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In just 18 months, Plane Quiet built up an enviable reputation as a supplier of a high quality good value unique brand of noise reducing headphone.

Their latest product, however, is very similar to other competing products.

Has Plane Quiet abandoned its market leadership role?

 
 
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Plane Quiet NC-6 Headset

Active noise cancelling headphones
 

The new model NC6 noise cancelling headphones from Plane Quiet look very different to the previous five versions.

But, although looking different to earlier PQ models, they look almost identical to other brands of headphones out there.

What gives?

Part 8 of a series on noise reducing headphones - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight  Nine  Ten  Eleven  Twelve  Thirteen

 

 

A new version of the Plane Quiet headphones, and now $25 less than the previous version!

Sounds almost too good to be true.  Happily - for most people in most situations - the new NC-6 headphones work better than the earlier Mark 5 version, and with a $25 saving in price, they are even more a great value than ever before.

But, although an improvement over the Mk 5 in terms of both price and performance, it seems they no longer are clearly a market leader.  An almost identical product is available under at least six other brand names.

Fortunately, Plane Quiet's pricing is comparable to and sometimes better than that of its sibling competitors.

NOTE :  Now (Aug 31 2006) superseded by the NC7 headphones

Plane Quiet's History

The Plane Quiet brand of noise reducing headphones appeared in about May of 2003, and we first reviewed them six weeks later.  Since that time, their product was repeatedly improved and enhanced, while still retaining the same distinctive around-the-ear (rather than on-the-ear) design, and the same (then great value) $79.99 price point, and we've updated our original review to reflect these changes.

The NC-6 was released in August 2004.  They are very different in all respects to the previous Plane Quiet models.  We are guessing - and informally understand - that Plane Quiet grew to such success and prominence with its earlier product range that it attracted the ire of Bose; and apparently Bose lodged some sort of patent infringement lawsuit against Plane Quiet.  Bose definitely have deeper pockets than Plane Quiet, and so PQ chose to withdraw their earlier design of noise cancelling headphone rather than dispute the lawsuit.

What You Get

The NC6 noise cancelling headphones come in a nice small and easily opened plastic box.  Inside are the headphones themselves, a leatherette carry pouch, a two-pronged airline adapter plug, and an included AAA battery.

There is no warranty card or warranty information, and no manual, although in reality, the headphones are easy to understand and use without the need for a detailed manual.

Interestingly, the display card inside the plastic box claims 'up to 15dB reduction in noise', whereas the Plane Quiet website claims 'up to 17dB reduction in noise'.  It is very hard to measure actual noise reduction, and so suppliers can and sometimes do exercise a bit of 'poetic license' in their claims, particularly when adding the qualifier 'up to'.

Plane Quiet offer an unusually generous lifetime warranty on the NC6 headphones.  If you buy the headphones direct from Plane Quiet's website, there is also a 15 day return policy, albeit with a 15% restocking fee.  If you buy from Travel Essentials, you get a much more generous return policy and no restocking fee - and a lower price, too!

Description

The new NC6 headphones are smaller and lighter than their predecessors.  They have a 4.6 ounce 'on the head' weight.

Perhaps the most significant design difference is the soft ear pads rest on your ear, rather than fitting around the ear.

The headphones look 'cheap' in terms of the fit and finish of the plastic they are made from, and don't seem to be manufactured to as high a standard as the earlier models.  One of the incontrovertible features of the $300 Bose Quiet Comfort II headphones is that they look the part - they are built to a very high quality.  In comparison, the NC6 units don't look so upmarket (but their price is only one fifth that of the Quiet Comfort headphones, so this is only to be expected).

These new headphones replace the control box on the connector cord with a battery box built into one side of the headband and a single on/off switch and LED on the right side headphone surround.

There is no longer a volume control, but this is not necessary if you're listening to anything by yourself.  A volume control is a nicety if you are listening to a sound source simultaneously with a friend, in which case you can both set the volume level you personally prefer.

Functionality

My first testing was in my office, as soon as I received a set.  I compared them with the earlier Mark 5 product, and was disappointed.  The noise cancellation (primarily of multiple computer sounds and air conditioning) seemed no better, and the background hiss noise from the electronics was appreciably louder, more broadly distributed across the entire spectrum, and quite objectionable.

Fortunately I persevered, and took both them and a set of earlier Mk 5 headphones with me on a 12 hour flight between Los Angeles and Auckland.  On the 747, the NC-6 clearly out-performed the Mk 5.  It provided appreciably better noise reduction, particularly in the lower frequencies.  I found, when using the Mk 5s, that after they had cancelled out the mid frequencies, there remained an annoying low frequency noise that I hadn't noticed before.  The NC-6 unit however cancelled out the low frequency noise as well, and was superior at reducing the background noises in all low, mid and upper frequencies.

