What do the Specs on Earbuds Mean?

Earbuds Mean

Nothing makes your favorite tunes sound sweeter than the perfect set of earbuds. Despite this, many people are unknowledgeable of how to select noise canceling earbuds that will bring through pure, clear sound without interference. Often, the result is a consumer buying the most expensive set, though these may not (technologically speaking) be the superior product on the shelf. If you are in the market for a set of earbuds, you’ll need to know a little bit about how these products work, and what you should look for in the specifications before you pick a set to purchase.

Passive vs. Active Noise Cancellation

It’s often thought that all earbuds are noise-canceling, and to some small degree, this is true. However, it helps to understand the levels of noise cancellation and how this is achieved. Every earbud offers some level of noise reduction by sitting in your ear canal and blocking some of the sound waves from coming in. This is referred to as passive noise cancellation, or “isolation.” The next step up, noise-canceling headphones, use technology to mitigate sounds coming in from ambient sources actively. This is referred to as “active” noise cancellation.

Passive vs. Active Noise Cancellation

Noise canceling earbuds work by “listening for” and destroying sound waves caused by ambient noise. Mainly, the earbud is equipped with a microphone which receives information about the amplitude and the frequency of the sound it is trying to edit out. It then “destroys” the sound wave by emitting a matching (but reversed) sound wave of its own to cancel out the noise. This is known as destructive interference. The outside noise will be reduced by some decibels, depending on the noise canceling properties of the earbud.

Now that you understand the technology behind noise cancellation, there are a few other factors that determine the sound quality you will enjoy from a particular set of noise canceling headphones. How do you know what to look for to achieve the best cancellation and the best sound? Here are a few things to look for.


Drivers are possibly the single most important factor when considering a set of earbuds (noise canceling or otherwise). They push air to create the vibrations that reproduce your music. Both the size of your drivers and the number of engines in each earbud will determine the dynamic range and quality of sound coming from the device. Larger drivers are capable of recreating better bass (think of a thick bass drum versus a high-pitched snare drum). Smaller drivers reproduce the high frequencies you need to balance out the sound – treble. A larger driver alone does not mean better sound. You need as many drivers as you can afford to recreate sound over a wide dynamic range. Without great drivers, all the other features of your chosen earbuds fall flat.


Decibel Reduction And Impedance

One of the first things you’ll want to look for is the amount of decibel reduction offered by the noise canceling earbuds you select, as well as the level of impedance the earbud offers. A good set of earbuds can provide decibel decrease in the range of 15-20 decibels. This reduction is enough to take care of most atonal ambient noise (white noise) you encounter. While it won’t completely mitigate ambient noise, especially in places like an airplane cabin, decibel reduction is still a significant step toward a complete enjoyment of your music.

When you’re using a powered device, ambient noise is only part of the equation. Electricity itself has a level of sound created by vibrations as current passes through electronics. To increase the clarity of your listening experience, there must be some effort to reduce these vibrations. Impedance refers to the potential for the earbud to negate the “hiss” sound associated with electronic powered devices. The higher the impedance, the clearer your listening experience will be.

Drivers, decibel reduction, and impedance are three of the big ticket items affecting the price of a set of earbuds; however, because they can dramatically improve the quality of sound, it is worth investing in a bright, high-quality listening experience.

Decibel Reduction And Impedance


While the rate is necessary for a pair of noise canceling earbuds, there are a few things you should know about this specification before you spend extra money on something you don’t need. The Hertz rating on the packaging of your earbuds is a range, representing the lowest and highest frequency the earbuds are capable of producing. When shopping around, it’s best not to be drawn in by big numbers. The human ear is only capable of hearing sounds which fall within a certain range (up to 20 kHz). Anything beyond that listed on a package is only meant to get attention, and possibly sway you to pay extra for “quality” you won’t hear. You’ll want an earbud that offers suitable low-end starting hertz (look for a low end of 15-20 Hz) to give you good depth of bass. On the high end of the dynamic range, you’ll want to something within that 20 kHz range to give you great highs and treble, allowing you to experience everything your music has to offer.

On Frequency and Decibel Levels

It helps to remember that more is not always better. While you want to get the best product for your money, you should aim for a product that works well within safe listening parameters. With the miniaturization of technology, noise canceling earbuds now have greater capability to pack a punch. Just be sure to use this “punch” wisely. It is recommended that listening experience is restrained to levels below 85 decibels (a little louder than your average household blender). Use beyond this level can cause permanent hearing damage and loss when exposed for an extended period. While your earbuds may have the capability of delivering clear sound well beyond this limit, it is wise to minimize your exposure to occasional use at these levels to avoid any issues down the road.

Knowing the basics of specs for noise canceling earbuds can mean the difference between paying more for less, or getting a great deal on an excellent set of earbuds that will meet all your listening needs.

Written by Brandy F. Camper