Ten... noise-cancelling headphones
Ditch that din
Product Round-up Based on technology developed in the 1980s for airline crews, noise cancelling headphones are getting better every year. They are no longer luxury items but essential for frequent travellers, making journeys more tolerable.
Built-in microphones detect extraneous sound, such as aircraft engine hum or noise from trains and buses. The headphones actively reduce the noise by emitting a counteracting waveform. Almost all use a AAA battery, on average providing about 40 hours of use.
In-ear headphones offering greater sound isolation get you off to a good start, while over-ear designs may improve soundproofing with padded ear cups. Extras to look for include cabling with an in-line mobile phone microphone, volume controls and a monitor or ‘talk-through’ button if you need to mute sound and cut noise cancellation briefly.
The main issue with in-ear headphones is that a proper fit depends significantly on your own ears. For me this pair was not as comfy as the others. The features are standard: a AAA battery housed in a control unit plus volume adjustment, but no phone mic or monitor mode. Its noise cancellation is agile at reducing background hubbub and it works as a normal pair of headphones with cancellation off. Sound quality is well pronounced but it tends to be cold and clipped as opposed to rich and resonant. Its springy wires also cause the ear-bud mics to interpret head movements as ‘noise’ to try and cancel out, causing distortion.
Reg Rating 55%
More info Audio Technica
If you’re not committed to travelling light, these chunky, over-ear headphones wipe out most exterior sound even before noise cancelling. They also work as standard headphones without cancellation being on. When you do activate it, the worst of the outside world’s sonic distractions are lifted largely away. A single AAA battery fits inside the right ear can. There’s no talk-through button but the removable cable includes volume controls and a phone mic (a rare feature). Audio quality is good overall. Its characteristics change subtly when cancellation is on – not better or worse – just different. The bass is strong without being overbearing, while vocals and higher notes are light and airy.
Reg Rating 70%
More info Blackbox
Next page: Bose Quiet Comfort 15
Errm, why spend
upwards of £150 on these, when you can get a Sony NWZ-A845 16GB walkman with the exact same functionality...
Surely the real test
Is how any of these compare on noise reduction to just a simple pair of over-ear ear defenders from B&Q for under ten quid? I use a pair of those over some fairly decent Sennheiser earbuds and it works a treat on flights, even against screaming children. They seem to survive a lot more abuse than any headphone set I've bought, too.
I've had at least 5 pairs of noise cancelling headphones in the last 5 years, including Sennheiser, Sony, Bose, Philips and Koss.
None of them ever came close to beating ear plugs + over ear std headphones. I used to do around 150k miles of air travel a year, and that combination left me much less tired after longhaul flights than anything else I tried.
Oh, and the type of ear plugs makes a difference. If you can find them, Hearos are fantastic, with an NRR of 33db+ and very comfy. They are also very useful to block those noisy hotel HVAC units so you can get a decent nights sleep....
As an aside, I find that wearing headphones in public places just bothers me, I feel less in control. It's alright while sitting down for a while, but I tend to take them off as soon as I stand up.
I'm a bit disappointed that you didn't have more over-the-ear models. I find that, with careful selection of earpiece moulding, that in-ear 'phones hardly need noise reduction, but are too uncomfortable to wear for several hours. I have closed, over-ear headphones from Sony (MDR-Vsomething) and Sennheiser, they offer good noise shielding and are comfortable, so comfortable as to make it worth going for the expense of noise cancellation. I've owned Sennheiser PCX-250s in the past, but though the noise cancellation is reasonable, they sit on the ear, block less sound and aren't as comfortable. (Over-the-ear headphones can block out sounds that the noise cancelling circuitry doesn't affect)
I've tried the Bose, but while their noise cancellation is good, I don't like the way that they sit on my ears rather than over them. How about including the Sennheiser PCX450 in a future test?
Incidentally, why do these devices only cancel low frequency sound? As a layman I just expect them to reverse the phase of the signal from the microphones and thus subtract noise from the input. Ok, there needs to be some adjustment to compensate for the response curve of the microphones and the driver. Can't a simple analogue circuit do this? Wikipedia suggests that you'd need to have the microphone next to the eardrum. As I see it, you need the microphones to be at exactly the same distance from the eardrum as the acoustic driver, yet isolated from it so they only pick up ambient noise. Tricky, but not impossible at these prices? If the microphone is further away then you'd need to go digital and introduce a delay line in the signal path. Am I on the right lines here?
Had them for 2 years now. I like them. They work perfectly on the train and plane, but I don't use them outside because i feel too isolated from the outside world - dangerous. They don't block the baby crying or unusual noises unfortunately. They can make your ears sweat after a couple of hours especially in the summer. My wife also got one of them for the long vacation flights and she's happy with it as well. After comparing my old one with hers, I have the impression that hers blocks outside noise a tad better, maybe my noise recording microphone got clogged, i don't know. In-ear is not for me because it hurts in a weird way after a couple of hours...