ANC: What is Active Noise Cancellation and Do You Need It?

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Great music has the power to take you to another world and it only gets better when it is coupled with a great pair of headphones. Good quality headphones can really change the way one experiences and consumes audio and those who like traveling know that a good pair of headphones can actually save you from a lot of boredom (and unwanted conversations).

In recent times, one tech aspect that keeps coming up when we talk about headphones is active noise cancellation, or ANC, as some prefer to call it. “Does it have ANC?” is a question we have heard many people ask when buying headphones. So, what is this “noise cancellation”? It may sound all geeky but is actually not that difficult to understand. 

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Let us try to explain what active noise cancellation really means and whether one should care about this feature or not. 

As most of the name suggests, active noise cancellation is basically about cancelling out noise, or cutting out noise. Now you must be wondering how earphones can cancel out noise, when they are supposed to be producing audio themselves. Well that is because there is a difference between noise and audio. The audio file or music that you listen to on your earphone is the sound that you want to hear, whereas noise is the unwanted sound around you that can hinder your listening experience. Noise cancellation, is basically a process of cancelling out this ambient noise to make your audio experience as close to perfect as possible, with no interruptions from external sound. 

While all earphones or headphones do not come with active noise cancellation, all of them do come with some kind of attempt to keep noise out — they might cover your ears or have plugs that go really deep inside, and keep the unwanted sounds from directly getting into your ears. You can of course simply try for headphones or earphones in such a way that they totally cushion your ears from external sounds, creating an almost physical barrier (which is called noise isolation, and we will talk about it some other day) between your ear and external sounds. 

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Or you can go with a system that actually produces waves that kills the external sound. That is where active noise cancellation comes in!

Active noise cancellation is a process that takes “keeping noise out” to another level. Sound is basically a wave which transmits audio. The headphones with active noise cancellation come with microphones that are not for talking but which measure ambient sound and produce waves to cancel out that unwanted sound. In simple words, the microphones hear a wave of sound from outside and then produce a wave of their own that will cancel out the incoming wave, thus letting the user have an uninterrupted audio experience. 

Too complicated? Well, think of music as the treasures of one country where headphones are the army and the microphones are the weapons they have to fight the bad guy — which in turn is the ambient sound (noise). Now when the bad guy i.e. the ambient sound tries to attack the music, the headphones i.e. the army uses the microphones to hit back with the same force and saves the day. Active noise cancellation can mean sitting in a noisy crowded room and hearing nothing but what is playing on your headphones. In essence, it tries to block out external sound. And while it is not always a hundred per cent successful, it certainly makes a massive difference to your audio experience. 

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But should you care about this feature or keep it in mind while buying new earphones and headphones? This really depends on your needs and of course, your budget. If you use your headphones in very noisy areas (public places, cafes, etc.) or like to focus almost totally on what’s playing on them, then you would need active noise cancellation. However, if you use your headphones in relatively quiet places (an office, your own room, etc.), then ANC is not really that necessary. Similarly if you are the person who uses headphones while running in open areas, or in places where you NEED to listen to ambient sound (traffic, people calling out your name), then ANC is likely to be more a curse than a blessing — imagine being hit by a vehicle because you could not hear it at all while you were out jogging! 

Then there is the matter of the budget. Yes, good active noise cancellation earphones can take your audio experience up not just one but several notches but they often come with relatively high price tags. You would need to spend close to Rs 30,000 to get a really good pair of active noise cancelling headphones (the Sony RX 1000 and Bose QC 35 come to mind), and that is quite a sum. There are less expensive options too but the quality of noise cancellation does tend to decrease with the price, so we would suggest not going too far down the price ladder if noise cancellation is your priority. 

Traveller’s Tip: If you are the type that gets bothered by aircraft engine sounds, then you definitely need to consider investing in a good set of ANC headphones. Just make sure they have enough battery to last out the flight!

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