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Can Noise-Canceling Headphones Stop Hearing Loss? What to Know

Noise-canceling headphones block out outside sound while you enjoy what you're listening to. They can also protect your hearing. Somewhat.

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Amanda Capritto
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Taylor Leamey Senior Writer
Taylor Leamey writes about all things wellness, specializing in mental health, sleep and nutrition coverage. She has invested hundreds of hours into studying and researching sleep and holds a Certified Sleep Science Coach certification from the Spencer Institute. Not to mention the years she spent studying mental health fundamentals while earning her bachelor's degrees in both Psychology and Sociology. She is also a Certified Stress Management Coach.
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  • Certified Sleep Science Coach, Certified Stress Management Coach
Taylor Leamey
4 min read
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Noise-canceling headphones can protect your hearing, if you use the right pair at the right time.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Noise-induced hearing loss is a serious threat in today's noisy environments. The risk of hearing loss grows when you listen to loud music with headphones, but what's a person to do when it's always so noisy that you must perpetually increase the volume? 

Noise-canceling headphones can put an end to the incessant battle between your headphones and external sounds. By blocking out background noise, they allow you to keep the volume of your music or podcast down, which helps protect your hearing. 

Noise-canceling headphones are more popular than ever, with over the ear options like Sony or in-ear like Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. However, noise-canceling headphones aren't always the right answer for hearing protection. Read on to learn why.

Passive noise-canceling vs. active noise-canceling

Two types of noise-canceling headphones can protect your hearing in two very different ways. 

Passive noise-canceling (PNC) headphones essentially provide soundproofing via a heavy-duty design that seals your ears off from external sounds. PNC headphones typically fit tightly and they may feel heavy, but they are effective at drowning out sound -- particularly explosive transient sounds, such as gunshots and firecrackers, and high-frequency sounds, like that of a baby crying or dog howling. 

Active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones employ sound-matching technology to "erase" external sounds. They work by identifying the pitch of nearby ambient sound, such as the whir of a jet engine or the collective hum of a coffee shop full of people; they're most effective in places where the overall sound and volume remain constant. 

ANC headphones take some "settling" time to measure sound waves and then produce canceling sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase. 

Do noise-canceling headphones protect hearing?

Yes and no. Noise-canceling headphones can somewhat protect your ears, but they aren't perfect. 

Passive noise-canceling headphones protect your hearing because they seal your ears from loud external sounds, particularly transient ones such as gunshots or explosions.  

Active noise-canceling headphones protect your hearing to some degree because, with the blocking of ambient outside noise, you don't have to listen to your music as loud. But that doesn't mean you can't still damage your hearing with noise-canceling headphones. Loud music damages the cells of minuscule sensory hairs in your inner ear, which help send auditory signals to your brain. The lower the volume, the less potential damage to those cells. 

But ANC headphones won't protect you from sudden, explosive sounds because they rely solely on the ANC mechanism and don't provide the protective sealing that PNC headphones do. A pair of headphones that combined PNC structure with ANC technology would provide optimal protection in all scenarios. 

However, remember that noise-canceling headphones are not hearing protection devices. If you are often exposed to loud noises that can damage your hearing, you should leave nothing up to chance and go with true hearing protection. The CDC recommends using ear plugs, ear muffs or specially made devices.

Should I get passive or active noise-canceling headphones? 

If you're looking to shield your ears from explosive or high-frequency sounds, PNC headphones are the way to go. Because ANC headphones require some time to identify external sounds and match those sounds, they aren't good at adjusting to and protecting you from fleeting sounds. However, if you're purely looking for ear protection, you'd probably be better off with protective earmuffs. 

If you're looking to ward off the constant buzzing of public transportation, busy streets and crowded offices, you would benefit from ANC headphones. You can significantly reduce your risk of noise-induced hearing loss by listening to music at lower volumes, which ANC headphones allow you to do. 

It's worth noting that noise-canceling headphones aren't a good choice for listening to music while exercising outdoors. In situations where you need to pay attention to your surroundings -- say biking on a busy street -- you'll want to follow these tips for staying safe with headphones while running or biking.

Other ways to protect your hearing

Using noise-canceling headphones is a good way to passively protect your hearing. They can block out outside noise and allow you to enjoy your music at a lower volume. This is a big deal because music at high volumes is one of the most common ways hearing degrades.  

Let's discuss the other daily things you can do to safeguard your hearing. 

  • Get a hearing test: Here's the thing about hearing loss, it can be gradual over time. So gradual that you don't even notice it's happening. Our brains are good at adapting to hearing loss -- we read lips and rely on social cues. A baseline hearing assessment can help track your hearing loss over time and compare the results to future tests. 
  • Don't listen to things too loud: This isn't just your music; listening to your TV and phone calls at lower volumes is a simple way to reduce hearing loss. 
  • Avoid putting anything in your ears: Nothing should go in your ears outside of earbuds. Do not use cotton swabs to clean your ears. They push the ear wax down against your ear drum or puncture it. 
  • Use hearing protection: Just because something isn't that loud doesn't mean it can't damage your hearing. Power tools and lawn mowers may not be as loud as concerts or gunshots, but they can still damage your hearing over time. It's best to always wear ear protection for loud activities. 
  • Address your hearing needs: If you find yourself needing hearing assistance, the good news is that hearing aids are easier than ever to get. Hearing aids are available over the counter, and in several different styles. You don't have to live with hearing loss. Talk to your doctor or a specialist to determine your device needs.  

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.