AudioReputation is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission Learn More
Is noise canceling bad for your ears? Noise canceling is not necessarily bad for your hearing or health, provided you are mindful of your listening habits.
Noise cancellation is a very useful technology, especially in the noisy world we live in. It helps us focus, relax and be more present in our listening experiences.
The idea that the technology might damage your ears in some way comes from
the notion that many people nowadays are spending more and more time with their headphones and earphones on.
However, there are a few factors that we must be mindful of in order to achieve a healthy listening experience. In this article, we will explain what’s behind the noise-canceling technology and go through everything you must know to use this feature without causing any damage to your hearing or health.
Table of Contents
Is Noise Canceling Bad for Your Ears?
The short answer is no, noise canceling is not bad for your ears. If you follow the safety guidelines for listening and keep your volume at a reasonable level, there will be no damage to your hearing whatsoever.
This fact is true for both passive and active noise cancellation headphones & earphones, but more factors come into play, as well as some other issues that might impact the listening experience of some people.
How Does Noise Cancelation Actually Work?
Noise cancelation is a technology present in most headphones nowadays in one way or another. This feature helps prevent external noise from reaching your ears while you’re listening to your favorite music, making a call, or watching a video.
There are basically two types of noise cancelation: passive and active. We will explain the differences between them below.
1. Passive Noise Cancelation
Passive noise cancellation works by creating a tight seal between the headphone earpads and your ears. In the case of earphones, the noise-canceling effect is provided by the ear tip.
Passive noise cancellation is found on most entry-level headphones, earphones, and earbuds, such as the standard AirPods.
The effectiveness of passive noise cancellation will, of course, vary depending on the design of each particular headphone/earphone model, as well as the fit between the device and your ears.
2. Active Noise Cancelation
Active noise cancellation is a technology present in some headphones and earphones that uses tiny built-in microphones to capture the noise around you and prevent them from reaching your ear.
These types of devices are usually more expensive, but the effect is much better than passive noise cancellation. Some examples of products that use this technology include the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max.
Another benefit of the active noise cancellation technology is that in most headphones, you can set the noise-canceling effect level according to your liking. For example, if you would like to cancel some noise out but still be aware of your surroundings, you can choose a lower setting.
Will Noise Cancellation Damage Your Health and Hearing Over Time?
Noise cancellation will not necessarily damage your hearing over time, provided you respect the safe listening levels. It will only cause a problem if you constantly turn up the volume while listening to music.
In fact, noise cancellation might even be beneficial to your hearing because, when there are lots of external noises, you get inclined to turn up the volume of your audio. The technology prevents that by canceling these external distractions.
It is always a great idea to be mindful of volume levels. Here is a table with the standard guidelines on safe listening levels represented in decibels:
Safe Listening Levels
|decibels (dB)||Weekly Listening Time|
You might be wondering how it is possible to determine the volume of your device in decibels (dB). To make a precise measure, you would need a decibel meter, but there are other, more practical ways that can give you a great idea of whether your volume is too loud.
As a matter of comparison, a sound with 80dB of volume is equivalent to an alarm clock close by or city traffic. 107dB is equivalent to a vehicle horn 3ft. (1m) away or a chainsaw. Once you get above 110dB, you’re getting into the discomfort threshold.
Some smartphones, such as the iPhone, have technologies that monitor your volume and weekly listening time and let you know if you’re under the safety listening guidelines, so this feature would be a great ally in keeping your hearing healthy.
The noise cancelation technology itself poses minimal health risks, but there are a few things that you might be doing while wearing your headphones or earbuds that could impact your health negatively. In fact, high volume levels are not the only offenders to your hearing health.
One of the main offenders is the fact that dirt and earwax might accumulate on the device over time, especially if you’re using a pair of in-ear earphones that go inside the ear canal.
Sweating is something we must be careful with as well. If you live in a hot climate, wearing your earbuds or headphones for prolonged periods might lead to bacteria accumulation.
