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Noise Cancelling Headphones With No Music: Do They Work?

Silent Home Hub Noise Cancelling Headphones No Music

Peace and quiet can be hard to come by when you don’t have space all to yourself. (Trust us, we’ve been there).

Any place will have background noise and sounds that can distract you — from the bus on your daily commute, to the office, or even back home. Sometimes,  you can’t help but hear the kid next door throwing a tantrum or the construction ongoing along your street!

For times like these, noise cancellation technology is a GODSEND — but will noise-canceling headphones work even without music?

Simply put: Yes, they do. BUT it depends on what headphones you have and how you use them.

Table of Contents

Everything You Need to Know About Noise Cancelling Headphones

How Noise Cancelling Headphones Work

Noise cancelling headphones work by cancelling out background noise from your surroundings. That’s the basic concept.

BUT LUCKY FOR YOU, we’ve tried noise-canceling headphones ourselves to share our experience!

It’s important to understand what this means a little deeper to manage your expectations.

While they can cancel out certain noises, they actually only reduce them and cannot get rid of them completely.

Do They Really Work as Well Without Music?

The thing is, noise-cancelling headphones work great to FILTER out ambient noise but are still designed to work best with music playing.

Moreover, they won’t be able to get rid of sounds with specific frequencies (this is determined by the type of noise-canceling headphones you choose).

If you do plan on turning on your headphones’ noise-cancelling feature without music, you will still hear muffled sounds and sort of hiss-like sounds (more on these sounds later).

Still, the way noise-cancelling headphones work ASSURES you that those annoying noise levels DROP SIGNIFICANTLY even without music.

There are mainly 3 different kinds of technology employed by noise-cancelling headphones:

  1. Passive
  2. Active
  3. Adaptive

The different types of noise-cancelling technology all have their benefits and disadvantages, making one or the other the better option for some people.

Let’s discuss each type below.

Types of Noise-Cancelling Headphones: Which Should You Get?

1. Passive Noise Cancellation/Noise Isolation

Out of all the types of noise-cancelling, passive noise-cancelling technology is the simplest. Passive noise isolation blocks out background noise by way of the headphones’ physical design.

It’s also referred to as PASSIVE NOISE ISOLATION, aiming to isolate the sound you hear coming from the headphones themselves.

Although technically, every set of headphones already uses passive noise-cancelling technology because they work to physically block ambient noise from entering your ear the same way earplugs do.

There are, of course, certain models and brands designed to work MORE EFFECTIVELY than your average pair of earplugs in blocking out noise.

The way the headphones FIT over your head, cup over ear, and the MATERIALS they are made of all contribute to how well they accomplish passive noise cancellation.

Pros & Cons: Who It’s For

If you’re on a budget and need something simple to use that can help you concentrate, passive noise isolation headphones would be a good option.

They don’t require a power source, and they filter out just enough noise so that you’re still aware of your surroundings.

Moreover, there won’t be an effect on the music or whatever audio you’re listening to because there’s NO HISSING from the noise cancelation.

HOWEVER, passive noise-cancelling headphones will definitely be much heavier to carry around or have on top of your head.

Another con is you have no option to play music if ever you feel like playing a tune. So if you’re the type to listen to music often, going for this type might not be the best option for you.

2. Active Noise Cancellation

In addition to noise isolation, active noise cancelation or ANC also works to ACTIVELY ELIMINATE ambient noise with certain frequencies.

These noise-cancelling headphones make use of microphones to detect certain noises around you.

What comes next will shock you:

The headphones analyze the surrounding noise and send out an equal but opposite sound wave to cancel those sounds out.

This is what produces a hiss-like sound when you turn active noise cancelation headphones on.

Active noise cancellation was actually first invented for use in-flight.

Bose’s active noise-canceling headphones, the Aviation headset, quickly became popular among aircraft pilots — which is one important thing to note about active noise canceling headphones.

If you’re not a pilot or frequent flyer, you could try out these COWIN E7 ANC headphones instead.

Pros and Cons: Who It’s For

Since they were designed to work best for blocking the low frequency sounds of an aircraft engine running (frequencies lower than 1,000 Hz), a human voice will sometimes slip through.

This naturally makes it so that active noise cancellation headphones CANNOT COMPLETELY block out all human speech.

Aside from usually being of higher frequency sounds, human speech tends to fluctuate in tone.

The way active noise cancellation works, there is naturally a slight delay in its noise cancelling. What does this delay mean?

This means it works best against noise that is constant, repetitive, or longer-lasting.

This is why active noise cancellation headphones work great in-flight against the sounds of an aircraft engine, even if it’s without music playing.

