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Although slightly bulkier than 'on the ear' (or 'in the ear') headphones, 'around the ear' headphones generally are the most comfortable, and offer good passive as well as active noise cancellation.

Well known audio supplier, Altec Lansing, offers a moderately good performing product you might wish to consider.

 
 
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Altec Lansing AHP712i Noise Cancelling Headset

A moderately well performing 'around the ear' set of active noise cancelling headphones

Altec Lansing's active noise cancelling headphones are reasonably attractive, and have their electronics in a separate box rather than built into an earpiece.

Part 11 of a series on noise reducing headphones - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight  Nine  Ten  Eleven  Twelve  Thirteen

 

 

Altec Lansing offer a moderately well performing set of around the ear noise reducing headphones; but at $150, the price/performance ratio is not as favorable as one might hope for and vastly less than that promised in their promotional literature.

On the other hand, while listing for $150 (and occasionally being opportunistically sold for $175 or more) they can be found for very much less on Amazon.com (at present for as little as $60 or less), and at this sort of price they become a good value when compared to other budget priced headphones.

In summary - their noise cancelling is tangibly inferior to the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 ($300) and Plane Quiet Solitude ($200) headphones, but when compared against other $50-75 units, they perform as well or better.

The Altec Lansing AHP712i Headphones with Digital Noise Cancellation Technology - What you Get

(Quite a mouthful of a formal product name, isn't it!)  Altec Lansing's AHP712i noise cancelling headphones come in a hard to open plastic display box.

After several minutes attacking the box with scissors, and narrowly missing cutting the cables or scratching the headphones, I finally managed to extract the treasures inside.  Most notable is, of course, the headphones themselves.

In addition to the headphones, there are two cables to connect between the control box and an audio source - one is a short 18", the other a very long 6'.  This is a nice touch - most of the time the short lead will be plenty long enough, but there may be a time when you need the longer cable - for example, to plug in to the audio output of a computer that is on the floor close to your desk.

There are also two plug adapters - one to convert from the headphones' standard mini stereo jack to the double pronged plug needed by many airlines, and the other to convert to the larger diameter " plug required by higher end stereo systems.  This is a very complete range of accessories.

The two cables are both gold plated.  The two adapters are not.

In addition to these items, there is also a soft carry bag for the headphones.  This has a velveteen type lining, and a drawstring top.  It also has a small carry pouch inside its lining, with a velcro closure - this is a great place to keep your cables, adapters, and spare batteries.

The pouch is light (3 oz) and takes up little space, but provides only minimal protection for the headphones inside.

However, although there's a complete range of cables and adapters, there were some apparent omissions.

A disappointment was no battery.  The headphones require a single AAA battery, and this under $1 item was not provided.  You don't get much for your $150, do you.

The second disappointment was the apparent lack of any instructions, warranty card, or any other helpful material.  This was surprising so I checked with Altec Lansing in case somehow my unit was missing these things.  Their reply was slightly embarrassing - I simply couldn't find the instructions that were indeed present.

It appears that, in a manner analogous to finding a recipe printed on the inside of a label around a can of food, you should take out the liner card from the plastic display box, unpeel the two halves of it, and inside you'll discover the printed instructions, in seven different languages.

The instructions are fairly brief; so brief in fact I'll print them in their entirety here :

1.  Plug the headphone connector into the 3.5mm stereo headphone jack on your audio playback device.

2.  Turn on the Active Noise Reduction feature using the multi-function controller.

3.  Adjust volume level using the multi-function controller.

I guess we don't really need instructions at all!

Brief as they are, I don't agree with point 3.  To get maximum battery life out of the audio device you're playing music from, it is best to set the volume control to maximum on the headphones and vary the volume on the audio device.  If you reduce the volume level on the headphones, you're simply burning up battery life unnecessarily on the audio playback device, with the unneeded extra power for too high a volume level being shunted off into a resistor and wasted.

The volume control can have a use though - if you are sharing a music source with a friend - perhaps via a Boostaroo unit - you can use the volume control to fine tune the volume to reflect your personal preferences, and/or the varying sensitivity of the different headphones you each might be using.  But for normal playing, leave the headphone volume control at max.

