Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Hurt Your Ears? You’re Not Alone.
Noise-cancelling headphones are unquestionably popular, but they’re not the right choice for everyone. Active noise cancellation can cause intense discomfort for some people, while others may discover that the sounds they hope to eliminate are still coming through loud and clear.
Before you invest in noise-cancelling headphones, it’s important to understand exactly how noise-cancelling technology works—and what side effects may result when it works well.
Suffering in silence
Many people can just buy top-brand noise-cancelling headphones, put them on, and enjoy their next flight in peace. But some people may find that they can’t stand wearing noise-cancelling headphones for more than a few minutes because they feel pressure in their eardrums—a phenomenon we call “eardrum suck” because it feels like the pressure decrease you experience when riding a high-speed elevator. This pain can be intense enough that people end up stuffing their expensive noise-cancelling headphones in a drawer (as we did) or giving them away.
Eardrum pain is the least of the problems for some listeners, who have told us they also experience headaches, dizziness, or nausea. And the more powerful the noise cancelling, the worse the problem seems to be. Sure, you might be able to turn off the noise-cancelling function and make the problem go away, but then the extra money you likely spent to get noise-cancelling headphones will have been wasted.
Eardrum suck seems to be psychosomatic—there’s no measurable air-pressure difference in noise-cancelling headphones (and yes, we did try to measure it). After speaking with some engineers who have worked on noise-cancelling headphones, we’ve surmised that it likely occurs because of the way some people’s brains process the dramatic and uneven change in sound that happens when they turn on the active noise cancellation. (For an explanation of how active noise cancellation works, check out our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones.) The brain may interpret this shift as a decompression, and it tells your eardrums they’re being sucked out, even though they’re just fine. But the brain rules the body, so pain is the result.
The effectiveness of active noise cancelling (ANC) is usually limited to lower frequencies of sound, below 1 kHz. (Play this video to get an idea of what such a sound is like.) This prevents feedback, or the howl you hear when someone puts a microphone in front of a PA speaker. So you get noise cancelling in the bass frequencies (think jet engine noise) but none in the midrange (voices) and treble (hiss from the airplane’s ventilation system).
Fortunately, the effects subside when you stop using active noise cancellation, and they don’t seem to have a lasting impact. However, for those who suffer from eardrum suck, knowing that the effect is psychosomatic does nothing to ease the discomfort.
Unfortunately, we haven’t found any studies or articles that investigate people’s reactions to noise-cancelling headphones. But the introduction of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, a pair of over-ear headphones with noise cancelling that you can adjust on a 0-to-10 scale, made it possible for us to dig a little deeper to help Wirecutter readers make the best decisions about what kinds of headphones to buy.
We began by polling 70 Wirecutter staffers to get a better idea of what people’s experiences with noise-cancelling headphones have been. Of the 34 who said they had used noise-cancelling headphones, 18 (52 percent) said they had experienced some level of discomfort—which they described as a pain in their ears, a feeling that their ears needed to pop, dizziness, headaches, or nausea. Granted, our survey might be skewed because it included tech-savvy Wirecutter staffers, but if we were to ask random people on the street if they have ever experienced eardrum suck, we might be arrested.
Wirecutter staff writer Nancy Redd opines on the noise isolation of the DirectSound Serenity II headphones. Photo: Rozette Rago
Our headphone testers heard a mix of noise recorded on four different airliners, sourced from an Android phone and played through portable speakers. Photo: Rozette Rago
Wirecutter senior editor Harry Sawyers evaluates headphone noise isolation while portable speakers play airplane cabin noise. Photo: Rozette Rago
We then tested 11 staffers who reported experiencing eardrum suck to make sure they were experiencing actual eardrum suck, and to find out what level of ANC triggered the effect. We started by playing a mixture of noise recorded in four different jet airliners through portable speakers and placing different headphones on our subjects from behind so that they couldn’t tell what they were wearing.