3. Adaptive ANC

Finally, we have adaptive active noise cancellation technology.

Adaptive noise cancelling without music is relatively new, although there are now many available on the market.

They work similarly to active noise cancellation headphones— but with additional, better, and customizable features.

Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation technology headphones have different levels of noise-cancelling, and they have more sensitive microphones too.

They can provide the BEST AUDIO EXPERIENCE when listening to music by picking up and canceling out the frequencies of even MORE sounds.

Another big difference lies in adaptive-active-noise-cancellation headphones’ use of advanced algorithms that can adjust sound performance in real-time.

These headphones ADAPT to changes in your environment and even how the headphones fit in your ear.

For example, if a strand of hair happens to get in between your ears and your headphones, it will ADJUST to make up for any leak-through that may occur.

Other examples include:

  • If you’re on an airplane or using public transportation, adaptive noise-cancelling headphones will adjust to cancel out the lower frequency noises and sounds of an engine running.
  • If you’re in a public space with lots of people, the noise-canceling headphones will adjust its settings to best fit your environment by canceling out the higher frequency sound of voices.

Pros & Cons: Who It’s For

Unlike with passive noise isolation headphones, the battery life of these noise-canceling headphones is its biggest drawback. You’re going to need a power source to charge these headphones frequently.

HOWEVER, compared to passive noise isolation, adaptive ANC headphones produce an overall better sound.

Without a doubt, these active noise-cancelling headphones will provide you with the BEST audio quality and a more pleasant listening experience.

Since the headphones will be doing all the noise reduction for you, you’ll be at ease with your ears and brain having less work to do.

All you need to do is enjoy your music or concentrate on whatever audio you have on while the sounds of the rest of the world fade away (for a much heftier price tag).

Music and sound quality aside, these noise-cancelling headphones will be WAY LIGHTER and probably more comfortable to wear on your ears compared to passive noise isolation headphones.

Even if you do have to worry about the headphone’s battery life and looking for a power source, there are ANC headphones available with a charging case or an auto-off option to conserve battery power.


We highly recommend Sony’s WH1000XM3 noise-canceling headphones or their updated WH1000XM4 model. The noise-cancelling features and music experience are OUT OF THIS PLANET.

Not to mention, it comes with a USB-C cable for fast charging! Seriously! With a reliable power source, 10 minutes of charging gives you 5 hours of play time!

How to Choose the Best Headphones

There are many types of noise-cancelling headphones available, each with different benefits and disadvantages that would suit some people better than others, such as:

  • Some may be music lovers that are most concerned with overall audio quality
  • Some may need something practical for work or to help concentrate on their workouts, even if it’s without music
  • And finally, some people may be most concerned with the way headphones fit into their ears, how comfortably they can listen to music, or how well they drown out enough distracting sounds for deep sleep.

Not to worry! We’ve prepared questions and factors to help you decide!

Comfort and Leisure

For those that do, it might take a little bit of trial and error to look for a pair of headphones that fit over your head and over ear perfectly.

If your biggest concern is comfort and you want a budget-friendly option, passive noise isolation headphones would be a good choice.

They may even be a better choice for those who are extra sensitive to even the slightest noise source and want headphones to help them sleep.

Since noise-cancelling headphones work by sending out sound waves to cancel out ambient noise and other noise when turned on, this can be an additional point of discomfort.

Without music playing, the headphones produce slight pressure along with that aforementioned background hiss that can be heard when they’re turned on.

Additionally, since passive noise isolation works better depending on how well noise-canceling headphones fit and the materials they are made of, they will probably fit snugly and comfortably even if they’re not lightweight.

But if you’re an audiophile who’s willing to spend a lot more, adaptive ANC headphones will no doubt be your best bet.

Headphones or Earbuds?

For some, the best headphones without music aren’t actually noise-canceling headphones. They’re earbuds.

Some might find headphones or anything that covers their heads and ears uncomfortable — so earbuds would be a much better option for them, especially if it’s for without music playing.

Headphones will also naturally be bulkier and heavier compared to earbuds, especially since materials used to block out noise tend to be heavier.

However, this means that the better the noise isolation on noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, the heavier or bulkier they will probably be.

On the one hand, an in-ear option can feel uncomfortable for others, and there may also be some cause for concern for your ears when using earbuds.

Noise-induced trauma by listening to music too loudly through in-ear buds is a legitimate fear since they deliver sounds directly into your ear canal.

With noise-canceling headphones, this is less of a danger. Since they are better at noise isolation, you won’t feel the need to turn up your music quite as loud.

If you’re looking for equipment to drown out loud noises from your computer, then headphones are probably the better choice than earbuds.

Headphones vs Earbuds: Are You a Side Sleeper?