Note also the volume control only affects the sound level.  It makes no impact on the amount of noise cancelling, which is always at max.

The headphones have a one year warranty, and if you fill out and return a customer questionnaire card, Altec Lansing increases the warranty to two years.

Headphones Description

The Altec Lansing AHP712i noise cancelling headphones fit around the ear rather than headphones designed to rest on the ear type, or fit in the ear.  The cups that fit around your ears are smaller than on the Solitude or QC2 headphones.

Oval in shape, the two maximum dimensions of the ear cups are approximately 2.25" x 1.4" - this is quite small.  In contrast, the Solitudes measure approximately 2.65" x 1.6".  What does this actually mean?  It means they are snug around one's ears rather than roomy - if you have unusually large ears, they might be too small.

The headband is well padded and comfortable, but there's a size issue there, too.  I found that for a comfortable fit, I needed the headband extended nearly all the way; by comparison, with the Solitude or Quiet Comfort headphones, I typically have the headband only half extended.  People with different head/ear geometries could find the headband is too small for them, and from my observation of how far people extend their headbands, such people do exist.

On the positive side, the tension that clamps the cups to the sides of your head is considerably less than with the Solitude headset and maybe even slightly softer than the Bose Quiet Comforts.

On the other hand, the Solitudes were deliberately designed to fit firmly, so as to provide a physical seal to passively block out as much sound as possible.  The Altec Lansing headphones don't do this quite so effectively.

The cups can rotate 90 one way to lie flat for packing, and about 45 the other way to ensure a comfortable fit.  The headband doesn't fold in the middle, and so the headphones don't fold quite as compactly as the Solitude headphones.

A 30" long, thin wire runs from the left headphone down to a small control box.  The control box has an on-off switch and a volume control, and holds the single AAA battery.  A metal spring clip enables you to clip the control unit to your belt if you wish.

This separate electronics and battery box is perhaps a dated feature, with most higher end units now having everything built into the headphones themselves.

There is a socket into which you can plug one of the two provided patch cables to connect the control box to an audio source.  The patch cables use standard mini-stereo plugs at both ends, so if you should lose or break a cable, a replacement can readily be obtained from any stereo store at low price.

A red LED lights up when the unit is switched on, primarily to confirm they are on and the battery is not yet flat.

Altec Lansing say the single AAA battery lasts for more than 72 hours.  I've managed to get more than 40 hours from a single battery, which is excellent.

The headphones have an 'on the head' weight of 6.8 ounces and a total weight of 12.8 ounces (including battery and carry pouch).

Using the AHP712i Headphones

It was easy to unfold the headphones, to adjust the headband, and to put them on my head.  The headphones were soft and sat firmly in place, and felt like they'd be as comfortable as other headphones for extended periods of wearing.

They were probably slightly more comfortable than the Solitude headphones (due to the firm grip of the Solitudes) but not as comfortable as the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones, which had appreciably larger ear pieces that were also deeper, suiting a broader range of head and ear dimensions.

Music can be heard through the headphones whether the noise cancelling switch is on or off.  So if the battery dies on you mid-flight, you still have a good quality set of headphones to enjoy your music with.

When listened to in a moderately quiet environment, the sound has quite a different characteristic with the noise reduction switched on to when it is switched off.  Perhaps this was due to - when the headphones were turned on - a combination of the electronic hiss and the subtraction of the background noise.

Sound quality was good with the noise reduction turned on, and with no obvious weaknesses.

And talking about hiss, the headphones generate an appreciable amount of electronic 'random noise', aka hiss, when turned on.  The good news is this hiss is not at all apparent in a noisy environment such as in an airplane, but if you're trying to use the headphones to make a quiet environment (such as an office) quieter (something we generally don't recommend), you may find the hiss distracting and bothersome.

The hiss level is comparable to that in the Solitude or Plane Quiet NC6 headphones, and louder than in the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones.

