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How to turn your noise-cancelling headphones into a productivity tool
Most of us get noise-canceling headphones to escape our city’s soundscape or even to block out noisy kids if your not the only adult at home with them. As more of us begin to work from home, we may view ANC headphones differently. Rather than being just a toy, noise-canceling headphones can be a productivity tool. Time to see how to get the best ANC performance from your ‘phones.
1. Get a snug fit
This step requires the least amount of effort and is pretty easy to figure out. For over-ear headphones, getting a proper fit means the ear cups encircle your ears without any gapping along the ear pads. If you’re new to over-ears, run your finger around the outside of each earpad while wearing the headphones to make sure there isn’t spacing between the pad and your head.
On-ear noise-canceling headphones are a rare breed. Passive isolation, how well a headset blocks out ambient noise without aid from ANC, is typically worse with on-ears compared to their over-ear alternatives: pressing directly on the topography of your ears leaves plenty of spaces between the valleys of your ears and the on-ear pads.
You can still try and optimize the fit by adjusting the yoke rotation once you’re wearing the headphones. Rock the pivot points around until you feel the ear cups resting parallel to the plane of your ear. Unless your headset has some painful clamping force, it won’t be perfect but it’s better than nothing.
Bespectacled listeners will struggle even more with this: the frames create gaps between the earpads and skull and allow external noise in. Wearing headphones with glasses can be uncomfortable, too, but we’ll get to fixing that later.
2. Adjust noise-cancelling intensity via the app
Although it may seem that apps for wireless earbuds and headphones are just data-tracking gimmicks, some of them are actually useful. Not only do they facilitate firmware updates, but they also let users adjust noise-canceling and ambient aware mode intensities.
Assuming you have a headset with customizable noise cancellation, the manufacturer likely set the default ANC mode to medium. This is because not everyone likes high-intensity ANC: some listeners report an unpleasant high-pressure sensation in their ears. Few headsets let you cycle through noise-canceling modes directly with the onboard controls, which is where the app comes in.
Increasing noise-cancelling intensity can make it easier to focus.
Connect your headset through the respective app and tap through the settings. There should be a tab, whether you’re using Sony, Shure, or another brand’s app, that allows you to slide ANC power along a spectrum. I rarely choose the maximum noise-canceling output unless I’m on a flight. In light of working from home with my roommate, though, I’ve been using the higher intensities to filter out her various conference calls.
3. Swap out the earpads
Sometimes all you need to improve the sound of your headphones is to get a better pair of ear pads. If you’re working with cheap noise-canceling headphones, getting more premium earpads can make a world of difference. Again, noise cancellation is vastly improved when passive isolation is optimized. You could have the best ANC headphones available, but if the earpads are worn and don’t create a seal around your ears, background noise will still be heard.
Replacing the earpads is necessary when you’ve had a headset for a long time and the material has worn down. If you’re starting to see the leather crack and even tear, it’s definitely time for new ear cushions. Earpad replacement is also an easy way to improve comfort when using headphones with glasses. We highly recommend going for a suede/velour or hybrid material if comfort is your top priority. To extend the lifespan of your earpads, be sure to clean them every now and then.
If all else fails, it may be time for an upgrade
This is a last-resort recommendation because, well, it’s a costly one. Yet if after everything, you’re still experiencing poor noise-canceling and it’s impacting your ability to focus, the payoff could be well worth it. I’m frequently reminded that noise-canceling headphones aren’t just neat gadgets, they’re productivity tools. Anytime I’m struggling to focus, I don a pair of ANC headphones and return to work.
You don’t necessarily need to get the most expensive headphones either. Sure, the Shure Aonic 50 have the best noise-canceling, but they’re $400. Heck, the Sony WH-1000XM3 yield a similar result for about $100 less. A great middle-ground alternative is the Sony WH-CH700N. The construction feels a bit flimsy relative to the company flagship, but the ANC and sound quality are bang-on for the price.
Alternatively, our sister site SoundGuys has plenty of recommendations for noise-cancelling headphones, earbuds, and true wireless earbuds.