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Noise Cancellation Technology in Portable

This summary gives a brief overview of the noise cancelling technology used in
modern day headphones. As technical language is generally confuses the discussion
and does not help comprehension, we will use more common terms to in our
Noise cancellation is an electrical systems technique used to eliminate unwanted
signals that are produced by sources outside of the current system. In the case of
headphones, this technique eliminates ambient sounds from the music heard by the
user. This creates very high quality sound within the headphones and increases the
listening enjoyment of the user. But noise cancellation has other important uses
besides within headphones. This technique is commonly used to reduce the amount
of “static” on a telephone cables in order to make the calls more clear, or to flatten
out voltage spikes on power lines to ensure that the power delivered to homes and
businesses is more reliable. These uses have a profound impact in communities and
show how important noise cancellation technology really is.

Signal Input
When we talk about electrical systems, we have to consider what is called an
electrical signal. An electrical signal is a variation in voltage in a wire that
communicates some type of information. In our case, this information is the music
that plays through the headphones. Any type of signal can be represented by a sine
wave. A sine wave is a mathematical representation of an oscillation and it is a
convenient way to mathematically visualize how signals behaves. An example of a
sine wave is shown below in Figure 1.
When music is played from a device, such as an iPod or MP3 player, there is an
electrical signal that is send from the player to the headphones. The signal travels
up the headphone’s wire as variations in voltage and reach the headphones, all
within a few nanoseconds. The speakers within the headphones convert the
electrical signal into a sound wave, which is interpreted by our ear as music.
But when we are in an area with loud external sounds, such as on a plane or in the
city, there are many other sound waves that make their way to our ear. These
unwanted sounds are
referred to as noise
and is what we are
trying to remove. In
fact, we actually use
the noise to eventually
cancel itself out!

Figure 1: Two sine waves being added together.

The first step in the noise cancellation process is taking in the noise through a small
microphone in the exterior of the headphones. This microphone is used to convert
the incoming noise into an electrical signal. This “noise signal” is interpreted by the
circuitry within the headphones and flipped to create a signal that is opposite in

Flipping the Signal
Once the noise signal is captured by the headphones, it is then flipped, or inverted.
This inversional may be accomplished by shifting the noise signal by 180 degrees.
As is seen in the Figure 1, the flipped signal (Wave 2) has the exact opposite
amplitude of the initial noise signal (Wave 1). The amplitude of a signal is the
height of the function above the zero line. So when the initial noise signal has an
amplitude of 2 volts, the inverted signal will have an amplitude of -2 volts. This step
is crucial for the cancellation of the two signals in our next step.
Notice that if Wave 1 is moved slightly to the left or right, it would have the same
amplitude as Wave 2! This is what is meant by a shift of 180 degrees, and is the
most direct method of inverting a signal.

When the noise signal is fully inverted, it is then recombined with the original noise
signal. This is done by simply playing the inverted noise signal through the
headphones with the music. The three sounds that are then being played through
the speakers are the music, the inverted noise, and the original noise.
As they are played together, they will undergo what is called interference. This
term simply means that the sound waves will combine and their sine waves will be
added together. There are two types of interference: constructive (when the
signals combine to produce a stronger signal), and destructive (when they
combine to produce a reduced signal). When the three sound waves are all
combined, the inverted noise and the original noise will interfere destructively and
cancel each other out. If the system is perfect, the only remaining sound should be
the music.
This step is the most important within the entire process and must be timed well. If
the inverted noise signal is delayed by only a microsecond, it will not cancel with
the original noise signal and there could end up being more noise than there was
originally. Therefore, the timing within the inversion circuitry must be comparable to
the delay that the noise experiences when it passes through the headphones to the

The end result of this process
should be a sound wave that is
composed purely of the music
that is being played. Figure 2 to
the right is a graphic that
summarizes the entire process
of noise cancellation.
This is only one method of noise
cancellation but it is by far the
Figure 2: A summary of the noise cancellation process

most widely used. Another common method of eliminating noise includes using
higher quality cushioning around the ear that does not transmit sound well. This
method is referred to as noise isolation and does not produce the same quality
sound and is not adaptable to different types of noise.