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Noise-canceling headphones can help prevent hearing loss, if you use them right

Want to rock out with your headphones while protecting your hearing? Try noise-canceling headphones.

Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless

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. Bustling city streets, sporting events, concerts, festivals and more all expose our delicate ears to dangerously high decibels. The risk of hearing loss grows when you listen to loud music via headphones, but what's a person to do when it's always so noisy that you must perpetually increase the volume? 

You may have considered noise-canceling headphones to end 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. However, they aren't always the right answer -- read on to learn why.

Passive noise-canceling headphones vs. active noise-canceling headphones

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?

For the most part, yes, noise-canceling headphones do protect your ears -- both the active and the passive kind. 

PNC headphones protect your hearing because they're designed to seal your ears from loud external sounds, particularly transient ones such as gunshots or explosions. PNC headphones also offer protection for people who have loud occupations but need to communicate, such as pilots or construction workers operating heavy machinery. 

ANC headphones protect your hearing to some degree because they reduce the volume at which you listen to music through 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. 

However, 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. 

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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-cancelling headphones aren't a good choice for listening to music while exercising outdoors. In situations where you need to pay attention to your surrounds -- say biking on a busy street -- you'll want to follow these tips for staying safe with headphones while running or biking.

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.