First up was the DirectSound Serenity II, which does not actively cancel noise; we knew that if our subjects reported having eardrum suck with this set of headphones, they were actually experiencing some other type of discomfort, so we disqualified them. We disqualified four participants at this step.
We then moved on to the MEE Audio Matrix Cinema ANC, a pair that our tests show produces a relatively mild noise-cancelling effect, and then to the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II, which we’ve found to deliver great noise cancelling but strong eardrum suck. We finished by asking the subjects to wear the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and to adjust the headphones until they found the best compromise between eardrum suck and effective noise cancelling.
All seven remaining test subjects felt eardrum suck with the Bose QC35 II and NC 700, and they used Bose’s app to adjust the NC 700’s ANC to a point at which they didn’t feel eardrum suck but still got a useful amount of noise cancellation. The level on the 0-to-10 scale varied from participant to participant: one 4, one 5, two 6, one 7, and two 8.
The fact that our test subjects’ results differed within a fairly wide range means we can’t say for sure which headphones will produce eardrum suck and which won’t. However, we can measure headphones to identify the frequency range in which their noise cancelling is effective—and if it’s similar to what we measured from the Bose NC 700 at a setting of 4 or 5, we can warn you that the headphones might produce eardrum suck.
Before choosing a set of noise-cancelling headphones, you should find out if you’re vulnerable to eardrum suck. Many Bose dealers feature active displays that let you try the headphones. All of the over-ear Bose models we’ve tried can produce eardrum suck, but not the QuietComfort 20 or the QuietControl 30, which are earbuds rather than over-ear headphones—and we’re not sure why the effect appears to happen less frequently with earbuds. Or you might have a friend who owns Bose noise-cancelling headphones that you can try.
If you feel discomfort when wearing noise-cancelling headphones, either choose a model with adjustable ANC or buy a pair with relatively mild (although less effective) ANC. Or consider noise-cancelling earbuds, such as the 1More Dual-Driver BT ANC. Except for the new Apple AirPods Pro, none of the noise-cancelling earbuds we’ve tried have produced eardrum suck in our tests.
Even if you don’t experience eardrum suck when you try these headphones, it’s a good idea to buy from an outlet that has a generous return policy, in case you develop discomfort after a few hours.
How do noise-cancelling headphones work? (And why don’t they seem to work sometimes?)
Another issue that may hinder someone’s enjoyment of noise-cancelling headphones stems from having unrealistic expectations. Many people believe that noise-cancelling headphones will block any noise that’s bothering them, but that’s not how the technology works.
As we mentioned above, active noise cancelling is usually limited to lower frequencies of sound, below 1 kHz. (Again, play this video if you want to know what that’s like.) The technology can do an amazing job of eliminating jet engine noise. But what if the noise you want to reduce isn’t down there in the low frequencies with jet engines and Barry White? What if you want a barrier against the chatter of co-workers, the howl of a neighbor’s dog, or the screaming of an unhappy child? Other styles of headphones might be better at blocking these more common (and annoying) types of noise: Salvation comes not from fancy circuitry but from the physical design of the headphones—that is, the material the earcups are made of and the way the earpads seal around your ears.
Many of the best noise-cancelling headphones also have earcups and earpads designed to block as much mid- and high-frequency noise as possible. However, some passive (non-noise-cancelling) headphones might serve you just as well. Almost any closed-back, over-ear headphones will do a reasonable job of attenuating the sounds of conversation, children at play, and the gurgling espresso machines at Starbucks. The over-ear headphones with the best passive attenuation, such as the DirectSound Serenity II pair we mentioned above, can’t completely block these higher-frequency sounds, but they can muffle it to the point where it’s not terribly distracting.