The remaining din of the airplane sounds drowned out the hiss created by the NC-6, making this much les of an issue in a noisy environment.

The passive noise cancellation caused simply by putting the headphones on was similar with both units; with the bigger difference being created when the active noise cancellation circuitry was switched on.

Music and speech reproduction was satisfactorily good.  As commented elsewhere, noisy environments are not the best environment to enjoy highest fidelity sound, and injecting 'anti-noise' further detracts from the purity of signal.  However, sound quality was at least as good as the Mk 5 product.

The battery life is fairly short.  The unit uses a single AAA battery.  Plane Quiet claim a minimum of 14 hours use; while my own testing was imprecise, it seems to me that 14 hours is more like a maximum than a minimum.  Make sure you take one or two spare batteries with you.

The unit does still feed through the music you are listening to if the battery dies, so worst case scenario is simply that you lose the active noise cancellation, but can still use the headphones as regular headphones.

The NC6 has a regular plug at the end of its cord, plus a two prong airline adapter provided separately.  Their earlier idea of a single connector with both types of plugs built in was a great idea in theory, but many readers have reported problems in practice with its greater bulk, such that they'd sometimes bend or snap it off accidentally.  So a return to the standard approach to plug design is probably a positive thing.  Of course, if you forget to unplug your headphones before getting up from your seat, you run the risk of damaging the cord at one end or the other, no matter what design connector there is.

Comfort and Convenience

The NC-6 have two new design features compared to earlier versions of the Plane Quiet product.  The first is an elastic type headband that adds another variable to how to position the headphones on your head.

After some fiddling, it ended up not making a profound difference in comfort one way or the other compared to a regular non-elastic headband.  It didn't make the headphones any less comfortable, but didn't appreciably seem to make them any more comfortable either.

The other new feature is their double folding, reducing them into a more compact unit for carrying than their predecessors.  It might take you a minute or two to work out how to fold them up for the first time, but it is quite a simple process and enables the headphones to take up less of the precious space in your carry-on bag.

Wearing the headphones for an extended time during my 12 hour flights to/from New Zealand showed them to be perfectly comfortable in use.

Noise Reducing headphones - becoming generic?

It has long struck me as bizarre that you can buy an entire fully featured DVD player (and many other electronic items) for about $50-60, and regular headphones without noise cancellation for $10-20, but when noise cancellation is added, the price leaps up, ending up potentially costing as much as $300.

As the technology gets sold in greater quantities, it seemed likely that the price premium would drop, and this is now definitely occurring.

Plane Quiet started the trend to lower pricing with their original product last year.  Since that time, prices have continued to drop, and the cheapest Coby product is now being sold for a mere $15.

Unlike many other types of consumer electronics, however, the difference in performance between different noise cancelling headphones is very apparent.  While most people can't tell the difference between a $50 or a $500 (or even a $5000) CD or DVD player, most of us can tell the difference between good and bad active noise canceling (even if we might then disagree on the sound quality of the music playing through the headset).

Noise reduction is improving in the cheaper units and the performance gap is narrowing between the top end and bottom end of the market.  We predict it won't be long before even price leader Bose feels compelled to drop its $300 price - as best we can guess, their underlying product cost is only about $5-10 different to that of noise reducing headphones that sell for $50, and so they sure could (and perhaps should) drop their price.

I'd probably even willingly pay $100 for the Bose QC-2, but until that happy day, there's no way I'll pay $300 for a product only marginally better than competitors now priced at only one fifth the Bose price.

The sooner that Bose's patents expire, the better.  I'm reminded of wine bottle openers that used an innovative technology to quickly and easily remove corks - this patented technology sold for $125-150.  The patent has now expired, and similar products can be found for under $20.  Doubtless when all Bose's patents finally expire, we'll see noise cancelling headphones drop in the same manner.

Similar Units to the Plane Quiet NC-6

Perhaps the most surprising similar unit is now sold by Plane Quiet itself!  Subsequent to the release of their NC6 headphones, they released a lower priced product that is almost identical in appearance, what they are terming their Plane Quiet Latitude noise reducing headphones.  These list on their website for $29.99.  We have tested a set of the Latitude headphones and they are definitely inferior to the NC-6 (or, perhaps I put it the other way - the NC-6 is definitely superior?).

This clarifies an interesting point.  Some people have been assuming that if a competing set of headphones looks the same from an external appearance point of view, it must therefore sound the same from a performance and internal electronics point of view as well.

Plainly, this is not the case at all, and when evaluating the various other products out there, it is important to realize that these other products are as likely to provide an inferior Latitude type level of performance as they are to provide the superior NC6 level of performance.

