If you've ever spent time working in an office, this scenario will sound familiar: You grind away on a project and need to wrap it up before a big board meeting (or maybe just before your lunch break). You work hard to stay focused on the task at hand, but that proves difficult because your coworker in the next cubicle screams into their phone—seemingly oblivious to the rest of the office. Or maybe they chomp on carrot sticks, recap the latest football game with another coworker, or holler at their computer, or you get the idea.
The scenarios described above all represent examples of noise pollution, which can have serious impacts on a person's mental and physical health as well as their productivity and work performance.
Luckily, noise cancelling headphones offer a powerful antidote to the whole gamut of office sounds. Here's what noise pollution is, why it matters, and how to choose a pair of noise cancelling headphones that make even the loudest workplaces seem blissfully quiet.
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What Is Noise Pollution and Why Does It Matter?
Noise pollution is a term used to describe regular exposure to loud noise that results in negative consequences for the people exposed to these sounds. While a noisy office may not sound like that big of a deal (especially compared to, say, an airport tarmac), noise pollution at the office can lead to some serious consequences.
It may be helpful to consider noise pollution in the context of a 2016 Oxford Economics survey of 1,200 executives, which found that the ability to work without interruption was ranked as the most important attribute of any workplace. Noise pollution can rip this away from workers at all levels, leading to the cascade of negative consequences outlined above.
Those consequences may sound daunting, but thankfully there are ways to combat noise pollution at work. For example, companies can allow employees to work from home as needed, take meetings or phone calls outside of the office, have designated quiet spaces, and more. Team members can also take matters into their own hands by investing in a quality pair of noise cancelling headphones.
Finding the Best Pair of Noise Cancelling Headphones
When you hear the term “noise cancelling headphones,” you may picture a pair of thick, over-ear headphones that function similarly to mufflers—dampening sounds because of their thickness.
In reality, modern noise cancelling headphones are far more complex than that. They work via built-in circuitry that helps cancel out sounds outside of the headphones. Some headphones are most adept at targeting low-frequency noise (such as the sound of an engine on a plane) while others are meant to cancel out higher frequencies (such as the sound of people talking).
While most of today's noise cancelling headphones operate in the same way, not all of them are created equally. There are several factors you should take into account prior to making a purchase. For instance:
- Over-ear or in-ear
As these terms imply, some headphones sit over the ears while others look and feel much like traditional earbuds. In-ear models are much smaller and therefore more portable than over-ear models. They may also be ideal for people who wear glasses. Over-ear models create more of an enveloping feel that may be more appealing to some users (but will likely feel uncomfortable for glasses wearers). They're also more likely to create a seal that facilitates better noise cancellation.
- Wired or wireless
Some noise-cancelling headphones can function and play music wirelessly, while others will need to be plugged into a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. If you want a pair of headphones that can travel with you on business trips and during your commute, you may want to invest in a wireless pair. If you plan to use your headphones exclusively at your desk, then wired should do the trick.
- Battery life
If you choose wireless headphones, they'll need to be charged. Prior to investing in a pair of noise cancelling headphones, read their product info and take note of the battery life. Most models offer a minimum battery life that's somewhere around 25 hours for each full charge.
- Special features
Headphone manufacturers now offer all kinds of fancy features such as voice control via integration with Google Assistant or the ability to toggle the noise cancelling function on and off. Depending on your specific needs and preferences, these features may be more or less worthy of your consideration.
Bottom line? Before investing in a pair of noise cancelling headphones, it's important to take stock of your personal needs and preferences and research the details and special features of each pair. Taking the time to identify the right pair of noise cancelling headphones for you can increase your odds of enjoying a quieter, healthier, and more productive work environment.
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Laura Newcomer is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. She has taught environmental education to students of all ages in both Pennsylvania and Maine, and prioritizes living an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. She's a big proponent of creating self-sustaining communities and accessible healthy food systems that care for both people and the earth. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.