Are active-noise cancelling earplugs – specifically, this US$200 pair from QuietOn – better bringers of silence than passive options like traditional foam or silicone plugs? If so, are they worth the expense? New Atlas reviews.

Earplugs are not usually the first product that comes to mind when thinking of items that can be improved by technology. After all, standard foam/silicone plugs are cheap, disposable and fairly effective (though quality varies, of course). But typical earplugs work through passive sound cancellation – that is, they physically block and absorb sound before it enters your ear.

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Passive sound reduction is best at blocking high-frequency noises like squeals, whistles, shrieks and the like. It's less effective for blocking low-frequency sounds like deep rumbles and mechanical noises, traffic sounds, or voices and music coming through walls.

Active sound cancellation attempts to remedy these shortcomings with "anti-noise". It detects ambient noise with a microphone and then produces a phase-shifted sound meant to cancel out the original. Active sound cancellation is found in high-end headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35 and other types of ear protection, but the QuietOn earplugs are the first time we've encountered this technology in a truly wireless earplug style.

It's easy to see the benefits of the earplug configuration. Since nothing is worn over the head and there are no wires to tangle, they are unencumbered and easy to wear. That means you can fall asleep in them, a key factor in the utility of earplugs. We found them comfortable and secure even with an ear pressed against a pillow, which can often be painful with in-ear devices. Since the pair comes with three sizes of tips, most people should be able to find a good fit.

The QuietOn plugs come with a carrying/charging case (the case doesn't hold a charge, however, unlike the ones used with other ear devices like Apple AirPods). Each charge gets up to 50 hours of use, so you won't have to worry about charging all that often. When it's time, insert the buds into the case and connect it to microUSB charging cord. Unfortunately, QuietOn does not come with its own microUSB cord or wall charger, so you'll have to get one elsewhere.

But enough of the nuts and bolts of the hardware – how well do they work?

There is no setup required – simply pop them in and turn them into your ear to ensure the proper airtight fit. As you insert them into your ear (or if you pinch the buds when you're not wearing them) they emit a gentle high-pitched tone to let you know they're working and charged. Once they're nestled into position, a combination of active noise cancellation and passive noise cancellation (courtesy of the buds' foam tips) immediately give the impression of a bubble of quietude.

To be clear, it's far from complete silence. You can still hear outside noises, especially intense and high-pitched ones. This can be a good thing – you can still hold a conversation or wake up to your alarm clock.

If it's quiet enough, you can also hear a slight white noise effect generated by the active noise cancellation. I found it soothing, but for some, the sensation of hearing could be a distraction in itself. If you've ever benefited from white noise like a fan or a sleep machine, you probably won't mind.

Do QuietOn earbuds work better than their old-fashioned equivalents? Yes, but not usually strikingly so. I tested them working in a coffee shop, the waiting room in a busy auto repair shop and in a thin-walled apartment with unruly neighbors, along with a few other experiments and trials. (I would have really liked to try them on a plane, but unfortunately don't have any flights scheduled.)

For certain noises – close-range yippy dog barks, phone alarms, nearby conversations – I didn't detect much of a difference between the QuietOn's performance and a pair of cheap foam plugs we had laying around. But for engine and machinery noise and heard-through-the-wall neighbor sounds, the active noise cancellation made a big difference. Plus, low-intensity noises like typing, soft footsteps and dog claws on a tile floor were practically silenced.

The graphic below – which was created by QuietOn but rang true to our experience – provides a helpful visualization of the earplugs' noise-blocking efficacy. You can see how in some ranges, regular plugs and QuietOn technology are almost neck-and-neck.

So QuietOn earplugs are effective, but they're not magic bullets. Are they worth the $200 asking price? It would be a tough sell for me, since I prefer listening to music (headphones) over silence (earplugs) in most cases, and the QuietOn gizmos are strictly earplugs – there's no playback function whatsoever. But if you're a regular earplug wearer, these improve on the standard experience, especially if you constantly find yourself up against low-frequency noises like engine rumbles and snores. This pair stays in well and is extra effective against certain common auditory annoyances. The price is high, but silence is golden.

They're also more attractive, professional-looking and overall more luxurious than stuffing some safety-orange earplugs in your ears in the office or on a flight. They look similar to wireless earbuds that play music, though if anything they veer a little medical-looking with their white plastic form factor and prominent QuietOn branding. It's also a pleasure to have a dainty case to store them – it means you're less likely to be surprised/disgusted by a used earplug that you've forgotten about and stashed somewhere.

QuietOn earplugs were funded through a crowdfunding campaign and are currently available at a 15-percent discount through the Indiegogo marketplace. North American customers can also find them on Amazon. Full retail price is $199.99.

Product page: QuietOn

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