Smarter Image sell an identical looking product - their 'FJ450 Noise Cancellation Headphones' - for $49.95, but this has only a short warranty period with it.  If you also buy a three year replacement guarantee for $11.95, you end up paying $61.90 - more than the $54.99 list price of the Plane Quiet product which comes complete with a lifetime warranty.

Radio Shack sell an identical looking product - their '33-1218 Noise-Canceling Foldable Stereo Headphones' - for $49.99 (currently on special for $39.99).  The RS website is unclear about the length of warranty, and offers to sell an extended warranty, but for an unspecified price.  The RS headphones also do not come with a battery included, and so, to compare apples with apples, probably end up being more expensive than the Plane Quiet product (or comparable when on special).

I bought and tested a pair of the Radio Shack headphones.  They were very much poorer than the NC-6 headphones, and more comparable to the $29.99 Latitude headphones.

Jensen makes a product - their Jensen Noise-Canceling Headphones JNC-50 - that also seems identical.  This product sells for prices ranging from a low of about $24 up to a high of about $50, making it as little as half the price of the NC-6.

Virgin Pulse makes a product - their Virgin VP1000 Noise Canceling Headphones - that also seems identical.  This is available from Target for $39.99 and reportedly is sometimes sold at discounted prices below this.  (Update Mar 05 :  Virgin Electronics has gone out of business.)

Noisebuster makes a product - their new NB-FX Noise Canceling Headphones (link is to our review) that seems identical.  This lists for $69.00.

Earhugger makes a product - the EH1420NC - that also looks, ahem, extremely similar.  This lists for only $49.99, but can often be found for less.  Warranty policy is unclear, as is if a battery is supplied or not.

Creative Labs make a product - their HN-505.  This lists for $39.99 and claims up to 15dB of noise reduction.  No details on warranty or if a battery is included.

What Plane Quiet Says About the Similar Units

Plane Quiet advise there are two important areas of difference between their headphones and similar appearing units from other suppliers.

While apparently acknowledging that these similar appearing units are made by the same supplier in China, they claim that although the external design is similar, the internal functionality of their product is superior due to their strong relationship with the supplier.

This claim is born out by the difference between their own two products - the NC6 and the Latitude.

But is Plane Quiet likely to have a stronger relationship with a supplier than Radio Shack or Sharper Image such that their product is better than that sold to these other companies?  The only way to adequately evaluate this claim is to do side by side testing, which we'll do in a further part of this series.

Plane Quiet's second response is easier to understand.  They dropped the price of their product to $59.99 (down from their initial asking price of $69.99) when this controversy first erupted into the open in our user forums.  And then they further dropped the price (in January 2005), which is now $54.99

Where to Buy

Plainly, an obvious choice to buy the NC6 headphones is direct from Plane Quiet's retail website, Pro Travel Gear.  They list for $54.99 and if you use the discount code 'TravelInsider' (without quotes) when ordering, you'll get a 5% discount, reducing your cost to $52.24.

Alternatively, you might prefer to buy them from Travel Essentials.  They have a lower list price - $52.95 - and also offer a 5% discount with the same 'TravelInsider' discount code (without the quotes), reducing your cost to $50.30.  Travel Essentials also has a considerably more liberal return policy, and unlike Pro Travel Gear, doesn't charge a restocking fee either.

One more reason (!) to buy from Travel Essentials :  They also offer free shipping on all orders over $100, whereas Pro Travel Gear forces you to choose between either free shipping or the 5% discount on orders over $100.

Update 22 November

Plane Quiet have now introduced a lower priced product - the Latitude - priced at $40 (Jan 05 = now $30) and offering a maximum of 12dB noise reduction (compared to 15-17dB claimed for the NC-6).  The headphones are of the same basic physical design as the NC-6 and have the same lifetime warranty.

Testing confirmed that the NC6 very definitely outperforms the Latitude in terms of noise canceling and general sound quality.  Our feeling is that for only a few dollars more, the NC-6 is probably the better value for most people.  However, if you're looking for a very low priced 'entry level' set of noise reducing headphones - perhaps as gifts for children - you'd be hard pressed to find a better price/performance product than this.

Update 25 January

The Latitude headphones have dropped in price and now are only $29.99, and the NC6 have also been lowered to $54.99.

Further update - at some subsequent point, the Latitude headphones were discontinued entirely.

Summary and Recommendation

The new Plane Quiet NC-6 headphones offer improved noise cancellation in noisy environments (such as on a plane) but their higher level of background hiss make them less effective in quieter environments (such as in an office).

Wherever you choose to purchase them, at a price little over $50, including battery and lifetime warranty, they are fairly and usually much better priced, compared to the other similar products from other suppliers.

We accordingly recommend them.

 

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Originally published 29 Oct 2004, 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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