The most reliable way we’ve found of blocking higher-frequency sounds is to use earbuds that are designed to go deep into your ear canals, such as the Campfire Audio Comet, the top pick in our best earbuds guide. We’ve found that many audiophile-style earphones with over-ear cable routing, which can allow the earphones to go deeper into the ear and to fill up more of the earlobe, also do well at blocking higher-frequency sounds. Using foam tips—which come with the Comet and are also available from third-party suppliers such as Comply—can also help.
Figuring out what kinds of external noise you need to block, and what kind of noise-cancelling (or non-noise-cancelling) headphones or earbuds are right for you, may be just as important as the way the headphones sound, feel, and look. We hope we’ve provided some helpful information here, and we encourage you to share your personal experiences in the comments section below to give us a better idea of how prevalent “eardrum suck” is and how people experience it.
The Best Over-Ear Headphones
by Lauren Dragan
Whether you’re looking for the best sound or just to cancel out the noise, we’ve picked the best headphones for anyone who wants an immersive experience.
The Best Headphones
by Lauren Dragan
We’ve tested several hundred headphones, including wireless, noise-cancelling, and even kids headphones, to pick the best headphones in each category.
EASY ACCESS TO EVERYTHING
Get quick access to the key features on your products, like the auto-off timer, volume control and battery readings. And it’s the easiest way to manage multiple Bluetooth connections. But that’s just the beginning.
SHARE THE MUSIC
MUSIC SHARE lets you listen together. Now two pairs of Bose® wireless headphones can share the experience - listen together, at the same time, while one of you DJ’s. New PARTY MODE lets you sync two SoundLink® speakers for double the audio…ideal for listening in two different places, and new STEREO MODE immerses you in music by separating the sound into Left and Right channels across two paired speakers for that amazing stereo experience.
GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR HEADPHONES
CONTROLLABLE NOISE CANCELLATION on our QC®30 headphones lets you decide how much of the world to let in by adjusting the level of noise cancellation right in the app. And the built-in HEART RATE MONITOR for our SoundSport® Pulse headphones displays your heart rate clearly in the app.
AND SO MUCH MORE
From viewing product details to personalizing settings, get the most out of your Bose wireless products. It even downloads the latest software in the background and only installs it when you’re ready. See how our simple app can make all the difference.
* NOTE *
Bose Connect works with Bose Frames, QC®35, SoundSport® wireless, SoundSport® Pulse wireless, SoundSport® Free wireless, QuietControl™ 30, SoundLink® wireless II, ProFlight® headphones, and SoundWear Companion speaker, SoundLink® Color II, SoundLink® Revolve, SoundLink® Revolve+, SoundLink® Micro, and S1 Pro® speakers
Some features may not be available for all products.
The Bluetooth® word mark and logos are registered trademarks owned by Bluetooth SIG, Inc. and any use of such marks by Bose Corporation is under license.
These best-selling Bose noise-canceling headphones are at their lowest price of the year
— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
Whether you're listening to tunes during a commute, rocking out to beats while working out or just trying to cancel out distracting noises, the pair of headphones you choose to use can be a total game-changer. Bose is a leading brand when it comes to noise-canceling and wireless headphones, with the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones in particular regularlyranking highly in our tests—and they're currently on sale for the lowest price they've been this year as part of Amazon's Early Black Friday 2021 Epic Daily Deals event.
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Typically selling for $299, they're currently marked down to $249 in both silver and black at Amazon for a savings of $50. In testing, we found them to be to be both light and comfortable to wear for hours at a time, if a little hot. They were also highly effective at removing ambient sounds in the environment, such as the rumble from a train or the hum of an air conditioner—a fact that's not too terribly surprising, as the brand has a reputation for offering stellar active noise control (ANC).
The QuietComfort 35 II are also compatible with Alexa, so you can have the voice assistant queue up your favorite playlist or answer and end calls without ever having to grab your phone. Throw in an impressive 20 hours of battery life per charge, and you just may have the perfect earphones—especially at this discounted price.
Get the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones at Amazon for $249 (save $50).
