Remember when the guy at the stereo store warned you about wiring your stereo speakers “backwards”? If you did, the diaphragms on one speaker would move in as the ones on the other moved out, canceling some of each other’s sound. (The most noticeable effect was diminished bass). Noise-canceling headphones turn this old mistake into a powerful remedy. When you’re in a noisy situation, like on an airplane, “cancel” is exactly what you want to do with external noise.
Noise-canceling headphones have exterior microphones which listen to the sounds around you. Then, electronics in an attached module (or the headset), generate sound waves that are opposite to the outside sounds, and feed them into your headphones along with your music. The result: Those outside sounds are considerably attenuated. You can still hear regular speech, but rumbles and whines are diminished.
Bose created the noise-canceling product category, and their higher-end models still set the standard for quality, with a corresponding steep price. However, Sennheiser, JVC, Sony, AKG, and Panasonic all offer several products at different price points. The best of these rival Bose while going much easier on your wallet.
The current reference standard is the Bose QuietComfort 3 ($349). These compact, self-contained noise-canceling phones provide excellent performance and include active equalization to further tune out unwanted sounds. The slightly less expensive QuietComfort 2 provide a similar experience with over-the-ear cups.
For those of us with smaller budgets, the Sennheiser PXC-250 provides quite good performance for closer to $100. Like the higher-priced Bose, the PXC-250 uses a light on-the-ear design. The disadvantage is a small clip-on-the-belt tube that contains the electronics and batteries. Sennheiser also makes some higher-line models with improved performance and over-the-ear design.
Follow Electronic House
Jeff Winston has been writing about home electronics since 1998. An electrical engineer, Jeff has contributed to the development of products in the computer, consumer electronics, and wireless industries. He spends his spare time with his wife, kids, and many PCs, sometimes in that order.