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Noise cancelling headphones work especially well on long plane journeys, reducing the fatigue caused by the ever-present background noise in the plane.

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Noise Cancelling Headphones Buyers Guide

A comprehensive buyers guide and reviews about active noise cancelling headphone technology

Noise reducing headphones come in all shapes and sizes, and at many different price points, from as low as $20 to as high as $400.

This guide and related reviews tells you what you need to know so you can choose the make and model of headphone that is best suited for your needs and your pocketbook.

 

 

Surprise - the most expensive noise reducing headphones are not necessarily the best, with a product less than one quarter the price meeting or beating the specifications of the highest priced product.

Use this guide to make a better informed decision about whether you should get noise cancelling headphones or not; and if you feel them to be right for you, use the reviews to choose the model that best meets your needs.

Many readers will choose to read from the top down on this page, but if you want to skip straight to the review summaries and links, click here.

An Introduction to Active Noise Cancelling technology

Active noise reducing technology uses 'opposite noise' to cancel out the undesirable sounds around you.

Sound is made by a series of pressure waves traveling through the air.  A sound is made up by equal numbers of high and low pressure waves that travel from where the sound is made to your ear where it is heard.  With very low frequency sounds, you can even feel these pressure waves in your stomach.

Normally, the only way to quieten the sound of something is to put something that would block the passage of these waves to your ear.  Ear plugs are the simplest form of achieving this; big heavy bulky ear muffs are another method.

Active noise cancelling headphones use a different approach.  They have tiny microphones alongside each earphone, and a very fast reacting amplifier.

The amplifier takes each sound's high pressure wave and creates an equal but opposite low pressure wave (what they call 'anti-noise', and vice versa for the low pressure waves.  The two pressure waves simply cancel each other out.  The net result is a reduction in background noise.

The technology works best at mid/low frequencies, and does not fully cancel out all noise.  Its main advantage is that instead of requiring bulky heavy layers of sound insulation, a set of headphones can use this noise cancelling technology to end up with similar levels of quietening.

When to choose (and not choose) Noise Cancelling Headphones

Noise cancelling headphones will provide moderate amounts of noise reduction among mid and low frequency sounds.

These sounds are typically prominent in airplanes, and so active noise reduction works very well in airplanes.  Although our minds work so as to automatically tune out some background noise, our ears are still hearing it and our minds are having to work harder with their automatic noise filtering.  For these reasons, background noise can be surprisingly tiring; you'll definitely feel more refreshed at the end of a long flight if you've been wearing noise cancelling headphones during the journey.

But if you're seeking to cut back on the noise of your co-workers in a moderately quiet office, you'll find that the frequencies of human speech generally lie outside the range of best noise cancellation, meaning that the headphones don't work so well in such cases; indeed because they selectively cut back on other noises, they can make the sound of voices more noticeable than before.

If you're wishing to use your headphones outdoors, you may meet with mixed results if the headphones' noise sensing circuitry picks up 'wind noise' and tries to cancel this out.  We generally prefer not to take our somewhat delicate headphones outside and confine their use to indoors.

If you need major reductions in noise (for example, on a firing range) you'll probably need to use some type of passive noise blocking device.  Active noise cancelling typically reduces sounds by about 15dB over a narrow frequency range, whereas passive noise blocking can reduce sounds by over 30 dB and over a wider range of high and low frequencies.

Alternatives to Noise Cancelling Headphones

Simple earplugs cost less than $1 for a pair, and probably provide better noise insulation.  But they don't allow you to hear music or movie soundtracks at the same time.

Traditional ear muffs/hearing protectors cost perhaps $20-40 and also provide greatly better noise insulation, but again they don't have speakers inside.  Plus they're usually big, bulky, and heavy - not well suited for travelers wanting to carry them on board a flight.

Some companies offer products (such as the Solitude Passive Noise Reduction In-the-Ear Stereo Headphones or the Sony MDR-NC11A noise cancelling earbuds) which place miniature speakers into a set of ear plugs.  These can offer good passive noise blocking and also reasonably good audio quality and are typically inexpensive and of course very small in size.