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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
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Carrying the torch for Bose's enduringly popular QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphone range brings with it certain preconceptions – and not just in terms of class-leading ANC performance. This is, after all, a line that has largely impressed across the board for the best part of two decades.
So how does the latest and supposedly greatest pair, the long-awaited QuietComfort 45 (stylised to Bose QC45), stack up for durability, usability and sound quality – as well as the anticipated upgrade when it comes to blocking extraneous noise? Let’s get cracking to find out...
Bose made its name taking its proprietary noise-cancelling technology from specialist cans worn by pilots and distilling it so that it could be added to mass-produced consumer headphones. As such, it prices its own products squarely in the premium space – the QC45 cost £320 ($329, AU$499). That said, that's nowhere near as dear as the Apple AirPods Max (£549, $549, AU$899).
Priced as they are, Bose's main competitor is the Sony WH-1000XM4 (£350, $350, AU$550), which it has just about managed to undercut in terms of the launch price.
Interestingly, Bose has not posited the new QC45 as its flagship noise-cancelling over-ears – that mantle remains with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which arrived in 2019 and marked the company's first noise-cancelling over-ear departure from its QuietComfort range. They hit the shelves at £350 ($399, AU$599) but can now be found for around the same price as the new QC45, or even a smidgeon less.
Anyone hoping for a complete revamp of the 2019-released QC35 II (which are themselves minor updates on the 2016 QC35), brace yourselves: the QC45 are virtually indistinguishable from their predecessor – visually, at least.
In a game of spot-the-difference between the two, look closely and you’ll find a USB-C charging port instead of the now archaic micro USB. The underside padded portion of the headband is now smooth rather than suede-like, too, and the earpads are no longer pleated.
There are also some very minor tweaks to the earcups. They now have vents, in a bid to add depth and fullness without increasing their size, and Bose has apparently reinforced the headband with glass-filled nylon to protect them when dropped and to help maintain their shape. The plastic also feels marginally more streamlined with smaller gaps between casework elements, but you have to look really closely to spot any of this.
The subtlety of the updates here are hardly surprising considering the incremental upgrades Bose has made historically between headphone iterations (and those Sony has made between its XM3 and XM4, for instance) and it’ll come as welcome news to QC35 II owners that their cans certainly won’t look dated against the newer model – if it ain’t broke, etc. Nevertheless, for anyone who wanted to see what Bose’s design team might produce if given free rein to tear up the QuietComfort rule book and start again, the wait continues.
Bose QuietComfort 45 tech specs
Battery life 24 hours
Dimensions (hwd) 18.4cm x 15.24cm x 7.62cm
App Bose Music
Quick charge Yes, via USB-C
The location of the physical buttons – four buttons on the right ear cup for power, volume and playback; one on the left for switching between the two noise-cancelling and transparency modes – remain. In fact, even the drivers in the QC45 are unchanged from the QC35 II.
As with previous Bose noise-cancelling headphones, the QC45 are built with travel in mind; their double-hinge feature means they can be folded up for easy storage in the included carry case. Again – and as anyone familiar with the QC35 II will know – the design here is comfortable, with generous padding on the earcups alongside enough clamping force to stay secure.
So what, aside from USB-C quick-charge, justifies the update? Well, you now get a total of six mics with four beamforming (instead of four, with two beamforming, in the QC35 II), which should mean a solid step up in terms of noise-cancellation.
You also now get a battery life boost: 24 hours up from 20 hours, with a five-minute quick-charge returning 2.5 hours of playback. During our testing, we found those battery claims to be true, too.
Thanks to Bluetooth 5.1, the Bose QuietComfort 45 now offer true multi-point pairing. In the Bose Music app, we head to the source tab and, once paired, toggle both our iPhone and MacBook Pro on simultaneously. Now, we can listen to music on our phone and jump on a Zoom call or catch a YouTube tutorial on our laptop, and the audio switches automatically. When you switch the headphones on, a voice announces which devices you’re connected to – a neat touch that, while not a unique feature in headphones, feels especially well implemented here.
