Noise-Cancelling Headphones Buying Guide
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One of the best accessories for travel is a pair of noise-cancelling headphones––but there's no need to pack them away once you get home. Noise-cancelling headphones can be just as useful for blocking out the din of an air-conditioner as for quieting the roar of an airplane engine. And they could even help you concentrate better in a quiet room by muting ambient noise you may not even notice without the headphones' effect.
However, there are key differences among competing brands and models of noise-cancelling headphones, and it's helpful to understand these before you go shopping for a pair. Here's what to keep in mind when you do...
What is active noise cancellation?
All noise-cancelling headphones do the same thing: They eliminate certain frequencies of ambient sound within a particular bandwidth by creating the sonic opposites––employing microphones in the ear cups to listen to the sounds around you, and then using electronic circuitry also in the ear cups to analyze these sounds and generate an equal and opposite sound wave.
The two sound waves effectively cancel or "attenuate" each other, creating silence within the frequency bandwidth they encompass. And because the headphones are thus actively acting upon the ambient noise to cancel it, the technology is called "active noise cancellation.”
There's not just one type of active noise cancellation technology, though.
Different brands of headphones may use different kinds of electronic circuitry, for example. One kind, analog circuitry, is essentially pre-set to cancel noise in the same frequency bandwidth all the time, regardless of the environment. Another kind, digital circuitry, uses a special computer chip known as a digital signal processor or DSP to adapt the noise cancellation to the specific environment.
Moreover, there aren't any noise-cancelling headphones capable of eliminating all noise in your surroundings. You will always hear some noise regardless of which noise-cancelling headphones you use.
Don't trust the percentages
But exactly how much noise you'll hear––and what kind of noise you'll hear––could be difficult to determine just from reading the headphones' description written by the manufacturer. That's because, while many claim to filter out a specific percentage of ambient noise, they may arrive at those claims through differing calculations.
Some brands base their claims on a comparison of noise levels without headphones worn versus with headphones worn and active noise cancellation switched on. Others base their claims on a comparison of noise levels with active noise cancellation switched on or off while the headphones are always worn––an arguably more accurate measurement because it accounts for the sound-deadening effect of simply covering or plugging your ears with the headphones (which could be fairly described as "passive" noise reduction).
Be aware, too, that it's technically easier for active noise cancellation headphones to attenuate higher frequency sounds with shorter wavelengths. Thus, the best performing active noise cancellation headphones will be those that attenuate across a wider range of frequencies including low frequency, longer wavelength, booming noises.
You'll probably never know from the headphones' marketing materials which way the manufacturer staked its claim.
So, try a variety of active noise-cancelling headphones in the environment where you'll want to wear them most often, and then keep the pair that works best for you.
Start by considering these
In general, digital noise-cancelling headphones are more expensive than their analog counterparts, but not always. Other factors, such as the headphones' design and materials used, will also impact the price. And as with ordinary headphones, regardless of price, your choice will first come down to headphone style: around-ear, on-ear or in-ear.
Again in general, around-ear headphones will offer greater passive noise cancellation than on-ear headphones because of the seal they form with cushions that surround the ear. For those who prefer not to wear over-the-head headphones like those above, there are in-ear alternatives which will passively block noise like earplugs even without active noise cancellation.
Primarily, you should choose the style that you find most comfortable.
Here’s our starter list spanning price points, styles and technologies:
The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones
To determine "Our Picks," we combine research from a wide gamut of leading technical review sources, actual owner experiences from public review forums and our own evaluation, based on decades of reviewing experience, of the products and their features.
Our goal is to select products that we believe will provide you the best ownership experience, with solid underlying functionality, expected long-term reliability and intuitive operation. In other words, we would buy these for ourselves and recommend them to friends.
All prices are current as of September 25, 2012.
If your plan is to use noise cancelling headphones in a variety of locations––on an airplane but also in a library, for example––check out the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 ($349.95, amazon.com). They use analog active noise cancellation technology but incorporate three separate filters that work with pre-set "modes" to tailor the noise cancellation to three different listening environments. Mode 1 targets low frequencies noise that permeates airplane cabins. Mode 2 targets mid-range frequencies noise common in offices or crowded places. Mode 3, which performs the least noise cancellation, is intended for use in already quiet places such as libraries. The result: great noise-cancelling in a variety of environments. You can also use them with noise-cancelling turned off. Either way, the ATH-ANC9 headphones deliver full, rich sound. The headphones' cable features an inline omnidirectional microphone and controller for making and answering phones calls and controlling music playback.
The Bose QuietComfort 15 ($299.95, amazon.com), from the brand most commonly associated with noise-cancelling headphones, exclusively feature sensing microphones both inside and outside each ear cup to better sense the noise that would actually reach the listener's ears. In addition, the cushioning material on each ear cup has acoustic properties that block noise from reaching the ears. And, the proprietary active noise cancellation technology in the QuietComfort 15 works across a wider range of frequencies than the active noise cancellation technology in other Bose noise-cancelling headphones. These headphones deliver great sound and the best noise cancellation, but take second place due to the fact that they can't be used when the battery runs out.
Known for its high-quality pro line of audio headphones, Sennheiser impresses us with the sound quality and noise cancellation found when listening to the CXC 700 ($229.95, amazon.com). They are a digital set that offers a choice of three pre-set noise-cancelling modes. Mode 1 attenuates low-frequency noise; mode 2 attenuates medium-frequency noise; and mode 3 offers the widest range of attenuation, by combining attenuation of low- and medium-frequency noise. Plus, you can listen with noise-cancelling turned off.
For the best value, turn to the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23BK ($79.99, amazon.com). They provide analog active noise cancellation technology that is most effective in already relatively quiet environments––offering attenuation similar to the company's ATH-ANC9 headphones (see above) set to mode 3.