Noise Cancelling Headphones Pressure on Ears: Why It Happens and What to Do About It


With noise cancellation, there are two general camps — passive noise cancellation and active noise cancellation. Passive is done by creating a good seal around the ear, keeping most external audio out. Then there’s active noise cancellation that masks low frequencies by playing audio into your ears that cancels them out.

Each of these headphones have the chance to cause pressure and pain on users. Let’s explore why that is, and how you can prevent it.

Passive noise cancelling headphones are the most rudimentary, so let’s begin with those. These headphones don’t do anything to actively block out noise. The seal around the headphones, and often a closed back, help keep mid-to-higher frequencies from making it to your ears and disrupting your tunes.

These can cause discomfort if they are pressed against your head too snug, which means that this problem has a fairly simple solution — stick to in-ear styles or ensure they aren’t too tight before buying.

Passive noise-cancelling qualities can be found in many active noise-cancelling headphones. Phiaton’s active noise-cancellation technology, for example, allows for as much as 95% noise reduction of low-frequency sounds in products such as their BT 120 NC wireless earphones and 900 Legacy Digital Hybrid Noise Cancelling headphones. The BonoBeat Lite also offers additional passive noise-cancellation through the density of its padded earcups.

Active noise cancellation differs because it listens to the surroundings and is pumping inverse sound waves into your ears. When it meets the external sound, it cancels it out to nothing. Users can experience this as a sucking feeling, which appears as a difference in pressure on the inside and outside of yours ears. This is where the phenomena of “pressure” can come from.

There is some debate on whether there is a pressure differential between the inside and outside and whether the experience is psychosomatic. Regardless, the body experiences it as such, and thus — pain.

So how do you fix an issue such as this? Here are three tips:

  • Treat your ears to headphones and earphones with comfortable ear tips that don’t sacrifice performance. Phiaton’s CURVE BT 120 NC, for example, features RightFit+ ear wings that deliver a comfortable fit all day long while cancelling low frequency noise (under 1kHz) by up to 95%. Each set comes with four sets of silicon ear tips (XS, S, M, L), ensuring you’ll find the perfect fit for your specific ear size and shape.
  • If you’re on a long flight and feeling pressure, it’s likely because the air in your ears wants to escape. In this case, try to “pop” your ears. This technique equalizes the air pressure in your ears with the air pressure around you, and should make that feeling of discomfort go away.
  • If you’ve been wearing your ANC headphones or earphones for a couple hours and are experiencing discomfort, take a break. Remove them for a couple minutes and give your ears a break before putting them back on.

Keeping that airplane rumble out and your favorite music in is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your comfort. There are plenty of headphone options (like those mentioned above) that’ll effectively accomplish both.

By Andrew O’Hara

April 2, 2021

Recommended Reads:

Finding Comfortable Earphones: 3 Pairs You'll Love to Wear

How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work: A Simple Explanation of the Physics of Sound

Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones Under $100

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published