It’s worth noting that the Bose QC45 support the AAC Bluetooth codec, but not aptX or aptX HD for higher-resolution audio streaming from compatible sources. This isn’t the end of the world – the Sony WH-1000XM4 don’t support aptX either – but it is a noteworthy omission at this premium level.
In terms of call quality, those extra external microphones promise improved voice pickup that actually isolates and focuses on your voice, aided by Bose’s noise-rejecting algorithm to filter out extraneous sounds. We answer calls on a busy high street and find Bose true to its word: callers report that our voice is clear and virtually devoid of any passing car noise – quite remarkable.
When considering the new Bose QC45 as a sonic proposition, however, the big draw is surely the performance when it comes to cancelling extraneous noise. Are they better than the immediate competition here? We take to the pavement and hit ‘Quiet’ in the Bose Music app, deploying noise-cancellation. Particularly in the midrange, where voices are most apparent, we find the answer is ‘yes’, the level of noise-reduction is improved. Passing cars are all but gone. If you’re waiting for the ‘but’, here it comes: there’s no scope to tweak the levels of noise cancellation or the new ‘Aware’ mode, which filters in ambient sounds such as traffic or passers-by so you can hear your surroundings when you need to.
The sound profiles are preset in what Bose calls its 'Active EQ', and there are no options to tweak them further than ‘on’ one profile or the other. Anyone hoping to turn their profiles off entirely, or for the 11 levels of noise-cancellation found in the more robustly-featured Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, take note – you won’t get that here. You cannot currently optimise the treble, bass or midrange of the QC45 either, although EQ customisation could be added following a firmware update.
If you simply want extraneous noise nixed in the office, we give the new Bose QC45 the edge over the Sony WH-1000XM4. That’s quite a statement – and for many, that will be enough. However, you’ll have to forego a whole host of extra features offered by the XM4 for the privilege, such as wearer detection and auto-pause, Speak to Chat (Sony’s over-ears can pause playback when they detect your voice), EQ optimisation and Sony’s adaptive sound control (which can detect whether you’re sitting at home, walking, running or on public transport) for starters.
Truth be told, the settings tab in the Bose Music app for the QC45 is a rather basic affair. The only truly customisable option under the Preferences tab is ‘Self Voice’, which adjusts how much of your own voice you’d like to hear on a call. It works well, but it completes a fairly meagre feature set at this premium level.
Features and noise-cancellation profiles aside, a set of wireless headphones always lives and dies by the strength of its sound quality. And we're pleased to report that the Bose QC45 don't sign their own death warrant here.
We cue up Safari by J Balvin, Pharrell Williams, BIA and Sky on Tidal, and the energetic reggaeton track is delivered with excitement and zeal across the frequencies. It never suffers from bloatedness through a grippy bassline.
Our playlist continues to Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina and the leading edges of notes through the track’s driving bassline are present, full and impactful. That said, in Belly Danza by Don Omar and Beenie Man (an exceptional track that sees reggaeton meet dancehall and Cuba meet Jamaica in a raucous, head-nodding, Spanish-English vocal-heavy rap), we become aware of a shortfall concerning timing. We’ve got the various hype men and Cuban salsa riffs, and we’ve got the element of bite and resonance through Beenie Man’s considered juicy lower registers, but it’s a slightly confusing mix rather than a cohesive, foot-tapping one.
Switching to Billy Joel’s Piano Man, the keys are sparkling and three-dimensional through the treble and the bass injection adds weight and detail to the harmonica. Played through the class-leading Sony WH-1000XM4, however, the soft drums in our left ear and the glorious mandolin in our right are just two of the musical strands that are better held in check. Although there’s still space for Joel’s emotive vocal in the QC45's presentation, we find the Sonys offer a greater sense of dynamic build through the vocals.
