at blocking external sounds, you’ll be hearing too little from the outside world while jogging or doing walks. When summing this characteristic with loud signals inside the earcups, chances are you’re going to hear absolutely nothing coming from the street, which can be pretty dangerous since unexpected situations arise all the time in the real world.

Although people use ANC headphones for their noise-canceling technology, there must be some consideration that if you’re on the street not hearing a minimal sound coming from your surroundings, you’re risking yourself.

Try to keep your ANC headphone at a healthy level without cutting 100% of what you should hear from external sources. By doing so, you’ll be causing safer jogs, walks, and travels.

Headphone’s Design

A crucial aspect of using noise-canceling headphones is taking note of how different they can be from normal closed-back or open-back models in terms of design. ANC headphones show a variety of wireless alternatives, such as Bose 700’s as outer ear and Klipsch’s T5 II True Wireless as in-ear models.

Although these designs are highly conventional for routine use, they present some patterns that one can consider a bit aggravating concerning ear health. Most ANC headphones, as aforementioned, have specific materials and shape that focuses on avoiding sound leakage.

One of the most common aspects of a noise-canceling headphone’s earcup is its flat-looking material on the earpad, which is commonly leatherette. An overly flat material covering the outer ear can provide quite a rich isolation. However, air and heat will have trouble dispersing with too much isolation and can eventually concentrate in the spot. Grease, ear wax, and pressure will develop more quickly.

It’s infrequent to find noise-canceling headphones with a rich breathability aspect.

Another design pattern that ANC headphones often display is a shallow and compact earcup. But, not every model will show this characteristic, and you might benefit from picking up a headphone with more sizeable earcups.

The problem with this design is that it often encourages vibrations to extend into the ear canal fully, causing the inner hair cells to bend rather quickly. Since shallow and small earcups make frequencies bounce back faster, a headphone with bulkier earcups will do the opposite, and by dispersing vibrations better, it establishes a healthier relationship with the ear.

The noise-canceling effectiveness

Since the first ANC found the market with Bose’s aviation models in 1989, there have been many improvements in the technology’s effectiveness and versatility. Today, most companies have shown massive developments in their noise-canceling, with incredible results. As a result, ANC headphones can quite easily block all surrounding noises.

Not only is the actual noise-canceling better, but many modern ANC headphones feature controls that allow the user to manage functions more precisely. For instance, with basic commands like noise-canceling on/off, the user can activate or deactivate the technology.

Headphones that have a too-effective noise-canceling technology can be somewhat dangerous to use during runs or walks. When you’re entirely unaware of the sounds coming from your surroundings, the situation can foster many unexpected and avoidable risks.

A headphone that performs exceptionally well at blocking outside noises must have an on/off command to control its noise-canceling for safety reasons. The feedback toggle is also an exciting parameter that some headphone models offer. By using feedback, users can hear accurately what the ANC headphone’s built-in mic is capturing.

By enabling this function, the user would be hearing what the noise-canceling headphone should be canceling. This can be a pretty helpful feature in specific situations, allowing users to situate themselves better during outdoor activities. Switching the headphone’s ANC technology off, typically through an app, will enable users to hear their surroundings without interrupting the music, which will only feature passive noise-canceling.

When looking at ANC headphones to buy, make sure to check their features and that they can enable control over the noise-canceling function. You will be able to do outdoor activities more safely. In addition, a feedback command is also a plus that can benefit you hugely!

By studying and understanding ANC models and giving preference to more modern gear, you can considerably improve safety while using noise-canceling headphones.

Material quality

Since noise-canceling headphones provide a highly delicate line of work consisting of a built-in microphone working in balance with the model’s speakers, you’ll benefit from prioritizing high-quality ANC options that can keep this balance healthy.

For a noise-canceling headphone to work correctly, its components must operate in a constant and non-defective way. For some lack of handcraft or material quality, the ANC headphone’s built-in mic stops capturing signals as it should, many harmful issues can arise.

The built-in mic is recording whatever external sounds are coming from around the wearer and playing an identical opposing waveform to cancel them.

By not being able to record correctly, many frequencies can cut through the microphone erratically, making the headphone oscillate volumes frantically. This can quickly develop into focus issues on the wearer, and be this person studying or doing outdoor activities; it will be more challenging to stay attentive.

Another problem that can occur from cheaper ANC headphones is that since many users tend to use them during demanding activities such as physical exercises, they have a higher chance of breaking. Many risky situations can appear from the headphones falling through your head while crossing a street or running on a trail, developing into dangerous situations.

With the risks of using ANC headphones in mind, it pays to look for models with excellent reviews, quality, and from a reliable brand. Bose’s QC 35 II is from a reliable brand with excellent customer service, and although being handcrafted with not-so-expensive materials, it feels relatively dense and sturdy, especially around the hinges.

Bose also offers excellent quality in-ear options. In addition, brands such as Klipsch, Sony, Shure, Philips, Jabra, among others, are fantastic alternatives that score highly on quality, customer support, and durability. All brands mentioned have a large display of over-ear and in-ear ANC headphone models, with models varying according to a specific use.

Júlio Roque

Júlio is an audio producer and sound designer. His experience and knowledge of audio and music drive him to write exciting articles related to plugins, hardware, and general audiophile gear.

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