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What No One Tells You About Noise Cancelling Headphones

I’d been thinking of picking up some noise cancelling headphones for about a year now. After asking for feedback on Twitter, I learned the Bose QuietComfort 35 were the best noise cancelling headphones out there. But I wasn’t really traveling much, so the $350 price tag seemed unjustified in my case. I suggested them to my sister, who is currently enrolled in an intense coding bootcamp and sometimes has trouble focusing with so much noise around her. A few days later my brother surprised my sister and I with two pairs of Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones. At first the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones were amazing: Clear sound, no noise. Then I started to experience some ear pain and other discomforts that kept getting worse.

Ear Pain from Bose QuietComfort 35 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 35 Noise Cancelling Headphones

It all started the first time I used the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones. After a couple of hours of wearing them, I started to experience sinus pressure, ear discomfort, and pain between my right ear and jaw. I figured it was a symptom of using them for too long and that I would get used to it. When I activated the noise cancelling button, things got worse. The ear pain got more severe and so did the pain close to my jaw. I kept wearing them, thinking this would pass after a few days.

Then my sister, who initially praised her Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones, told me she was experiencing really bad headaches and dizziness. This was after I noticed her being unusually aggravated. She later told me it was the headaches and disorientation from wearing her headphones that put her in a bad mood. We both kept wearing them, thinking it would get better but it only seemed to get worse. In fact, wearing the BoseQuiet Comfort 35 headphones for a while started to make me feel disoriented as well. This was an expected reaction to cancelling out low-frequency sounds. But I decided to Google the problem to see whether this was in fact normal. It turns out lots of people experience headaches, ear pain, dizziness, and disorientation from wearing noise cancelling headphones.

There were tons of reddit threads about noise cancelling headphones causing pain. There was even a specific thread about how Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones were causing headaches. People on various forums were complaining about a variety of issues resulting from long-term noise cancelling headphone use. Several people on this Amazon thread reported that things got so bad, they developed ear infections. But the complaints weren’t restricted to forum chatter. A 2008 TechRadar article titled “Do noise cancelling headphones make you sick?” provides insight about what may be responsible for the various problems users of noise cancelling headphones report having:

“The WSJ also cites Sarah Stackpole, a New York ear, nose and throat doctor, who ‘speculates that the sound waves that cancel each other out may still transmit enough very low frequency vibrations to stimulate the balance receptors that are connected to the hearing hair cells in the inner ear… The disequilibrium that some people may feel from this is made worse because the vibrations falsely signal that the head is moving, but the eyes report that the head is stationary. Those mixed signals make the headphone wearer feel dizzy.”

Most of this discomfort doesn’t seem to wear off over time. The author of this 2016 Business Insider article titled “There’s a very good reason not to buy the best noise canceling headphones in the world” supports this: 

“The active NC technology creates an odd ear-pressure sensation that feels weird and a bit uncomfortable after extended use, making the experience far less natural than that with a standard set…Don’t get me wrong: I love my QC25s, even if I have to take them off every couple hours to ward off pressure headaches.”

Prior to my experience with the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones, I had never heard anything about noise cancelling headphones causing pain. Every frequent traveler I know swears by them and I’ve read dozens of blog posts praising the miracle of noise cancelling headphones. Which makes me wonder: Does everyone else just put up with the discomfort? Noise exposure doesn’t seem as bad as the searing ear pain that comes from wearing noise cancelling headphones. If there’s this much pressure while wearing them on the ground, how much worse will it get on a plane?

Anyway, I’m hoping Amazon will take my Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones back and issue a full refund. I also hope that anyone out there shopping for noise cancelling headphones is aware of the ear pain, headaches, and dizziness reported by some users.

Have you experienced any discomfort from using noise cancelling headphones? Did the problem persist or go away with long-term use?

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Ariana Arghandewal

13 Comments

  1. I’ve always had cheap knockoff NC headphones, and noticed a little occasional ear pain, but never dizziness. I always wondered if it was just me. It always cleared up quickly and I assumed I just had the volume too loud. Maybe a similar issue? I’ll definitely be looking for this more now.

    PS – there’s an ad for QC35s at the bottom of this page… 😉

    • I keep the volume pretty low but even when I’m not listening to music, the complete lack of sound starts to bother me. Leave it to Google to turn a negative post about headphones into an advertising opportunity. 🙂

  2. So I’ve noticed that they vary. I have the “on ear” that are a few (like 5-8 years old) that do give me some pain, but the ones that American has for example, those I don’t seem to get the same experience.

  3. Guessing I’ve been fortunate. Never had any issue with Bose models. Tried them from the original full cup, on and in ear. Not a fan of the latter only a physical comfort issue. Considering a pair of 35 but would be interested in hearing from those who have a more positive experience.

    • I don’t like in-ear buds either. The QC 35’s are highly regarded. There just seems to be a small group of people who experience pain and dizziness from noise cancelling headphones in general.

  4. I got the QC35s and I noticed a tinge when I first started wearing them. But after the third time, I never noticed it again. You do start to get used to the frequency. I would say stick with them. Because they are incredible.

    • I’m wearing them right now and the dizziness is setting in again. 🙂 I think I’m ok with noise-isolating headphones as opposed to noise-cancelling.

  5. Interesting. I’ve got both the QC25’s and the wireless 35’s and always wear them on flights even for the better part of long flights like DFW or JFK to HKG and haven’t experienced those issues.

    Maybe an isolating type would be better in your case.

    • I think so too. Though today I’ll be giving them one last try on a flight. The pain has subsided a bit, but there’s definitely discomfort after I use them for a couple of hours.

  6. Really interesting to learn about the pain caused by noise cancelling headsets. They’re a staple these days in Business Class cabins and people tend to swear by them.

    • They’re actually comfortable when you turn off the noise-cancelling button. With it on, it’s pretty painful, especially on airplanes. But it really varies by user.

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