Stream Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road and the pensive, quiet harmonica and keys appear more sensitively and build with greater dynamic impact through the rise and fall of each ever-louder note of the intro through WH-1000XM4, too. It may sound a relatively small issue, but the incremental build offered by the Bose QC45 does come off slightly crude in direct comparison.
If you want a set of wireless over-ear headphones you can put on, deploy noise-cancelling on your commute or at your desk and largely extinguish the outside world for up to 24 hours, the Bose QC 45 has the edge over most of the competition at the price. And for many, that will be the end of the story.
Sonically, your money can buy better. And if you want a more tailored noise-cancelling experience, an auto-pause function when you remove them, or sound EQ adjustment, you might be better shopping elsewhere.
We understand the inclination to stick to a winning design recipe, and that attitude has produced another very likeable pair of QuietComfort headphones. However, given the five-year wait for a significant revamp in the QC range, it's fair to say we had hoped for more.
The best noise cancelling headphones you can buy
Read our review of the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 headphones
Read our review of the Bose QC35 II
Read our review of the Sony WH-1000XM4
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What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.
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Bose QuietComfort 35 Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones II
Turn any space into an instant office — or simply a place to unwind, listen to music, or make phone calls. Bose QuietComfort 35 Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones II deliver everything you need to be productive: world-class noise cancellation, Bluetooth for quick wireless connectivity, and a dual-mic system to make or receive clear phone calls, even in loud environments. With Alexa and Google Assistant built in, you can control music, send & receive texts, and get answers using just your voice - without looking at your phone. Just press and hold the Action button, and start talking. With Bose QuietComfort 35 Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones II you can be free from wires by connecting easily to your devices with Bluetooth® and NFC pairing. They feature up to 20 hours of wireless listening per charge and are designed with premium materials that make them lightweight and comfortable for all-day wear.
Hybrid Wired / WirelessAbility to plug into audio jack provides added flexibility when wireless connection is not possible
Noise CancelingReduces unwanted sounds using active noise control.
Built-In MicrophoneComes with a microphone that is used for recording
Water-ResistantProduct is able to resist the penetration of water to some degree.
Bose is introducing its first new portable Bluetooth speaker in quite a while. The $149 SoundLink Flex has a ruggedized design with an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance, 12-hour battery life, and what Bose claims is “astonishing” audio performance for its size.
At 7.9 inches wide, 3.6 inches high, 2.1 inches deep, and weighing slightly over one pound, the SoundLink Flex is nicely compact and has a built-in utility loop for attaching to a carabiner. It’ll be sold in three colors: there’s black, smoke white, and blue.
Inside the SoundLink Flex is a custom transducer that Bose says is “as big as could fit” and capable of producing “bass that you can feel in your chest.” Using a feature that Bose calls “PositionIQ,” the speaker can detect what orientation its in — upright, hanging, or flat on its back — and tune audio output accordingly.
The speaker has a silicone back and powder-coated steel grille, and Bose claims it’s designed to resist corrosion and fend off any discoloration from UV light. With that IP67 rating, it’s a pool-safe speaker, and Bose says it’ll float to the surface when dropped into water.
There’s nothing particularly “smart” about the SoundLink Flex, but it can be linked up with any Bose smart speakers or soundbars you’ve got at home. And you can stereo pair it with another SoundLink Flex or a different Bose portable speaker. There’s also a built-in microphone for taking calls and interacting with the voice assistant on your phone. (Bose still sells the much pricier Portable Smart Speaker for $400 with built-in voice capabilities, but you can do better for less money than that.)
At $149, the SoundLink undercuts products like the Sonos Roam, though it doesn’t match that speaker’s wide set of features. Bose also has to contend with impressive Bluetooth speaker competition from JBL, UE, and others. Still, the company’s portable speakers have a way of sounding much better than you’d expect based on their size, so I’m looking forward to hearing what the SoundLink Flex is capable of.
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