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The Evolution of Noise Isolation in Headphones


Noise Isolation in Headphones

It is not that long ago that mobile sound meant a boombox the size and weight of a very full suitcase, and music so loud you could entertain, or annoy, the entire neighborhood. But in 1979 the Walkman appeared, and with it, the idea that listening on the go was a headphone thing.

Since then, much has changed, Cassette turned into disc, Walkman into iPod and then eventually, your phone, but a pair of good headphones and your music player still mean the same thing. Tunes on the go, wherever you are. All those changes were revolutionary, but the one that has arguably had the biggest impact was the introduction of noise cancelling headphones.

Think about listening to music on the go. Whether it was a tape player, a CD or digital, no matter how great the sound, you walk down a street with some roadworks going on, or someone set the sound system too high at the gym, and most of what you hear is not the music you are playing. But noise cancelling changed that. Suddenly, you could get clarity, hear what you want to hear and clock the rest out.

From a Noisy Flight to Serenity

noisy flight to serenity

It began with mechanical noise isolation, headphones and then in-ears that sealed themselves against the head or ear canal to physically block sound transmission other than from the speakers. They used foam or soft gel to achieve this, and you can still find them out there today. Performance was OK, and they did offer a better experience, but things really changed when active noise cancellation became possible in lightweight, easily transportable headphones.

Suddenly a different world opened, where electronic systems controlled how much of the exterior sound was let in, from everything to nothing. This brought with it a dramatic shift in the listening experience for anyone in a noisy environment. Whether on the go or in a shared office, suddenly you could hear the music, video call, podcast or recording you needed, no matter what was going on around you.

The first ever noise cancelling headphones of this type were the Bose Aviation Headset, released in 1989. Designed for pilots, they used the microphone system that is at the heart of almost all noise cancellation systems today. They were developed by Amar Bose, the founder of the company that bears his name, and the idea came to him after a long 8-hour flight where he couldn’t hear his music due to the cabin sounds being too loud.

The Magic Behind Noise Cancelling Systems

magic behind noise cancelling systems

What Mr. Bose developed was the basis for all modern active noise cancelling systems. While many modern versions have expanded the capabilities dramatically, and are much more effective, the ANC system remains the blueprint.

The systems use microphones placed on the ear cup, capturing the ambient noise. The system then generates an inverse of that sound, so the soundwaves cancel each other out, leaving you with just the sound coming from your headphone speaker, whatever it is you are listening to. This basic system has been extremely successful since its 1989 launch, but modern technology has transformed performance and capability.

The latest systems use microphones both inside and outside of the earphone to monitor all sounds and uses AI driven algorithms to eliminate undesired noise. This approach allows for various modes, including the ability to allow voices through while eliminating other external sounds, so you can carry on a conversation and avoid other environmental sounds.

This has been an invaluable tool for autistic people who suffer from auditory overload. It means they can be in challenging environments such as concerts or sports events, block out those sounds and still talk to those around them. It is also beneficial in many situations, for instance on a flight you will hear announcements without having to listen to the general noise in the cabin.

Affordable Silence

Affordable Silence

Perhaps the part of this revolution that has really changed how we listen is the cost of all this technology. The original Bose Aviation Headset and the subsequent military version made for the US Airforce were extremely expensive even for the time and designed for a very specific application. Even a decade ago, active noise cancellation was a relatively rare feature only found on the most expensive products.

But today, you can find active systems on headphones costing less than $50. More impressively, AI powered systems with all that flexibility from around $100.


Noise Cancellation is for all

Whether you are wanting headphones to listen to your favorite podcast on the train, for some high tempo music as you run, or need help with auditory overload in a loud environment, you can have great sound, exceptional noise cancelling performance and more, all for less than the cost of the battery on that original Bose release.

Sometimes technology makes things better and more affordable, as we were told it would. Noise cancelling is one of those times. Technology today has transformed the capabilities of noise cancellation and turned affordable headphones into something more.

While noise isolation means you can hear music more clearly than ever, increasing enjoyment, it is the benefits for people with autism that really stand out. Allowing them to unlock the world around them in a way that has simply been unavailable before, noise cancelling headphones not only help us enjoy music more, but they are also genuinely transforming lives.

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