Do you find yourself wondering how helpful are noise cancelling headphones for tinnitus? While some of these devices provide temporary relief, some may actually make tinnitus seem worse. In this guide we give the essential facts on how to use noise cancelling headphones and hearing protection in such a way that they help tinnitus instead of exacerbate it.

Alexandra Costlow, AuD

Medically Reviewed by
Audiologist and Tinnitus Specialist
April 19, 2021

Top Noise Cancelling Headphones for Tinnitus

Do you find yourself reaching for noise cancelling headphones to manage your tinnitus? While some of these devices provide temporary relief, some may actually make tinnitus seem worse.

Using noise cancelling earphones or hearing protection to “cut out” environmental sound excessively tends to make tinnitus perception worse.  This is because soft environmental sounds help to mask the tinnitus and also because the brain becomes extra sensitive to the tinnitus itself.  

Here are the essential facts on how to use noise cancelling headphones for tinnitus and hearing protection in such a way that they help instead of exacerbate it.

What are Noise Cancelling Headphones?

“Noise cancelling” headphones (which can also be earbuds) is actually somewhat of a misnomer. They can be split into two types: passive and active.

Passive

Passive earphones block sound simply by covering the outer ear and reducing the amount of sound that is able to enter the ear canal. Technically speaking any headphone will cause some sort of passive noise cancelling by physically obstructing the sound from entering the ear. However, the best passive headphones are specifically designed to either fit in the ear canal, or over the ears to block sound.

Active

Active noise cancelling headphones cover the outer ear but also actually emit sound at specific frequencies. These artificial sounds mirror those that they are trying to obscure - except the sound waves are 180 degrees out of phase.

How active noise cancelling works
Active Noise Cancelling Diagram. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Certain noise cancelling headphones have some additional features:

  • the ability to select between levels of noise reduction
  • selecting a feature that allows microphones to detect certain environmental sounds that the user might prefer to hear
  • to “neutralize” environmental noise and identify (and so not filter out) speech to an extent.

Bluetooth compatible headphones can be synced with a mobile phone to stream calls directly to the headphones worn over the ears.

Can Noise Cancelling Headphones Cause Tinnitus?

Any headphones can cause hearing damage and tinnitus if they are listened to too loudly for sustained periods of time.

It is therefore important that you carefully monitor the volume. This should just be what is comfortable for you, but most modern smartphones will keep track of this for you.

You may have read some stories online about noise cancelling headphones specifically causing or worsening tinnitus. However there is no scientific research showing this to be the case.

If you are using the noise cancelling aspect of the headphones without sound playing, you may perceive your tinnitus to be louder. This is simply because the noise cancelling makes everything else sound quieter!

How to use Noise Cancelling Headphones with Tinnitus

It is important to remember is that the sound in the headphones should be used at a pleasant and comfortable level to relax, and never to completely mask or drown out environmental sound. Although using them to fall asleep or while napping won’t damage the ears or hearing if worn properly (without pressing on the pinna or the head), wearing them all night while asleep isn’t advisable as it’s important to be able to hear soft sounds for safety.

We would advise using them at which level is comfortable to you, whilst taking care never to increase the volume above 60%.

A man wears noise cancelling headphones while looking out of a window.
A man wears noise cancelling headphones while looking out of a window.

What about Hearing Protection?

Whereas it’s important to protect the ears from harmfully loud sound, overuse of hearing protection can make tinnitus worse. For example, if hearing protection is worn during quiet times or normal conversation, it essentially creates a version of mild hearing loss (or adds to existing hearing loss) that would otherwise not be present. This makes the brain work harder to bring in sound and, in doing so, the tinnitus may seem louder or worse. On top of this risk, it creates unnecessary hearing strain which adds to listening effort, but with no added benefit.

Using Hearing Protection

If you’ve been using hearing protection excessively in the hope of quieting the tinnitus, a better way to use hearing protection is to simply carry ear plugs with you in case you need them, instead of wearing them all the time. Hearing protection should be reserved for truly harmful noise levels such as sporting events, lawn work, use of power tools etc.

That being said, protecting the ears from additional noise exposure and/or hearing loss is one way to prevent additional damage to the auditory system that could potentially exacerbate or cause tinnitus. Tinnitus may worsen after an acute noise exposure and protecting the ears from uncomfortably loud noise is one way to prevent upticks in tinnitus severity.

A Good Rule of Thumb

A good rule of thumb to help you decide if you need hearing protection is to ask yourself whether the background noise is so loud that it’s hard to hear anything else. If this is the case, you should either prioritize protecting the ears or move to a quieter area to converse.

A guitarist wears in ear monitors while performing.
A guitarist wears in ear monitors while performing.

Which is Best for Tinnitus?

The important thing to remember is that neither noise cancelling earphones nor hearing protection are intended for use all of the time. Both serve specific purposes and should be reserved for proper use as needed.

Hearing protection types range from over the counter foam plugs to custom made hearing protection.

Noise cancelling earphones are best to use when you wish to get temporary relief from tinnitus, relax, or focus on a task like studying or reading without interruption. Noise protection is most appropriate to use when you will be exposed to harmfully or uncomfortably loud sound.  Both can be incorporated into routine use based on lifestyle and tinnitus needs.  

Some of the top noise cancelling headphones for tinnitus
Some of the top noise cancelling headphones for tinnitus

Top Noise Cancelling Headphones for Tinnitus

1. Nuheara IQbuds² MAX

Nuheara IQbuds² MAX provide active noise cancellation and technology specifically developed to help relieve tinnitus symptoms. With IQbuds² MAX you can use sound therapy apps on the go whilst blending the volume with the outside world.

IQbuds² MAX
Nuheara IQbuds² MAX

2. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones for tinnitus feature 11 levels of noise cancellation that range from fully cancelling to fully transparent.  They are also rechargeable and use touch control to change settings.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

3. Bose Quiet Comfort 20

Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise cancelling earphones allow the user to switch between noise cancelling mode and “Aware mode,” which allows the user to hear that’s happening in the environment.

Bose Quiet Comfort 20 Noise Cancelling Earphones
Bose Quiet Comfort 20 Noise Cancelling Earphones

4. Sony WH-1000XM3

Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones are regarded as the "King of noise cancellation" according to the Sound Guys. They are also highly rated as Amazon's Choice.

Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless
Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless

5. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 Earbuds offer a convenient and discreet wireless ear bud option for noise cancellation

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 Earbuds
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 Earbuds

6. Soundcore Life Q30

Soundcore Life Q30 are a good budget option for noise cancellation headphones

Soundcore Life Q30 Headphones
Soundcore Life Q30 Headphones

Earplugs for Tinnitus

Foam earplugs can be a useful tool to have on hand when you wish to reduce environmental noises when you’re trying to sleep, concentrate, or simply relax.  

See this video tutorial for how to fit your 3M roll down earplugs, which can be purchased over the counter.

Custom made ear plugs that are specifically designed for activities such as shooting or performing music can be obtained through an audiologist.  There are also specially designed ear plugs for sleep time called sleep plugs.

Try Oto

Although it can be tempting to want to eliminate sound completely, sound therapy for tinnitus and hyperacusis can be a better approach in the long term.  

Check out Oto’s app to explore the different sound therapy available, as well as progress through daily spoken therapy to help you adjust to the day to day sounds you encounter.

Tinnitus relief made simple with the Oto app digital therapy programme. Download today.

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