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On the Spectrum, in the Workplace

ANR Headsets

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What They Are

Active Noise Reduction (ANR) headsets use reverse phase soundwaves to cancel ambient noise. These range from full size aviation headsets with ANR circuits, to earbud type. They differ from passive noise attenuation in the use of the ANR circuit. Most ANR headsets will also have a passive noise reduction because they cover the ears.
On-Line Sales and Searching
"ANR" is mostly an aviation term. If looking for these on eBay or another on-line location, expect the description to be "active noise cancellation" or "noise cancelling". The best initial search is <headphones noise>, with the brand name, or perhaps <brandname noise>. If you can identify the portion of the model number for the style you like, you could combine the brand name with that portion of the model number, e.g., <sennheiser pxc>.

Practical Use

ANR headsets tend to have selective noise reduction. Most will reduce objectionable ambient noise, such as crying babies. My first exposure to these was in 1998, when a friend demonstrated some Lightspeed Aviation Headsets. These things would "turn off" a Whirlpool dryer in a small laundry room.

More recently I bought some refurbished Sennheisers. Now compact ANR headsets can be found in most discount stores, and are the toy du jour at airport shops (for good reason), but at the time Sennheiser was one of the few compact type available.

They almost universally have a mini-stereo plug for audio listening. There are some configured for use with cellphones (intended for conversations in noisy environments rather than general ambient quiet) and of course aviation comm headsets.


Price is $30 to $100 (US) for a base model compact or earbud type, depending on quality. Full ear cover type are probably slightly higher. It should be possible to get good ANR functionality from at least some of the better quality brands.

There are models that cost more (e.g., $450 for the high end Sennheiser), but the extra cost is related to audio quality (for music audiophiles), with no significant difference in ANR performance. I personally question the advantage of a high end headset on a public transportation vehicle, but perhaps I'd feel differently if I listened to a lot of music on long commutes. But for me, the lower cost ones were a luxury.

The first time I was able to switch off a crying baby on an airline flight, my refurb'd Sennheisers paid for themselves.


On-Ear headsets
slightly smaller than the around-ear style; the original "Walkman" style. These are probably the most comfortable.

Around-Ear compact headsets
These are larger than on-ear headsets. Because of their increased size, they are more effective, but also bulky.

Both on-ear and around-ear models on are readily available for testing at stores. These are typically non-ANR models, but should give you an idea of how the two types feel.

Philips has a model available for $30 at discount stores such as Target (again, US). Obviously, you'd have to not mind earbuds for these to be useful. I don't have an adversion to earbuds, but still find the over-the-ear type more comfortable.

ANR Cellphone Headsets
These are not very common because their only purpose is to hear the caller. Since the idea of using a cellphone is that everyone else can hear the conversation, this is probably counterintuitive. (More likely, it's easier to increase the phone volume.)

Full Size
These also offer substantial passive noise attenuation. They are generally only used for aviation comm purposes.

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First posted 05 Aug 07. Last revised 08 May 10.

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