But if you don't like sticking things in your ears, or if you want something to conveniently share with other people (without also sharing each other's ear wax) then you're probably going to need regular noise cancelling headphones.

Issues to Consider when Buying Noise Cancelling Headphones

There are two different design styles commonly in use - some headphones fit around your ear, while others rest on your ear.  Generally the on your ear headphones are smaller, but don't offer quite as good a seal against noise and may not be quite as comfortable when worn for a long time.

Which brings up one of the most important factors - comfort.  Chances are you'll be wearing your headphones for many hours while on a flight, so be sure to get headphones that remain comfortable for extended use.

Obviously the underlying ability of the headphones to actually cancel out the noises you're seeking to block is vital.  Manufacturers seem to consistently provide totally unrealistic claims for how well their headphones work - don't believe these claims at all.  Only trust your ears (or perhaps our ears, too).

Music reproduction quality is a factor, but we generally rate this as an unimportant factor.  You're just not ever going to get a highest quality music sound in a noisy environment, and with the extra signal processing applied to the sound going through the noise cancelling circuitry, there will invariably be some sound compromises introduced.  Of course you want as good a quality as possible, but don't expect sound stage/studio realism with noise cancelling headphones.

Price is obviously a consideration, although we generally feel it to be the least important of the factors to be considered.

The Reviews

These reviews have been written over time, dating back to October 2001.  Some of the earlier reviews have been kept online for reference purposes, or because the model reviewed can still be found available for sale; other reviews have been deleted.

Here is a quick list of reviews and comments on what they contain; this will hopefully save you from needing to read through all of them to get to the information you need.

Executive Summary

Currently the best headphones are the Bose QuietComfort 15 (about $300) followed by the Sony MDR-NC500D (about $400) which don't offer as good noise cancelling, while costing $100 more, and/or the Solitude X headphones, which are comparable to the Sony MDR-NC500D, but cost $130.

This makes the Solitude X our clear preferred best value and best choice for most people.

If you're more budget focused then the $70 Plane Quiet Platinum with Solitude Technology headphones are probably your best bet (but because sometimes the 'real' Solitude X headphones are only slightly more, it usually makes sense to pay a little more money for a lot more noise reduction).

 

Audio Technica ATH-ANC7b

~ $170

reviewed October 2009

 

An average to good performing headset that is a lower priced alternative to the Bose QC15.

Bose Quiet Comfort 15

$299

reviewed October 2009

 

Markedly better than the Quiet Comfort 2.  Excellent noise cancelling - the best of any headphones tested to date.

Bose Quiet Comfort 3

$349 +

reviewed August 2006

 

Small and compact, good performer but not as good as the QC15 and with bothersome rechargeable batteries.

Bose Quiet Comfort 2

$299

reviewed September 2003

 

Excellent high quality headphones, but the Solitude headphones are better value and comparable quality.

Superseded by the Quiet Comfort 15.

Bose Quiet Comfort 1

n/a

reviewed December 2001

 

Good in their day, but now definitely obsoleted and superseded by the much better Quiet Comfort 2 and Solitude headphones.

Solitude XCS

$179

reviewed Aug 2012

 

An excellent performer, almost as good as the Bose QuietComfort 15, and available at little more than half the price of the Bose product.

The earlier model X - while it remains available - is the better value, while the XCS offers almost the performance of the QC15 but at a much lower price.

Solitude X

$130

reviewed Mar 2011

 

Almost indistinguishably as good as the newer XCS model, but now at a discounted remaindered price.

Accordingly, it easily qualifies as our current choice for best value headphones.

Solitude with Linx

$199

reviewed December 2006

 

Now discontinued.

Similar to the Solitude 2 below which they have now superseded, and with extra audio processing and slightly improved passive and active noise cancellation.

Solitude 2

$199

updated review May 2006

 

Now superseded by the Solitude Linx headphones above.

Excellent high quality headphones at a good value price point.  Recommended.

Phiaton PS300 NC

$200

reviewed October 2009

 

Externally similar in appearance to the Bose QC3, and with more inclusions making them much better value.  But not as good noise cancelling or sound quality.

