For a while now I’ve been noticing an increasing number of TV and movie scenes, as well as real-life instances, of people thinking headphones are magic. Specifically, that by wearing any type of headphones, they’re completely isolated from the rest of the world. A cone of silence so powerful that shouting, gunshots, and explosions can’t intrude on the wearer’s solitude. If only. Even if you play the music at dangerously high levels, you’re not totally isolated.

In fiction, I have to give this a pass. Maybe it’s for a joke. Maybe it has to happen for the plot to proceed (which means the writing is mediocre, but that’s a different rant). It’s fiction, and if we start nitpicking about how things like this work in TV shows and movies, we’re on a slippery slope toward complaining that Superman shouldn’t really be able to fly because that’s not how sunlight works. It certainly pulls me out of the scene, however, ruining my suspension of disbelief. Apparently, I’m not the only one, since there’s a whole writeup about it on TVTropes.org. In fairness, though, the writers of that website think everything is a “trope.”


People, however, get their cues from fiction. If they don’t have a lot of experience with something, how fiction handles it might seep into their subconscious. Like the way people thought you could just “enhance” standard-definition security camera footage to identify a fingerprint from 1,000 yards. Or literally everything in crime shows like CSI. Lacking firsthand knowledge, people can easily assume that’s how things work. Maybe they know it’s not exactly real, but without caring to learn more, they think it’s close enough to reality. Maybe noise-canceling headphones actually do “cancel” all noise.

So what’s the big deal? Well, I’m sure many of you are annoyed, too. Or if you weren’t, you’ll start noticing this “trope” now and be annoyed with me. Sorry. Really, though, I think the problem is potentially twofold as it relates to our hobby. The first is a mistaken expectation of how much isolation is possible with most headphones. I’m not sure why people don’t notice, or remember, what the ambient sound is like when they’re wearing their own headphones. Maybe they just don’t pay attention to the background sound when they’re waiting for their music or podcast. Maybe they just don’t listen to headphones much. Either way, I can remember numerous times in the last year when people have been talking near me, about me, thinking I can’t hear them because I have magic headphones on. Yes, I’m sitting at this table alone. I know, how shocking. Which is to say, don’t talk about people around you; it’s rude. Maybe they can hear you. Maybe they can speak the language.

The second is a mistaken expectation about noise canceling. While it’s still common to see negative reviews from people who have bought their first pair of NC headphones only to complain they can still hear things (not magic!), a bigger issue is the opposite. Thinking they are magic, they use them in situations they’re absolutely not suited for. Dangerously loud environments require actual ear protection, and noise-canceling headphones are not even remotely that.


As enthusiasts, I think we need to be careful who we bore with endless conversations about our hobby. I’m sure the average person doesn’t care about balanced armatures and aptX codecs. But this can be a way to help non-enthusiasts with their purchase choices, performance expectations, and most importantly, their hearing. Maybe my pithy “headphones aren’t magic” is a bit brusque for a conversation starter, so I’ll leave that up to you. Maybe you could start with casual management of expectations, if you will, if someone mentions noise-canceling headphones.

. . . Geoffrey Morrison
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Have you seen any instances of this trope on a show or movie you like? Have you encountered it in real life? Am I insane that this bothers me? Let me know in the comments.

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