IQbuds MAX - award winning noise cancelling earbuds

In an increasingly loud and often chaotic world, noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds are gaining massive popularity. Whether it’s among passengers in a crowded subway train or airplane cabin, or on the streets of a major metropolis, consumers are looking to find some tranquility among the din of the modern world.

However, when looking to buy a pair of headphones or earbuds featuring noise-cancellation, not all products are created equal. Indeed, this segment of audio technology has come a long way since Dr. Amar Bose first conceived the idea of noise-cancelling audio for headphones while traveling on a flight from Zurich to Boston in the late 70’s.

Comparing 2021’s Best Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

Below is an overview of the noise-cancellation features, pricing, and other functionality of some of the most popular ANC and other noise-cancelling earbuds available in 2021.

IQbuds² MAX

  • Release date: January 2020
  • Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation Plus (includes ANC, speech-in-noise control, and directional hearing) + Passive Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.0
  • CODECs: SBC, AptX and AptX-LL

Bose QuietComfort

bose quietcomfort earbuds
  • Release date: September 2020
  • Noise cancellation: Active + Passive Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 5.1
  • CODECs: SBC and AAC

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple AirPods Pro
  • Release date: October 2019
  • Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.0

Amazon Echo Buds

  • Release date: September 2019
  • Noise Reduction: Active Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.0

Sony WF-1000XM3

  • Release date: August 2019
  • Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.0

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
  • Release date: January 2021
  • Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True Wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.0

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
  • Release date: April 2020
  • Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.1
  • CODECs: SBC, AAC, aptX

Jabra Elite 85t

Jabra Elite 85t
  • Release date: November 2020
  • Noise cancellation: Active Noise Cancellation
  • Connectivity: True wireless
  • Bluetooth: 5.1

Different Types of Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

For many years, there were two basic versions of noise cancellation available for headphones, and in more recent years, earbuds. Those primary versions were so-called passive noise cancellation and active noise cancellation.

In recent years, new innovations in audio technology have enabled not only hybrid noise cancellation, but also speech-in-noise control and directional noise control. Below is an overview of the different forms of noise cancellation, both old and new.

Passive Noise Cancelling

If you’ve ever worn earplugs at a concert or to help you sleep, you’ve experienced passive noise cancellation. In-ear earbuds offer a wide range of effective passive noise cancellation. Buds that fit tightly in the ear and have a good seal generally offer good passive cancellation. Products like Airpods Pro, Jabra Elite Series, Nuheara IQbuds BOOST and Amazon Echo Buds deliver this experience.

Ear tip size and material have an important impact on the passive noise cancellation. Most manufacturers offer a range of tips and most are of a flexible silicon material, but a few also offer memory foam tips. Airpods Pro offer an Ear Fit Tip test within the app to gauge the right fit.

Some earbuds tend to use other mechanisms to stay in the ear but deliver poor attenuation. Products in this category include the original AirPods that may sit comfortably on the ear but allow significant outside noise seepage.

A secure seal with your ear tips and the benefits of passive noise cancellation are generally positive. However, one side effect that is not often mentioned is the Occlusion Effect, a phenomenon experienced when ears are plugged. The Occlusion Effect causes the unnatural low-frequency sound of our own voice that we experience due to bone conduction. This is more of an issue if the earbud is only using passive cancellation to block noise. Active Noise Cancellation can mitigate this effect in some instances.

Active Noise Cancelling (ANC)

For travelers on airplanes or workers surrounded by loud machinery, constant exposure to noise can be unrelenting. For scenarios such as these, active noise cancellation can help consumers find peace and quiet even when surrounded by a cacophony of noise.

Active noise cancellation (ANC) technology works by first detecting surrounding world noise through external microphones on the outside of the headphones or earbuds. It then goes about analyzing it and breaking the noise down into machine-readable sound waves.

Next, ANC products generate an anti-phase sound wave of equal magnitude but an opposite shape then play it back into your earbuds or headphones to cancel the ambient noise. If an airplane engine were to emit a 250 Hz sound wave at 85 dB in the cabin, ANC earbuds would emit a sound wave of the opposite shape at the same volume, thereby significantly cancelling out the noise.

Bose Quiet Comfort 20 were one of the first wireless earbuds to deliver ANC and a few other leading brands such as B&O and Sony offer ANC with wired earbuds. But until recently offering ANC in a true wireless form factor did not exist. Sony was the first brand to release a true wireless ANC earbud with the WF-1000XM3, followed by Amazon’s Echobuds with Active Noise Reduction and most recently Apple Airpods Pro.

It is anticipated that leading headset brands will continue to release true wireless buds with ANC as the chip/microphone technology matures.

Hybrid Noise Cancelling

While increasingly popular and coveted as a feature in modern earbuds and headphones, traditional ANC still has some drawbacks. Because most ANC products place their external microphones exclusively on the inside or the outside of earbuds or headphones, there is a negative impact on either the quality of the noise cancellation or on the sound quality.

Hybrid noise-cancelling earbuds and headphones theoretically offer the best of both worlds by featuring both internal and external microphones. However, the desired sound quality and noise cancellation are not always achieved in headphones, let alone in true wireless earbuds.

ANC technology is a proprietary secret for most manufacturers as they achieve results from utilizing a combination of materials, acoustic drivers, connectivity, and the algorithms for the noise-cancelling technology. All of these impact the ultimate success of hybrid noise-cancelling audio products.

Speech In Noise Control (SINC)

There are new innovative extensions of noise cancellation or sound control technologies starting to emerge that are taking noise cancelling and the shaping of soundscapes into new realms.

For instance Nuheara unveiled the concept of Speech in Noise Control (SINC) back in 2016 with its IQbuds product and with its 2nd product IQbuds BOOST in 2018. Using dual external high-fidelity MEMS microphones and sophisticated digital signal processing, IQbuds allows the user the ability to isolate frequencies of speech while dulling the frequencies of unwanted ambient noise.

Controlled from within the iPhone or Android app, this innovative form of noise control allows the users to hear conversations in noisy social environments. Combined with the dynamic noise control capability and EQ Frequencies, IQbuds enables the user to control more than just the volume of sound coming in, but the nature of that sound as well so users can select specific sounds.

Directional Noise Control (Focus)

Elevating and selecting the direction of noise is also another evolution of noise control technology. Nuheara debuted this capability in the summer of 2018 by making what they referred to as “Focus” available in IQbuds BOOST.

Using directional hearing technology known as audio beamforming, users of IQbuds BOOST have the ability to suppress noise from behind them, thus enjoying better clarity from sounds and speech directly in front of them. This capability takes the ability to remix a person’s soundscape to a new and exciting level and provides more personalization and customization to the earbud listening experience.

The Future of Noise-Cancelling Earbuds in 2021 & Beyond

Active Noise Cancellation will soon be standard in high-end true wireless earbuds just as they are for over the ear headphones today.

Brands will then take different approaches to how they apply their technology to deliver different levels and types of active noise cancellation. This will depend on their marketing positioning, technology development focus and ultimately their technology capabilities.

Beyond active noise cancellation is where the true innovation will happen as consumers demand new ways to not only reduce noise but become masters of how they control the world of sound around them.

Directional hearing, controlling or shaping soundscapes in real time and focusing on or reducing specific sound elements in that soundscape will ultimately be at consumers finger tips as on-ear Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and microphone technology gets smarter and more intuitive.

Combining these developments with software that enables a seamless user interface could deliver exciting possibilities for the future of noise cancellation in a whole range of applications from social environments to workplaces and even in sports.

*This post was originally published in November of 2019, but has been subsequently edited to include new products and updated tech specs.

February 24th, 2021