Travel Tips

What No One Tells You About Noise Cancelling Headphones

About a year ago, I began thinking about  picking up some noise cancelling headphones. I asked for feedback on Twitter and I learned the Bose QuietComfort 35‘s 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 wearing them for a couple of hours, 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 have reported:

“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 cancelling 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’d never heard anything about noise cancelling headphones causing pain. Every frequent traveler 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.

Update: I was able to return my Bose QuietComfort 35 noise cancelling headphones. Instead, I picked up a pair of Beats Solo 3‘s, which worked out much better.

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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37 Comments

  1. TravelingOn

    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… 😉

  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.

  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.

  7. I am experiencing the exact same problem. Did you have any luck trying to retunr your headphones?

  8. I think it may just be that some people are quite susceptible, and others not at all–similar to how some people are prone to carsickness or seasickness, and others not affected in the least. I had an old Bose set for many years and have a new QC35 set now, and have worn them for hours at a time with no pain, dizziness, or other issues.

  9. I started to realize the QC35 does cause discomfort and ear pain on prolonged used. Use it for few hrs a day and took it to a transatlantic flight (20hrs) and in the first few hrs – Got worse with pain and nausea. I hv now reduced the use but with prolonged use (over 3hrs) it starts to hurt. Noticed the ear lobes starts to heat up if u hv it non stop for over 3-4 hrs…anyone noticed that?

  10. Does this happen for both wired and wireless? It only happens to me with wireless (BT)

  11. Guillaume Jobin

    Few days ago, I tested the QC35 at the local BestBuy. They do an amazing job at cancelling noise. But wearing them less than a minute, in -store, without music in them I felt dizziness right away. Removed them and it went away. Tried them again with music and did not feel anything at all after several minutes. I figured out that only seems to happen when there is no sound at all.

    So I ordered a brand new pair of QC35 on eBay (Got a very good price).

    After 3 full workday of use I must say that what I experienced in store was exactly what I thought. When music is playing everything is just fine. But if it ends I start to feel a bit of dizziness, but at a much lower level that I experienced in store.

    My advice… use them to actually listen to something… not to be in a sound void.

  12. The pain / discomfort between your ear and jaw sounds exactly what I experienced after I bought some Goldring NS-1000 Expedition noise-cancelling headphones. It’s a horrible sensation that seems to run from the middle ear downwards. It eventually gets so bad you have to stop using the headphones. I got in in my left ear.

    My suspicion has always been that it’s something to do with the noise-cancelling function. I did also wonder whether it was the headphone cup pressing into space below / behind my ear, but I don’t remember there being a problem except when listening to music. Yes, it did eventually subside, but only after nearly a year and after (twice, I think) giving up using them altogether.

    • I think its the noise-cancellation too. It’s not natural to cancel out sound and I think the body reacts to that negatively. My pain never subsided so I ended up returning the headphones and getting a pair of Beats with my Mac purchase. Those are working out much better!

  13. I’m about to return some QC35s to the store because I bought them a couple of hours ago and the noise cancellation hurts my ears a ton. I’m going to get some Soundlink ones that I tried in the store that are a ton cheaper but still have awesome sound quality (just no ANC). What I find really odd is that my mom has some old school (early 2000s) wired Bose Noise Cancellation headphones and they don’t bother me at all. I have worn them on many trips with no problem. I can’t figure out why the QC35s hurt/pressurize!

  14. I have the same issue. Now most car manufacturers use Active Noise Cancellation (Volvo calls it Active Noise Suppression). I cannot stand it! Not everyone’s ears are the same, and for some reason ANC really bothers me. I used Bose headphones in a lab from 2011-2013 and in 2014 I developed terrible tinnitus and hyperacusis that has never gone away. I haven’t used headphones or earbuds since mid 2014. I also notice that speakerphone on any iphone or mac really bothers me too. Have you had any problems in modern cars or with cell phones? I have no issues with natural sounds, only synthetic, so maybe it has something to do with data compression and the algorithms used in digital sound.

    • Interesting. What kind of noise does it suppress? I have not had issues with anything other than noise-cancelling headphones.

      • low frequency engine and road noise. google “active noise cancellation cars” and there are a few articles about it. Chevy and Ford tend to bother my ears the most. those cars also add in sound through the stereo to make the engine sound cooler than it is. so lots of audio tricks to hurt your ears.

  15. I have the Sony mdr100abn. The quality sound is amazing, and if you hear flac music and connect the wire instead bluetooh optiion, the quality is brutal, but……. After 3 weeks of use these headphones i’ve noticed something. I have a little pain in my internal ear and i have noticed a little ringing or buzz during the nights. And when the ANC is turned on, the pain increases too much. I am very angry, i think my ear have a irreversible damage for use these headphones!!

    • That’s awful. I would definitely stop using them. In my case, I couldn’t tolerate the pain – despite hearing from others that it gets better. I honestly love my Beats – they’re not noise cancelling but provide excellent sound. There’s really no need to cancel out all noise, IMO. It’s not natural and your ears react accordingly.

  16. For over 20 years, I’ve kept a pair of Sony HD7506(MDRV6 in some markets) closed-ear headphones in my laptop bag, which usually are my travel ‘cans. They can take an absolute beating and still function. They’re not noise cancelling, just noise-isolating. No batteries to mess with, they have a long curly cord and sound reasonably good. Aftermarket lambskin earpads make them very comfortable after many hours. I used them back in my studio days and still keep buying them as needed. My current pair is ~10? years old and still going despite me being on the road ~200-300 nights/year. They’re not my preferred headphone for home use, BUT I’m not going to be carrying a headphone amp & $800 cans on the road.

    Best part — they’re dirt cheap. $68 on Amazon as I type this.

  17. no noise cancellation is perfect. The noise cancellation is always slightly off. This means that there is a slight overlap of wave phase that would increase the volume hitting the ear.

    In my experience, every so often, I have noticed, when listening to certain audio signal, the presence of thumps and low wavelength, super high amplitude sounds–even at low volume settings–that very quickly cause inner ear pain.

    I suspect that, in an effort to maintain signal fidelity to the ear, Bose has inadvertently turned their device into something that can transmit high fidelity signal error, or sloppy sound guy tricks to increase clarity of speech, right into the user’s eardrum. This pisses me off, as it seems like this can–very stealthily–damage your hearing.

    Seems like access to some kind of safety features on the phones in the form of *MANUAL* (I.E., non-app that you have to take 5 minutes to fish around for, figure out how to work, wait to connect, etc.) setting method where you can place an upper limit on the amplitude of any sound wave that comes out of the device.

  18. I do notice the discomfort from my QC35s, but in my case its not as dramatic as the author describes. I love them, actually. Btw, with the Bose Connect app, you can set noise cancelling to medium, which alleviates the pressure in the ears and still affords good sound cancelling.

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