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.
JVC also makes a number of well-regarded models in the $100-$200 range, including the popular JVC-HA-NC100. The recently announced JVC-HA-NC250 looks like a particularly promising contender for the “best-in-class” throne. Though selling at close to its $199 list price now, look for discounted pricing around Christmas.
Finally, the AKG28NC, and Sony MDR-NC60 and MDR-NC50, are other well-regarded models worth consideration. The Sony’s use the over-the-ear (also called around-the-ear) design, and may not play loud with small MP3 players. The AKGs are thin and light, but have a somewhat bulky belt module.
Regardless of your preference, before buying a pair of these pricey “cones of silence,” you should consider:
Comfort: Do you prefer open-air style on-the-ear transducers, or the more traditional over-the-ear cups? The latter may seem more “isolating” but can also prevent the ear from breathing and be uncomfortable to use for long periods. The noise-canceling electronics allow the on-the-ear approach to provide as good an isolation experience with a lighter touch.
Baggage: Most of the lower-priced units require an additional “box” to hold the noise-canceling electronics and batteries. Though some manufacturers minimize their size, they’re still an extra piece to keep track of, and are often permanently connected to the headphone cable, creating the risk of tangles or trips.
Impedance: No, you don’t have to be a spec-head, but do glance at this important number, which varies from roughly 15 – 300 ohms. If your source is an A/V receiver or laptop, don’t worry. But if you want to use the phones with a small MP3 player, you should probably look for an impedance value under 50 ohms.
Finally, make sure you choose a pair that function as regular headphones when the noise-canceling is turned off.
The good news is that this product category has matured fairly quickly, with some top-considered models more than a year old. It can still cost about $100 to get something decent, but if you choose a well-regarded model, you’re sure to enjoy your choice for a long time to come.