Plane Quiet Platinum with Solitude technology

$70

reviewed Sep 2010

 

Improved ergonomics compared to the Plane Quiet Platinum, lovely quiet electronics, good noise canceling and average sound quality.

Plane Quiet Platinum

$60

reviewed Oct 2008, revisited Sep 2009

 

Now discontinued.

A return to Plane Quiet's earlier design with over the ear cups.  A good value midrange performing product.

Recommended as our 'best buy' product'.

Plane Quiet NC7

$80

reviewed August 2006

 

Now discontinued and replaced by the Plane Quiet Platinum.  Small, compact, excellent performer at a great price point.  Recommended.

Plane Quiet NC6

~ $55

reviewed October 2004

 

Discontinued in Aug 06, this product was an interesting change in product design philosophy and was widely imitated in the marketplace, although many times the look-alike competitors did not perform nearly as well.

Plane Quiet earlier models

n/a

variously reviewed

 

It is now primarily of background interest only to read about the five previous models of Plane Quiet noise cancelling headphones earlier released and all no longer sold.

Plane Quiet had to withdraw these headphones after the threat of legal action from Bose over alleged patent infringements.  But being as how that spurred Plane Quiet to subsequently release the NC6 and NC7 and also Solitude headphones, it is definitely an ill wind that blows no good.

Noisebuster NB-FX

$70

reviewed November 2004

 

The best of the Plane Quiet NC-6 look alikes, and unlike the NC-6, they have yet to be superseded and are still for sale.  The Plane Quiet NC-7 is probably a better choice however.

Noisebuster earlier model

n/a

reviewed November 2001

 

One of the earlier models of noise cancelling headphones.  A good performer in their day, but now long since obsoleted by better and newer models.

Sony MDR-NC500D

$400

reviewed December 2008

 

Very expensive, with their claim to fame being the use of digital rather than analogue noise cancelling technology.

Very good headphones closely comparable to the Bose QC2, but they cost $100 more than the QC2 and so we prefer the Bose.

Sony MDR-NC60

$135

reviewed December 2008

 

Around the ear style headphones with good (but not the best) performance at a good (but not wonderful) price point.

Sony MDR-NC11A

$100

reviewed January 2007

 

Earbuds rather than regular headphones.  Good passive noise blocking, very little active noise cancellation and obtrusive hiss.  Not recommended.

Altec Lansing AHP712i

$150

reviewed March 2006

 

Terribly over priced with no special features to justify their price.  Not recommended.

Koss QZ5

$35

reviewed March 2004

 

Warning - these are not noise cancelling headphones.  Don't buy.

Coby CV190

$15

reviewed May 2004

 

Apparently now superseded by the CV192 which sell for under $30 on Amazon.

Brookstone

n/a

reviewed Feb 2002

 

These very disappointing headphones originally sold for $102, but were judged inferior to units costing less than half as much.

They've now been superseded by another model which we've not yet tested.

 

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Originally published 15 Sep 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.

 
 
Related Articles
Noise Reducing Headphones Main Review Index and Introduction
Altec Lansing AHP712i review
Audio Technica ATH-ANC7b
Bose QuietComfort 15
Bose QuietComfort 3
Bose Corp response
Bose reader replies
Coby CV190
Koss QZ5
Noisebuster NB-FX
Phiaton PS300 NC
Plane Quiet Platinum with Solitude Technology
Solitude XCS
Sony MDR-NC11A earbud
Sony MDR-NC500D
Sony MDR-NC60

Related products
Boostaroo Headset Amplifier and 3way splitter
Skullcandy Link headset mixer

Older reviews of no longer current model headphones
Bose QuietComfort 2
Bose QuietComfort
Brookstone
Brookstone reader replies
Plane Quiet Platinum
Plane Quiet NC7
Plane Quiet NC6
Plane Quiet older models
Solitude with Linx
Solitude II
Solitude X
Noisebuster older
Noisebuster Corp response
Noisebuster reader replies
 

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