A minor irritant with these headphones was some 'microphony' from the control box.  If you tapped the control box, you could hear a tapping noise in the headphones, similar to if someone was tapping on a microphone.  This usually indicates a poorly soldered joint or bad electrical connection somewhere, and can be a precursor to subsequent equipment failure.  Hopefully this was a one-off with my sample set of headphones rather than something common to all units.

Noise Cancelling Functionality

In testing - conducted both with my trial noisemaking setup in the office, and on a 737-700 flight, the AHP-712i headphones tested to be appreciably inferior to both the Solitude and Quiet Comfort headphones, but comparable to the NC-6.

But, Altec Lansing claim an extraordinary amount of noise reduction for their headphones, verging on the unbelievable.  They claim greater than 19dB of noise cancellation, all the way across the audio spectrum from 40Hz up to 12kHz.  This is much more than any other manufacturer has ever claimed for their headphones.

19dB is an enormous difference in sound energy - it represents nearly a 100 fold reduction in noise levels, but because we hear logarithmically rather than linearly, the 100 fold reduction in sound energy represents as a large but not huge difference in perceived sound level.

Because active noise cancellation only works in a narrow band of mid/low frequencies, and because the observed performance of the headphones was so enormously different to their claim, I questioned Altec Lansing about this - my question and their answer follow :

Q.  The headphones claim greater than 19dB of noise reduction from 40Hz to 12 kHz. That is at odds with my qualitative testing, and is enormously above anything any other manufacturer claims. How was this measured?

A.  This is a combination of active and passive noise reduction measured in our labs and repeatable.

This is a positive answer and re-affirms their claim, but it provides absolutely no detail as to how the claimed noise reduction was measured.

As I've mentioned in earlier articles in this series (for example, here), measuring the degree of noise reduction in a set of headphones is part art and part science; professional audio technicians understand this and generally, when asked, are pleased to provide details of their testing methodology rather than give just a 'trust us, we know best' type reply.

Altec Lansing's reply provided no detail to help understand their claim, but it still caused me to worry - have I forgotten what a 19dB difference in sound levels actually sounds like?  So I did some pink noise (the hiss on a stereo tuner when between stations on the FM band and with muting off) testing with a sound level meter to 're-calibrate' my ear.

Using a sound level meter, I marked settings on my stereo volume control for two sound levels - 50dB (quiet) and 69dB (moderately loud), using C weighting - this being felt to be the best weighting scale, because it gives most prominence to lower frequencies such as on a plane (explained here if you're interested).  I switched between the two levels repeatedly to get a feeling for the different perceived loudness, then with the noise source steady at 69 dB, put the headphones on and off repeatedly to see if a similar sound reduction occurred with the headphones.

The result?  The headphones provided a laughably small amount of noise cancellation.  19dB?  No way.  Not even close.  Although my testing methodology is imprecise, I'll guess the sound reduction to be probably less than 10dB in the part of the audio spectrum represented by the noise source.

So, how then to reconcile Altec Lansing's claim - greater than 19dB of noise cancelling from 40Hz to 12kHz - with my testing results that showed, on a 737 plane, inferior performance to the Solitudes (claiming a maximum of 18dB of cancelling across a narrow unspecified frequency band) and when comparing perceived sound levels against random pink noise, a guessed at less than 10dB of noise cancelling?

I'm unable to come up with a way to reconcile the starkly conflicting results.  Draw your own conclusions as you feel appropriate.

Where to Buy

The headphones can be purchased direct from Altec Lansing, at their full retail price of $149.95.  Alternatively, they are available from various on-line discounters, and at the time of writing, the best price seems to be through Amazon.com (less than $60).

Summary and Recommendation

These headphones do not perform as you'd expect of a $150 set of headphones, and we can not recommend them at that price.

Happily, street price seems to be less than half their recommended retail price, and at such a price, they become a good alternative to other mid range units such as the Plane Quiet NC-6.

But if you're looking for the best amount of noise cancellation, the Solitudes or Quiet Comforts ($200 or $300, respectively) remain the only two choices for you.

Worth considering for someone buying on a budget, not recommended for someone keen to maximize the noise cancellation.

 

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Originally published 10 Mar 2006, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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