These high-tech headphones cut down unwanted sounds from outside while also reducing the amount of noise pollution your own MP3 player produces
Edited by Mark Harris
It’s International Noise Awareness Day on Wednesday, so treat your
hard-working ears to a rest, courtesy of some noise-cancelling headphones.
Experts agree that hearing damage can occur at levels as low as 85 decibels.
A sobering thought when you consider that personal stereos and MP3 players
are capable of producing sound of more than 100 decibels. Not only do
noise-cancelling headphones let you enjoy your music at lower volume; they
also reduce the annoying noise pollution you produce.
Noise-cancelling headphones work by listening to ambient sound around you,
then “reversing” it electronically and blending the “antinoise” in with the
music from your MP3 player, phone or portable video player. The theory is
that the unwanted external noise is cancelled out, leaving just your music
in your ears.
In practice they don’t work flawlessly: the tiny microphones mounted in the
headphones that pick up outside sounds aren’t perfect; nor is the circuitry
that drives them. And all that clever sound-processing affects the music
itself, which can sometimes sound mushy and unnatural.
By their nature, then, noise-cancelling headphones are a compromise, giving
the biggest benefits when the clamour around you is distractingly loud. And
despite the claims made for them by manufacturers, we found the term
“noise-cancelling” something of a misnomer – these headphones are better
described as “noise-reducing”. Don’t worry about not being able to hear
anything when you put them on – the outside world will always be there, just
with the background din reduced.
That’s not to say noise-cancelling technology is a waste of money. We found
that in many situations, especially when there’s a continuous drone that
doesn’t change much in pitch, they were highly effective. Even if you don’t
want to listen to music, simply putting them on and powering them up on a
bus, train or plane journey can damp unwanted background noise.
Don’t get confused between noise-cancelling headphones and “sound-isolating”
earphones. The latter use tightly fitting in-ear buds to cut noise, instead
of relying on fancy electronics. They can work well – especially if you
spend more than £100 on good-quality models (brands such as Shure and
Etymotic are usually reliable) – but they need to be worn inside your ear
canal, which some people find uncomfortable and claustrophobic.
Electronic noise-cancelling systems have problems of their own. The
audio-processing circuitry takes up space – sometimes inside the headphones
but often in an inconveniently dangling box. And you’ll need a battery to
power it, adding bulk and weight – the last things you want on portable
products. Worse still, some designs (of those featured here, the Sennheiser
PXC 300 and Bose QuietComfort 3) simply stop working when the battery is
flat: a real drawback on long journeys.
Happily, as our tests show, the latest noise-cancellers are mostly light,
power-efficient and sonically impressive, as well as being more affordable
than previous models – you no longer need to be a paid-up member of the jet
set to afford them.
In a silent environment, none of them approached the fine sound available from
a good pair of normal headphones such as Sennheiser’s superb PX 100 (£30).
But when you are sitting inside a National Express coach or in BA cattle
class, the balance shifts, making them all worthwhile purchases.
There were differences in comfort, wearability, portability, ease of use and
sound quality – not to mention widely varying effectiveness at noise
reduction. The weakest made little more than a dent in background clatter,
whereas the best cocooned the user in a world of calm. And if International
Noise Awareness Day weren’t approaching, that might be something worth
Small headphones that fit inside the ear Noise-cancelling
Electronic sound-processing that reduces background noise. Also called active
cancelling Passive cancelling
Physical designs that help to shut out external noise, such as tight ear pads
or in-ear seals. Also called noise-isolating
JOIN THE FOLD Sennheiser PXC 300 Typically £130, or £80 from www.amazon.co.uk Brilliant doit-all design and the best all-rounder
The PXC 300s are light (2.3oz) and, within seconds, fold smaller than a pair
of sunglasses. Despite their diminutive dimensions, these slimline phones
get superb battery life (70 hours) from two AAA batteries. The small earpads
cover the ear snugly and offer good sound insulation, but switch on the
cancelling and the PXC 300s work almost as well as the most expensive models
on test. The sound is fine too, with a smooth and sophisticated quality that
lacks only a little detail compared with the best here. While the cable and
remote control can get tied up in knots, it’s a small trade-off for a
wonderfully light headset that’s comfortable even on long-haul flights. Neat
and pocketable this system may be, but it’s big on performance and built to
FLYING HIGH Sennheiser PXC 450 Typically £230, or £180 from www.disking.co.uk Superb sonics, but the bulk will deter some
These flexible audiophile headphones could have been made for business-class
travellers. Noise-cancelling is the best on test, taking loud 747 drones
down to subtle murmurs, with a “talk through” button that lets in outside
sound – handy when asking the stewardess for another gin and tonic. The
silky earpieces sit firmly, although the vinyl padding gets sweaty after a
few hours. Sonically the PXC 450s are detailed, smooth and
spacious-sounding. They’re also large and heavy (at 8.5oz), and a single AAA
battery gives just 15 hours’ playback. Although too bulky for the gym or
park, they are a first-class flying companion.
SOUND STYLE Bose QuietComfort 3 £275 from bose.co.uk Stunning performance at a premium price
Forget inline battery boxes and fiddly buttons. The fuss-free QuietComfort
unit has everything built in, including a rechargeable battery giving about
20 hours of efficient noise-cancelling. The lightweight (5.6oz) headset is
beautifully built and feels as though it will last the distance. It’s
supremely comfortable too. The QC3 seals out noise surprisingly well, but
power it up and it reduces noise further still, cutting whirrs and hums
nearly as effectively as Sennheiser’s super PXC 450. Indeed in some ways the
Bose sounds even better. Beautifully built, easy to use and impressive to
listen to, the Bose almost justifies its huge price tag.
INSIDE JOB Sony MDR-NC22 Typically £70, or £50 from www.amp3.co.uk Affordable quality in a compact package
Beautifully made yet light (1.4oz) and small, the most portable phones here
show surprisingly few compromises. The noise-cancelling module gives 45
hours’ playback from a single AAA battery, with a mute button to let you
converse without removing the earbuds. Properly installed, these release a
flood of fine sound, boasting bass equal to the Bose and treble that is
clear and atmospheric. The noise cancellation also works well, although it
adds hiss that can sound intrusive in quieter surroundings. You might have
to experiment with different sizes of rubber isolator to get the earpieces
fitting snugly. Overall, a well-made combination of convenience and sound
Smaller and (at 6.5oz) lighter than the Sennheiser PXC 450, the Goldrings are
easier to carry, with a single AAA battery giving about 40 hours’ playing
time. Large earcups and the active noise reduction work together to exclude
the outside world almost as effectively as the Bose. The NS1000’s
electronics are slightly hissier than the other full-sized designs, although
this becomes inaudible when music is playing. The strong bass performance
makes these headphones ideally suited to rock or dance. They were the least
comfortable of our selection but still provide much of the performance of
pricier designs for less money.
Reviews by David Price
Prices include Vat but not delivery