Sound studio

Is ANC Worth Having Cheaper Headphones?

REVIEW: Noise canceling headphones have become the “thing” to have. Virtually every brand has a noise canceling pair in their range, usually a flagship model that carried the technology that marked them as the premium option.

But this is no longer the case. There has been a growth in the overall growth of the true wireless market with cheaper noise canceling headphones arriving every month. After spending quite a bit of time over this new year reviewing them, the question I wonder if there’s an answer to is whether cheaper headphones really need active noise cancellation?

The first wireless headphones with ANC that I can remember were the Urbanista London, and they did an impressive job. Since then, Beats Studio Buds, Cleer’s Ally Plus II, Sennheiser’s CX Plus, Edifier’s NeoBuds Pro and many more have joined the fray. It in turn has, or at least is in the process of, making noise cancellation a must-have feature at this lower price point.

The potential problem is that in the minds of manufacturers this marks ANC as a ticking exercise, while from a consumer perspective the lower the price the more likely it is to become an impulse buy like headphones Movboi at £50 recently announced. But while the noise cancellation at this price can be good, the performance disparity can be significant.

It occurred to me when testing Sennheiser’s CX Plus that the noise isolation qualities of the earphone design were already so good that the noise cancellation didn’t add much other than eliminating some residual ambient noise. You could save a lot of money and buy the CX True Wireless, which is pretty much the same in design and performance apart from the lack of noise cancellation.

What seems to be more important is the fit and seal that these earphones provide, as this will have the greatest effect. The design of some cheaper headphones – like the Ally Plus II’s corkscrew appearance – would seem to make it harder to block out noise due to its loose fit. It makes it even more impressive that it blocks out as much noise as it does.

At this end of the market, the focus should be on providing the best and most ergonomic design. Technic’s AZ40 True Wireless doesn’t support noise cancellation, but the shape of the earphones eliminates more noise than the models mentioned in this column because the fit is so tight.

Noise canceling is becoming a requirement, a requirement that consumers seek out and attempt because it’s cheap – but it’s not necessary. You can never be too sure about performance (although you could say the same for high-end headphones), and if we could look beyond ANC – the resources and energy it requires of an earphone – and focus on other areas that could still be improved like battery life and call quality, that would be a really useful direction to go.

That’s not to say the noise canceling isn’t justified at this price point. There are excellent examples of its effectiveness, but it should not become everything for everyone and applied when it is deserved. I’ll always appreciate using a cheap ANC earphone, but after reviewing the earphones we reviewed, none exceeded four stars. Maybe having that feature over the high end headphones that do it so well means they’ll never really be as good, and maybe having it these headphones don’t realize their full potential.