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Choosing Noise-Cancelling Headphones

It was while perusing through an airline magazine, on a long haul flight, that I first became aware of noise-cancelling headphones. Bose had placed a large advert for their Quiet Comfort headphones, which seemed very impressive, and I began to dream of a nice, quiet, peaceful, flight, devoid of the constant drone of the aeroplane’s engines. But priced at almost £200 they were more than I would be willing to spend. My dream would remain just that – a dream. However, before my next long haul flight, the following year, I searched the Internet and came across Plane Quiet noise-cancelling headphones selling for £58 ($100 USD). Having read the Bose ad I knew how noise-cancelling headphones worked (the principle isn’t difficult to grasp, see the box at the end of this article), but having never tried any I didn’t know how effective they would be, what the sound quality would be like, what the most important features to look for were and, even at £58, if they would really be worth the money. At that time, back in 2004, there was little information available on the Internet, and noise-cancelling headphones weren’t available on the high street to try out, so I had little choice other than to buy a pair for myself, at the risk of being grossly disappointed if they didn’t live up to my expectations. Since then I have travelled on many long haul flights using noise-cancelling headphones, so feel that I’m in a good position to offer some worthwhile advice, insights, and opinions.

Plane Quiet Noise-Cancelling Headphones.

So, my Plane Quiet headphones arrived and I eagerly inserted a battery in the control box, which contained the on/off switch and volume control, positioned on the cord midway between the headphones and the special airline connector. All the noise-cancelling headphones I have seen will cancel noise even if you’re not actually listening to anything, and the Plane Quiet headphones were no exception, but in a quiet living room there isn’t much ‘noise’ to cancel! Noise-cancelling headphones can be used in any environment, but they work best at reducing constant, low-frequency, background noise, such as that from aeroplane engines. I would have to wait for my next flight before being able to assess their true effectiveness.

On the plane the headphones, being circumaural (i.e. fitting over the ear), offered some passive reduction in noise – as would any circumaural headphones – but as soon as the noise reduction feature was turned on there was an instant, and significant, drop in background noise. There wasn’t silence; I could still hear the engines and the mumble of passengers’ voices, but at a much lower level! The reduction in background noise made the sound of the movies, on the in-flight entertainment system, much clearer. Also, I was able to have the volume at a more comfortable listening level due to there being less background noise to compete with.

The Plane Quiet headphones I bought back in 2004 didn’t look particularly strong and robust, but they worked fine, and the build quality proved satisfactory. However, I discovered one significant drawback – the headphones and the cord were permanently connected. When my cord became trapped between the in-flight entertainment control and the control’s housing in the seat, the cable was nicked severing one of the wires within the cord and making the headphones useless.

I now had full confidence in noise-cancelling headphones so bought my second pair without hesitation, and with the benefit of hindsight. By this time noise-cancelling headphones had started to appear on the high street so it was even possible to try some out in shops. Two features I particularly looked for were headphones with a detachable cord, and headphones that came with a hard case (my Plane Quiet headphones came with a soft case, capable of protecting the headphones from dust and drizzle, but offering no protection against being stuffed hard into carry-on luggage). I chose Audio Technica’s Quiet Point ATH-ANC7 headphones, which cost around £100 and met both of my requirements. I’ve used them many times now and am extremely satisfied.

Audio Technica Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Audio Technica Noise-Cancelling Headphoens in Case.

Before buying the Audio Technica I tried some Bose noise-cancelling headphones in the shop but didn’t feel the actual noise reduction, and sound quality, was worth paying extra for. In addition, when buying headphones for travel you have to take into consideration that there’s a very good chance they will be squashed, dropped, sat on, forgotten, or lost. It’s much easier to live with losing, or writing off, a cheaper set of headphones than an expensive set.

Such is my enthusiasm for noise-cancelling headphones that I bought a pair – Panasonic RP-HC150 costing around £50 – as a present for someone. At the time I notice that there were pairs for as little as £25. As I remember, the performance of the Panasonic headphones was similar to my early Plane Quiet headphones, but the Audio Technica headphones passed them both in terms of sound quality and noise cancelling. However, they were twice the price.

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The table below summarises some of the main features worth taking into consideration when buying a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

 
Feature
Comment
1.