Cases of infections caused by dirty earbuds and earphones have become common. You should always keep your device clean. There are even cleaning kits on the market nowadays that are especially dedicated to cleaning headphones.
3. Stress Levels
When it comes to stress levels, noise cancelation technology poses a huge benefit. Nowadays, we live in a loud world, and the negative impact of noise on our stress and cortisol levels has been scientifically proven.
A study published by the Noise & Health Journal found that the constant excitation caused by noise signals releases a range of stress hormones that might contribute to different problems in the long run, including immunosuppression, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, catabolism, and even intestinal problems.
Source: Spreng M. Possible health effects of noise-induced cortisol increase. Noise Health 2000;2:59-63
As you can see then, the stress problem that comes from our noisy world is not only causing short-term psychological effects but also creating long-term issues for your body.
With that being said, noise-canceling headphones can help you prevent that problem to some extent. Be it while working out at the gym or when chilling at home, the technology will help you focus and relax, as long as you respect the safe volume guidelines so as not to create a hearing issue.
4. ANC-Induced Nausea and Headaches
Some people might experience nausea and headaches when using active noise-canceling headphones. This is because the technology produces a very minimal hissing sound that, over time, might cause discomfort. It is a rare condition, but it could happen.
Another reason for this issue to appear is that ANC technology creates subsonic variations that aren’t perceivable to human hearing but still exist. This might also cause physical imbalance and discomfort from different pressure levels between your ears and the external atmosphere.
This won’t cause damage to your hearing per se but can be very uncomfortable, especially if you’re using your headphones for strenuous activities such as working out or wearing them for prolonged periods of time.
The solution to this is to reduce your weekly listening time or try different levels of noise cancelation until you find one that is comfortable for you. If you see that the issue persists, then it is a great idea to try a passive noise-canceling pair of headphones.
Check our guide on the Best Noise Canceling Headphones under $200
The noise-canceling technology doesn’t cause tinnitus if you keep your volume at a reasonable level. This fact is true for both passive and active noise cancellation.
Overexposing your hearing to high volumes is not a great idea, so wearing noise-canceling headphones all day might cause hearing damage if you constantly listen to music above a certain level of decibels.
However, if you keep the volume at a reasonable level, you can safely use your headphones for prolonged periods. For example, as the safe listening guidelines table we discussed before states, a pair of headphones at a volume level of 80dB can be safely used for 40 weekly hours.
The active noise canceling technology sometimes produces a slight hissing sound that might be uncomfortable or even irritating for some listeners. If that’s the case, we suggest that you try lowering the noise cancelation levels on your headphones or try a pair with passive noise cancelation.
As you can see, the noise cancelation technology itself isn’t necessarily bad for your ears in any form, but you should be mindful of the volume of your music and how many hours of use you’re getting from your headphones or earphones.
Following the safe listening guidelines, you don’t risk any damage to your hearing, whether you’re using a pair with passive or active noise cancelation.
We also recommend that you follow other guidelines, such as frequently cleaning your device since damage to your hearing might not only be caused by high volumes but also by dirt and earwax build-up, especially in earphones that go inside the ear canal.
If you suspect that you’re suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss, reach out to a specialized physician as soon as possible.
We hope this article was helpful. If you like this guide, make sure to share it with a friend, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions about the subject!
Hello, I’m Ian.
I’m a music producer, musician, and writer for the AudioReputation website. I’ve been involved with making music and the processes revolving around audio technology for longer than I can recall, so I find it amusing to share my knowledge with fellow enthusiasts worldwide when I’m not working with artists or creating new songs.
Along my path as a music maker, I discovered the ability to write informative content, and I decided to embrace it. I’ve written for a few websites about audio and music, including a digital magazine.
I’m particularly passionate about any sort of audio gear: guitar pedals, amplifiers, headphones, and even home speakers. That makes it really joyful for me to review any product related to the subject and give my honest opinion about them. I also frequently write tips and guides for consumer and professional-grade audio.