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Often, when people have wanted to reduce sound from nearby conversations, people have recommended noise cancellation headphones. However, I have heard that they cannot block this kind of noise. They are only effective for steady, monotonous sounds like what comes from a machine or perhaps the chatter of a crowded school playground (the closest they come to knocking out talk).

Do noise cancelling headphones actually block human speech and public announcements (in trains and trams)?

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It depends. Some NC headphones are specifically designed to ignore sounds in the voice frequency range. Mine does that, but the headphones are thick enough that it still muffles out most conversations. –  Muz Dec 24 '13 at 6:01
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7 Answers 7

Noise cancellation headphones can actually cope very well with this sort of situation, because they completely control the sound in a way a PA system can't.

The microphone allows the headphones to pick up the noise which would enter your ear and play it back out of phase. It does work best with constant sounds, such as the background noise on an aeroplane or road noise etc., but it successfully works to a greater or lesser degree across a wide range of frequencies.

From ocertain's review on Amazon:

they are better at cancelling some types of noise than others. With the noise cancellation engaged and no music playing, on one side of the scale - the whoosh of the building's climate control system disappears completely. On the opposite side - nearby voices, including an office-mate with a "public speaker's voice", are still there but sound very far away. If I apply a low volume of music to the headphones with the noise-cancellation engaged, I'm completely isolated from the surrounding din. Nirvana.

Additionally, the headphones attenuate the sound considerably so the out of phase sound doesn't have to be at a high level.

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I think a link to a detailed discussion of how noise canceling headphones deal with ambient conversations work would be helpful as I've also read that some (Bose specifically IIRC) are specifically designed to not, or less significantly attenuate noise in the frequencies of typical human speech for safety and situational awareness reasons. –  Adam Wuerl May 12 '13 at 19:57
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I've used a pair of Bose noise canceling headphones in the office for 8 years. They work best at removing the hum of the air conditioner or a noisy computer fan. The sound of conversations are dulled and with the music playing, most conversations go unnoticed.

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I've used two models, AKG K28NC and Sony NC11. Turning noise cancellation on does muffle conversations a bit, but it certainly does not knock them out, not even close to how airplane engine is muted down for example.

My current Etymotics with tight-fitting foam tips (they do not have active NC, only passive isolation) do cancel both speech and hum, and overall they are way better at providing silence than both of those ever did. IMO active noise-canceling is much oversold.

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I work in an open office that is mostly quiet with bursts of people talking. In my experience my Panasonic RP-HC500 Noise Canceling headphones don't really work very well blocking out conversations (particularly one-side phone conversations.)
For these, I've found my Audio-Technica ATH M50 around the ear headphones (with some music) + ear plugs example work much better.

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The Bose Quiet Comfort 20 comes close though. I'm in an open plan office, and these filter out most of the voices, only the colleagues close to me speaking in my direction I can hear them muffled. If I put on a very low volume of music I can't hear them at all.

A bit on the expensive side, but comfortable. Some pictures and a small review here : http://www.routerjanitor.com/2013/12/bose-quietcomfort-20-review-headphones.html

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I understand this isn't directly related to the question, but one way to get around the issue with normal headphones is to play white noise or the sound of rain. A trick I've learned is to wear earplugs while playing this, then I put on my hood to block out peripheral distractions. It works like a charm, it's like you're the only one in the room even if it's crowded with people discussing.

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Steady-state noise, that is, a sound whose frequency content (spectrogram) changes very slowly like a fan, is easiest for such headphones to model and then "cancel."

Other sounds, with transient behavior like speech, are better dealt with by masking, that is, by hearing other (louder) sounds with similar frequency content and perhaps similar transients.

The field that deals with these things is called psychoacoustics. Now you know enough to google further and earn a Ph.D. in it if you're patient enough.

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