I’m a noise-cancelling newbie and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing out on

Sony WF-1000XM4
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Noise-cancelling technology is not new, but I myself am very much new to noise-cancelling technology. Only since joining the What Hi-Fi? team back in July have I had my eyes opened to the power of ANC.

Despite my lifelong love affair with hi-fi, active noise cancelling wasn’t a feature I was bothered about in wireless earbuds until this year. 

The reason was that I simply didn’t think I’d need it, and I also wasn’t willing to pay the asking price that comes with most, if not all, highly-rated earbuds featuring ANC tech. 

When it comes to audio gear, my attention has generally always been spent on pieces of kit for my home. Instruments, speakers, turntables, wired headphones, the sorts of things where noise-cancelling doesn’t come into the equation at all.

The way I saw them in my day-to-day life, wireless earbuds were purely utilitarian – a simple distraction on a journey. Sounding good was a must of course, but they didn’t need to be world-beaters. Primarily, I just wanted to drown out the monotony of trains, planes, crying children and the like with my favourite music. I also preferred to spend less, in case the buds were lost or damaged.

It was only in the last few months that I upgraded from a pair of Panasonic RZ-S300W earbuds (which are surprisingly good for the price) to a pair of Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds which feature noise-cancelling. Not only was the sound quality I was experiencing hugely improved, but I also realised what an absolute saving grace noise-cancelling technology is. 

Ever taken the Jubilee line at rush hour into Baker Street? Have you seen how many people stick their fingers in their ears to block the tortuous screech of the train rumbling into the station?

I could always live with moments of harsh noise (it came and went) but, my word, I cannot quantify how much my ears appreciate not being forced to put up with it any longer. 

Not only are my ears taking less of a beating, my favourite music isn’t being spoiled and I’m not forced to increase the volume in order to win the battle. Some users may experience a negative impact on the quality of music with noise-cancelling engaged, however, this has not been the case for me so far, in part due to the quality of Sony’s ANC. You can always disengage noise-cancelling if you’re in a quieter environment, anyway.

Noise-cancelling tech won’t shut out background noise entirely, the odd hint of a conversation or the lower rumbles of the train might still be audible, but with the XM4 earbuds noise is subtle and softened. The harsh upper mid and treble frequencies that really cause distress to your poor eardrums are completely gone. 

It is worth noting that some people don’t like noise-cancelling – it can unfortunately have an adverse effect on a few unlucky individuals. Certain users claim to feel an unnatural pressure in their ears, causing feelings of nausea and disorientation.

I can definitely vouch for disabling (or taking your earbuds out completely) when walking the streets at night, for example. However, on busy public transport, I can’t think of anything better than having the ability to mute all the people on their phones along with the metallic screeches of the tube. 

Living in London, most people I know use some sort of headphones on their commutes, whether that be overheads or earbuds. Surprisingly, most of my friends (excluding my colleagues at What Hi-Fi? and those with a dedicated tech interest, of course) don’t have headphones that feature ANC technology. As a recent convert, I will be actively encouraging them to consider changing this – this is now essential in my eyes (and ears).

I’m sure many of you have extensive experience with active noise-cancelling tech, what are your thoughts? Is ANC now a crucial feature, or do the negatives outweigh the positives for you personally?

Do you perhaps own multiple pairs of headphones, some without ANC for home use, some with the feature for similar applications such as mine? Or maybe you’re a purist, preferring to experience music without any noise-cancelling processing going on, even if it is trying to help?

Let us know your thoughts and experiences. 


Best noise-cancelling headphones: top ANC headphones for every budget

Why I will never own a pair of noise-cancelling headphones

I review noise-cancelling headphones for a living, and this simple trick can boost sound quality and battery life

Staff Writer

Ainsley Walker is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied music journalism at university before working in a variety of roles including as a freelance journalist and teacher. Growing up in a family of hi-fi enthusiasts, this naturally influenced his interest in the topic. Outside of work, Ainsley can be found producing music, tinkering with retro tech, or cheering on Luton Town.