Choosing between the two will depend on 1 SIMPLE QUESTION: Do you sleep on your side?

If you are looking for something to help block out noise for better shut-eye at night AND — you sleep on your side, EARBUDS will be better for you.

Although, if you don’t plan on listening to music to sleep, noise isolation headphones will do a much better job at creating a quieter environment. It works even without music.

An over-ear option will definitely be able to block out even more sounds compared to in-ear ones.

But if you DO want to listen to music, ANC headphones or buds provide better audio and an overall pleasant music listening experience to help you relax.

Choosing between headphones and earbuds all boils down to your lifestyle and preferences!

On the Go

For those busy bees that need peace and quiet on-the-go, ANC headphones or earbuds will be best.

They’re much lighter and will be flexible enough to use in a variety of environments.

Will You Use Them During Exercise?

Athletes and those that love to work out listen to music to pace themselves, pump up and motivate them, or even help time their workout sets.

Music can be an integral part of someone’s workout program and because of all the sweat and movement.

IF THIS SOUNDS LIKE YOU, a wireless in-ear would be best.

It would also be good to look out for options meant for sports and physical activity. They should be water and sweat-resistant so you can listen to your music without worry!

Do You Want a Pair Good for Travel?

Music can make any moment feel extra special and often plays a big part when traveling. The right music can make your trips feel epic, or at least keep you calm when you’re about to take off.

But it’s never a fun experience when you miss your stop or an important announcement about your boarding time, so for those that need headphones for travel, a non-adaptive ANC option would be best.

These headphones will BLOCK OUT JUST ENOUGH noise so you can listen to your music in peace without exerting the extra effort to pay special attention to your surroundings.

What About Headsets for Work and Fun?

Besides music professionals in need of a good set of headphones, a good headset is also important for other work — and not just for aircraft pilots!

For those who work from home or often hold video-call meetings online with their teammates or clients, a good microphone is key to ensure you’re always heard loud and clear.

Since active noise cancellation headphones use microphones to adapt to the environment and background noise around you, it usually follows (of course, this isn’t always the case) that the headset’s mic is of higher quality.

Which Noise-Cancelling Headphones Should You Get?

Noise-cancelling headphones/headset like the Bose 700 are the perfect example.

The Bose 700 boasts 11 levels of active noise cancelling and 20-hour battery life, amongst many other features for the best music experience.

Moreover, adaptive ANC headphones like these tend to have incredibly sensitive microphones with better voice pickup.

BUT IF YOU WANT SOMETHING BETTER THAN BOSE (Yes, there actually is), it would be none other than the Sony WH1000XM3 (or the updated model: WH1000XM4)

Apart from its excellent microphone capabilities, the WH1000XM3 has 50 hours of battery performance and FAR BETTER noise-canceling performance.

Overall, adaptive ANC headphones are the best noise-cancelling headphones and headsets, producing the best audio and music experience amongst all the different types.

They are suitable not just for music or work, but also for those who love to game online with friends! A headset with great AUDIO AND MIC QUALITY can upgrade your gaming experience.

There are several products for these types of headphones without music that target various needs, ranging from mid to high-end pricing. Bose and Sony are at the top of the game in this regard, so you won’t go wrong with either one!

Final Words: Using Noise Cancelling Headphones Without Music

Woman sitting on couch with wearing headphones and laptop on lap

If you really need the option of using noise-cancelling headphones without music playing, models that feature adaptive active noise cancellation would probably work best for you.

These models will not only produce the best audio quality for when you do listen to music or any sort of audio, but they will also be able to adapt to your environment.

Despite being expensive and having the ability to analyze and eliminate background noise accordingly, they often have better microphones overall. This means better voice recognition for when you need to speak on conference calls or play games!

But for those people on a budget who don’t mind the extra pressure and a bit of noise leaking through without music on, passive noise isolation headphones or earbuds are straightforward, simple, and are an affordable quick fix.

We hope this guide answers your question on whether noise-cancelling headphones work without music!


July 12, 2021 – updated article links, removed product links

June 22, 2021 – updated title and featured image

June 21, 2021 – fixed article formatting, updated article links, optimized content

About the Author


Andrea has always been bombarded by the hustle and bustle outside her home. Living in the city doesn’t get any quieter. The never ending noise from construction, traffic, and dogs barking on the streets day in and day out drove Andrea to a breaking point.

For 3 years, Andrea committed herself to studying DIY hacks, performing soundproofing experiments, and installing noise-free solutions. Now, she lives a quiet life free of the stress from noisy environments.

She hopes to share this knowledge so that others don’t have to endure the noise reigning in their ears and live a peaceful, stress-free life.