All Quiet at 35,000 Feet

The latest headsets will spare you the tiring roar of jet engines--or the lawn tractor

I had suspected that a recent flight, a puddle-jumper from Seattle to Victoria, B.C., might be a noisy one. Sure enough, at the end of the pilot's safety briefing, he offered me and my fellow travelers little plastic bags of earplugs.

I declined. I had my own. In my bag were a half-dozen sets of noise-canceling headphones from four manufacturers. I had planned this short trip in a four-passenger float plane as the perfect test. If the headphones could silence a deafening propeller engine, they should have no problem dulling the roar inside the cabin of a conventional jet.

Medical studies have shown that noise, especially low-frequency noise, causes fatigue. You know the problem. Even after a relatively short two- or three-hour plane trip, you arrive at your meeting or hotel feeling tired, and for no good reason. In a week of flying, I found that any of the headsets I tested will eliminate that issue. There's a side benefit, too: You can actually hear the in-flight movie without cranking the volume up to painful levels.

Noise-canceling technology is not new. Pilots have used headsets like these--but versions that cost up to $1,000--for years, even when they're not at the controls. I discovered the benefits six years ago when the first consumer model appeared, a $150 headset from NCT Group. Back then, I thought the price was a bit high for audio headphones. But the real problem was that the electronics that create the noise-canceling signal were housed in a heavy, bulky box the size of a pack of cigarettes, and they burned through a nine-volt battery every couple of days.

That has changed over the past couple of years. There are now dozens of models on the market, ranging from $40 to around $300. They're powered by one or two AAA batteries good for around 100 hours.

I immediately discovered that price has little to do with how well they work. True, my favorite is the most expensive set, the $299 Bose QuietComfort model. But a close second is NCT's current pair, the $40 NoiseBuster Extreme. It's noticeably less stylish--it looks and feels cheap, in fact--and slightly less comfortable than the Bose headphones. But it suppresses more low-frequency airplane noise than any of the others.

I also looked at Sony's MDR-NC20, about $150, and Panasonic's RP-HC100, about $70. Both are big, closed-back-style headphones with the control electronics, battery, and on-off switch built into the right phone instead of a separate handheld unit. They fold for travel, unlike the Bose and NCT models, but neither could match their level of noise reduction. At $40 to $50, depending on where you shop, the lightweight Panasonic RP-HC70 does a better job reproducing music and, like my favorites, lets you choose the level of noise suppression. If you don't mind a headset where the speakers fit inside your ear canals, then try Sony's MDR-NC11, which goes for $100 to $115 at Internet retailers.

A word about the technology, just so you know the answer when your airplane seatmate asks. All of these headphones use tiny microphones mounted on or inside the headset to pick up the ambient noise just before you hear it. They take that signal, electronically create its exact opposite, and feed the opposing signal to the headset's speakers. The result is that the electronically generated sound waves from the headset cancel out the noise around you before you can hear it. What's left is the audio signal that you're plugged into, the airplane's audio system, say, or your own CD or MP3 player.

This technique only works for low-frequency sounds, though, which is why they're so good at scrubbing out aircraft noise. They are as effective against other low-frequency noise as well--you'll find yourself grabbing them when you mow your lawn, for example, or to hear the TV or a CD when you're working out on a treadmill.

To test these gizmos against high-frequency noise, I booked the next leg of my trip on a helicopter. They were pretty useless when confronted with the high-pitched whine of the rotor's gears directly above our heads. To get rid of higher-frequency cabin noise, typically screaming infants or overly chatty pilots, you have to physically block it. For that, the closed-back Sony and Panasonic models are good. The Bose, which completely surrounds your ear and nestles against your head, is even better.

Be warned: You won't be able to hear the flight attendant ask whether you want chicken or fish. But that's no great loss, is it?


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