The sound of silence: Noise-cancelling headphones

If you're a frequent flyer or even a heavy user of public transport then you need to get yourself one of these sets of noise-cancelling headphones.

Every time you hear a really loud sound, your hearing acuteness decreases. Thankfully, the effect usually isn't permanent — audiologists refer to it as temporary threshold shift — but repeated exposure to high volumes will likely reduce your hearing ability. If you occasionally experience ringing in your ears after listening to loud music or other sounds, take heed. Nature's telling you to turn it down. If you don't, you will suffer some hearing loss — and you'll never get it back.

That's why it's a bad idea to block out external noise by cranking your portable audio device's volume up to 11. Noise-cancelling headphones alleviate this widely ignored problem. By cancelling out the sound of airplanes, buses and other sources of aural aggravation, they enable you to hear every note in your personal soundtrack without blowing out your eardrums.

Noise cancellation: Passive vs Active

The low-tech, or passive, way to cancel noise is simply to wear closed-back, circumaural (around the ear) headphones or very snug earbuds. These shield your ears by sealing them off from the outside world. Active noise cancellation, on the other hand, is far more complicated and involves some serious science.

First, tiny microphones on the earpieces detect ambient noise as it gets to your ears. Then the noise-cancellation circuitry, usually housed in an external module, essentially inverts the captured signal, turning the noise's sound wave upside down. Before you know it, the noise-cancellation system adds the sonic opposite of the external noise to whatever you're listening to, thereby eliminating most of the pollution and leaving you with just your music.

Physical limitations make absolutely perfect noise cancellation impossible, but some of the noise-cancelling headphones we've tested do a great job without adversely affecting the music. Read the reviews below to find out which model offers the best combination of design, performance and affordability.

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wils posted a comment   

where are the pxc 450 from sennheiser??


TyP posted a reply   

You're quite right. We've added the PXC 450 now.


nowitsnoisyagain posted a comment   

I've owned and enjoyed the QuietComfort15 since December of '10, and now halfway through March 11 find the left side of the headset completely dead. Not worth $300 if the device cannot be ensured to operate even 25% of the way through its warranty period.


firestarter posted a comment   

I own the Sony MDR-NC33 and was quite surprised when buying them in Japan in how effective they were in blocking out most of the noise on the flight... it was so quiet I slept like a baby :)


cheap posted a comment   

if you want it dirt cheap but giving you all the features life hi-fi, dont buy the noice cancelation headphones but make them your self using ear muffs(used by construction workers),and some good qualtiy 50 dollar headphones.Take them apart and put the speakers in te ear muffs.I am not paying more for the headphones that for the music player.


scatrd posted a comment   

I did own some Logitech Noise Cancelling Headphones but they fell to bits with the warranty peroid. Then I got the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 and they are just amazing. Well built, great sound, excellent battery life. Having compared them against the sennheiser PXC-250 and 300's I rate these better (if a little bulkier, more like the Bose QC's over the ear). Was dissapointed not to see them listed here as they are equal or better than some of what is listed.


SirAlistair posted a comment   

I work in a factory and the Sony MDR NC500 headphones worked very well for me, the sound is Soo clear and this is from someone who is half deaf. I Can wear them ALL day and they are so nice to wear too. Just if you do buy them do not let on how good they are or, as like me you will be band from wearing i need to hear around me too! so the boss says.. Yes buy them. you will never want to buy anything else after hearing the sound quality.MP3 music: I am going to go lossless music from now on, and enjoy...


cindy posted a comment   

audiophiles will find that compared to more accurate headphones, the bose QC2's frequency response emphasizes the upper bass and's really perfect.


tigercorp posted a comment   

I spend a fair amount of time in planes. I use my Shure in ears (passive ANC) for sleeping and my Nokia BH-905 when awake. The 905s are amazingly good - so quiet and they sound so good. I even use them for long drives.

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