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Noise Cancelling Headphones


Noise-cancelling headphones are headphones that reduce unwanted ambient sounds using active noise control. This is different from “passive headphones” which use techniques such as soundproofing to keep unwanted sound out. This tool is suppose to help remove distracting background noises and allow users to focus on the sounds presented by the headphones. However, some people have taken to use this product simply to block out background noise, without actually listening to anything with the headphones (IE having them on their ears without having any music playing).  This product could be used this way by students while trying to complete independent tasks in a noisy classroom to silence ambient noise, especially those who are sensitive to ambient sounds.


Noise cancelling headphones were originally created for use by airplane cockpit staff, as this environment has lots of background noise but also involves relaying crucial information accurately to other onboard staff and staff on the ground in air traffic control. Much of the research on the topic has therefore been carried out in aviation research contexts.


The research shows that noise cancelling headphones increase information recall ability compared to conditions without headphones use. More elaborately, when presented with information to be later recalled, those who used noise-cancelling headphones during exposure to the target information were better able to recall this information at a later time (Molesworth, Burgess, and Kwon, 2013). This design was further complicated by giving participants another task to complete (a simple math task) during the information exposure period. Results show that individuals performed at similar levels when completing the dual-task with headphones as they did at completing the single-task without headphones. This implies that the strain of the background noise affected performance in a similar way that increasing the complexity of the task did (Molesworth, Burgess, & Kwon, 2013).


The effect of background noise on performance is more substantial for non-native speakers than it is for native speakers. This was demonstrated in a study by the same research team that found the effect of noise on performance was significantly greater for non-native speakers who recalled just over four items compared to their native English speaking counterparts who recalled on average just under eight items correctly (Molesworth, Burgess, Gunnell, & Venjakob, 2014). This research team further found that in the presence of background noise, the use of noise cancelling headphones provides a little benefit in improving performance in the auditory task for the native English speakers, however it provided a more significant performance boost for non-native speakers.

It was also noted that the noise-cancelling feature seems to be the active ingredient, as simply using the headphones as earmuff (with the noise cancelling feature disabled) had no increased effects on performance for any condition (Molesworth et al., 2014).


These products have been proposed as a solution for students with noise sensitivities, such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). One research team looked at how noise cancelling headphones and conventional earmuffs could work to suppress unwanted auditory stimuli. They found that noise-cancelling headphones helped by eliminating sounds that could have potentially triggered problematic behaviours for some students (Ikuta et al., 2016). However they found that traditional earmuffs were equally effective in this regard. They did however caution that some participants with ASD flatly refused to wear the headphones, probably do to other sensory sensitivities (the feeling, weight, or pressure of the headphones/earmuffs) (Ikuta et al., 2016).


While it has been demonstrated that noise-cancelling headphones are effective at reducing background noise, there have not been any studies to our knowledge using them in the classroom. However, it has been well demonstrated that background noise can decrease performance on a variety of school tasks such as writing (Keus van de Poll, & Sörqvist, 2016) perceiving speech (Manan, Yusoff, Franz, & Mukari, 2017), and has been shown to exacerbate symptoms of inattention in individuals with ADHD (Bubl et al., 2015). It would make sense then that reducing background noise with noise cancelling headphones would be helpful for students struggling with sensory regulation or attention; however, this connection has not been experimentally validated.


  • Effectively reduce background noise



  • Can be expensive.


To Consider

  • In some instances, simple earmuffs have been shown to be equally effective to those with active noise-cancelling technology. Since earmuffs are often much cheaper than noise cancelling headphones, they could be a superior choice for some students. However in other instances, noise cancelling headphones have proven superior to earmuffs.

Special Consideration: Workflow

OS Compatibility
Internet Reliance
Optimized Use

Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed. 

$ - Under $5

$$ - Between $6 and $50

$$$ - Between $51 and $250

$$$$ - Over $250


Bubl, E., Dörr, M., Riedel, A., Ebert, D., Philipsen, A., Bach, M., & Tebartz van Elst, L. (2015). Elevated Background Noise in Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Is Associated with Inattention. PLoS ONE, 10(2), e0118271.

Ikuta, N., Iwanaga, R., Tokunaga, A., Nakane, H., Tanaka, K., & Tanaka, G. (2016). Effectiveness of earmuffs and noise-cancelling headphones for coping with hyper-reactivity to auditory stimuli in children with autism spectrum disorder: A Preliminary study. Hong Kong Journal of Occupational Therapy, 28(Complete), 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.hkjot.2016.09.001

Keus van de Poll, M., & Sörqvist, P. (2016). Effects of task interruption and background speech on word processed writing. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(3), 430-439. doi:10.1002/acp.3221

Manan, H. A., Yusoff, A. N., Franz, E. A., & Mukari, S. M. (2017). Effects of Aging and Background Babble Noise on Speech Perception Processing: An fMRI Study. Neurophysiology, 1-12.

Molesworth, B. R. C., Burgess, M., & Kwon, D. (2013). The use of noise cancelling headphones to improve concurrent task performance in a noisy environment. Applied Acoustics, 74(1), 110-115. doi:10.1016/j.apacoust.2012.06.015

Molesworth, B., Burgess, M., Gunnell, B., & Venjakob, A. (2014). The effect on recognition memory of noise cancelling headphones in a noisy environment with native and nonnative speakers. , (71), 240. Retrieved from

Written by Harrison McNaughtan, Last Revision November 2018

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