Active Noise Cancellation

Make sure the headphones you buy are ‘active’ noise-cancelling headphones as opposed to ‘passive’ noise reduction headphones. Active noise-cancelling headphones require batteries whereas ‘passive’ headphones don’t.

2.

Circumaural or On-ear

Circumaural headphones cover the ear, and in so doing theoretically offer a little more in the way of passive noise reduction. However, on long flights it’s possible that your ears may become sweaty and start to itch. Well-designed on-ear noise-cancelling headphones should work just as well as circumaural headphones, and some people will find them more comfortable.

3.

Detachable Cable

Cables are prone to damage. Replacing a cable is far cheaper than replacing the headphones, or having headphones without detachable cables repaired.

4.

Hard Case

No matter how hard we try to look after our noise-cancelling headphones the fact remains that they can easily be damaged. A hard case offers a far better degree of protections than the soft pouch supplied with some noise-cancelling headphones.

5.

Battery Size

The size of battery and the number of batteries required is worth some consideration. Should your battery run out, AA size batteries tend to be easier to locate, either in shops or in other electronic devices you are travelling with, than the smaller AAA size. However, whatever the size of battery, it always pays to carry a spare specifically for your headphones.

If the battery is housed in one of the headphone’s ear cups, one battery is probably going to be more comfortable than the weight of two over a long flight.

6.

Headband Tension

Headband tension is also worth giving a thought to. Too weak and the headphones will easily fall off, too strong and they are not going to be comfortable over a long flight.

7.

Storage Size

Some headphones have joints that enable them to fold up into a very compact size. However, I feel that the more joints headphones have, the weaker they are structurally.

8.

Cost

Travel headphones can easily be damaged, forgotten, lost, or even stolen, which makes a strong argument for not spending too much on them to begin with.

Other benefits of travelling with noise-cancelling headphones are that when you arrive at your destination your headphones can be used with other devices you may be carrying with you, such as a computer or MP3 player, to give possibly a better quality of sound than the headphones you usually use.

Airline headphone jack.Noise-cancelling headphones should come with the special adaptor required for airlines, like the one shown in the photo on the left. I’ve often wondered why airlines don’t use a standard 3.5 mm stereo jack on their headphones and audio systems, and then it occurred to me that the plug, with its two pins, is probably much stronger. I don’t know if that’s the real reason for airlines adopting this particular design, but it makes sense.

If you should lose your adaptor, or simply want to take your own domestic headphones on board, adaptors can be bought from electronic retailers, such as Maplin Electronics in the UK.

In summary I would say that noise-cancelling headphones are well worth having. Movies and music from the in-flight entertainment system sound much clearer, and if you want to sleep the noise cancelling still works without any other audio input. Are they worth the money? For long flights I would say certainly. For short flights, a couple of hours or so, I personally wouldn’t bother taking mine along. As far as the sound quality goes, to a large extent you get what you pay for. I recently (January 2012) tried a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headphones in a shop and was very impressed. Whether they are worth the £299 asking price is up to the individual to decide. I notice that Plane Quiet headphones can still be bought, and their latest version, with detachable cord, looks much better than the ones I bought back in 2004.

And finally, if the headphones you choose only come with a soft travel pouch I strongly recommend getting, or making, a hard case for them. See the related article: DIY Headphone Case.

Considering the benefits of noise-cancelling headphones I’m always surprised how few fellow passengers I see using them. They are the first thing I pack when I know I'm going to be in the air for several hours.

How do noise-cancelling headphones work?
 
Noise-cancelling headphones work by electronically recording the background noise and playing it back 180° out of phase. The result is that the noise is cancelled. Think of someone trying to push a door open from one side (the background noise), and someone else trying to push the same door closed, with an equal amount of force, from the other side (a recording of the background noise). The push and pull forces are 180° out of phase with each other and therefore cancel each other out resulting in no door movement.

Useful Links:

Plane Quiet
Audio Technica Quiet Point ATH-ANC7
Panasonic RP-HC150
Bose Quiet Comfort 3

These links are provided for your referance only. I have no connection with these sites and cannot take responsibility for their content.

Noise Cancelling or Noise Reduction?
 
Noise-cancelling and noise-reduction headphones are one and the same thing. Noise cancelling refers more to how they work (see the box above), whereas noise reduction refers, in a general sense, to what they actually do - they reduce noise. Noise-cancelling now seems to be the most popular term used.

 


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