Noise reduction headphones

discman -- Wed, 03/05/2008 - 16:37

Which is best? Why?

Chris Martens -- Thu, 04/17/2008 - 02:45


Here's an interesting question (depending on what prompts your interest in noise canceling 'phones): Is the best "noise canceling" headphone actually a "noise isolation" earbud? If you look at the question in terms of the number of dB of isolation you'll enjoy, I think the earbuds might be the winners, hands down. Food for thought, no?

Two personal noise-isolation favorites are the Etymotics Research ER-4Ps and the Ultimate Ears 10 Pros. Both sound quite good and block out a tremendous amount of background noise. How much noise? Just today I was playing some test tracks through the Ultimate Ears at a moderate level, and could only just barely hear my desktop phone ringing from--I kid you not--two feet away! Pretty impressive.

But, to address your original question, the best active noise canceling over-the-ear headphones I've heard thus far are the Sennheiser PXC 450s. They struck me as offering a good balance between audiophile sound and successful noise suppression. I've heard the Bose offerings, too, but feel the Sennheisers have an edge in terms of pure musical finesse.

Although I don't claim to have deep expertise in this particular area, the best noise canceling communications headset I've heard in an aviation context was an "ENC-series" model from David Clark (sorry, but I can't cite the exact model). I got to try a set of the David Clarks on a flight in my cousin's Cessna 182, and was floored by the clarity of their voice communications and by the amount of engine/wind noise they could suppress. But my instinct was that, while they were good for voice comms, they'd probably be only so-so in terms of music reproduction...

Chris Martens
Editor, Perfect Vision 

emmahudson88 -- Mon, 10/17/2011 - 04:56

Thank you so much for your post.
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discman -- Thu, 04/17/2008 - 07:59

I want noise cancelling 'phones because earphones are too uncomfortable (my ears hurt after 30-45 min). Also, it is a pain to get them in my ears so that I get decent bass.

Robert Harley -- Sat, 05/24/2008 - 18:25

The new Sony MDR-NC500D is the best noise-cancelling headphone I've used. It offers three different modes based on what kind of noise you're trying to cancel. The audio input signal is converted to digital, as is the output from the noise-cancelling microphone. A DSP engine generates the noise-cancelling signal, which is mixed with the audio signal before a final D/A conversion. A built-in lithium battery good for 16 hours powers the system. If the lithium battery runs out, you can connect an external battery pack (supplied).

Another big difference of the MDR-NC500D is that the microphone is positioned inside the headphone very near to the ear. Sony claims that this positioning results greater noise cancellation and less variation in cancellation magnitude between users.

The MDR-NC500D is very nicely built and comes with a hard carrying case. They are bulky compared with earbuds, but worth the effort.

Rob B, (not verified) -- Sun, 01/31/2010 - 18:07

How do they sound?

discman -- Sun, 05/25/2008 - 08:59

You imply that other NC headphones use analog noise correction. Am I right? Why is that worse? Or is it just different?

discman -- Sun, 05/25/2008 - 09:12

I just read the (one) user review on Amazon. That guy says that these Sony's are very uncomfortable. What did you find?

He also mentions AA batteries, but you say lithium rechargeable. Is he referring to the external pack?

Robert Harley -- Thu, 05/29/2008 - 15:45

The Sony headphones have an integral lithium battery that can be augmented with an external AA battery pack.

My understanding is that the Sony is different in that it digitizes the incoming analog audio signal for DSP processing and performs the noise-cancelling filtering in the digital domain. Sony claims that this gives them the ability to create specific filter shapes that are impossible to realize with analog filters. Note that the Sony has selectable filters based on the type of noise to be cancelled; airplane, train, and office noises such as air conditioning and a PC fan.

Tom Martin -- Wed, 11/12/2008 - 16:30

Playback reviews 3 noise cancelling 'phones here:

On page 308 ff.

More to come next month.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

Chris Martens -- Fri, 12/12/2008 - 15:32

 'Just a quick not to let you know that the Sony MDR-NC500D is one of the three noise cancelling headphones reviewed in Playback issue 15: (just click on the Noise Cancelling Headphone link on the magazine cover to be taken straight to the article).

To answer discman's questions:

1.  No, in my view the Sony's are not at all uncomfortable. In fact, the opposite is the case; they're small and very light.
2.  Re: power for the Sony. The gist of things is that the MDR-NC500D has an internal Lithium battery (it comes with an appropriate charger), but also ships with an external back-up battery pack that takes AA batteries. The idea is that you could plug in the battery-powered supply if the onboard Lithium battery ran out of juice.
Chris Martens, Editor, Playback

Chris Martens
Editor, Perfect Vision 

amclaussen (not verified) -- Tue, 01/05/2010 - 20:58

In my humble opinion, simply there is not a single example of an active noise cancelling headphone that really sounds half decent., at least when compared to good quality headphones.
After owning close to 20 different headphone models in probably 30 years of true love with Headphone listening, I have found that the In-Canal Earphones offer the best noise suppression, the cleanest audio and the best overall freedom from noise cancellation artifacts that plague most of the active type ones.  I haven't listened to or tested the Sony's that R. Harley suggests, but I would be surprised if they actually sound less offensive than the many many Sony Headphones I've listened through the years, and never ever liked them except perhaps for a few days, victim of the "newness" of their sound.  I still have a couple of MDR V6 ones that I use ocassionally to tape live events, but not because of their performance, but only due to their ragged appearance after some years of heavy use and because they were relatively inexpensive and wouldn't miss them if someone actually steal them!
Even then, I find that the extraordinary isolation of my old Shure E1 In-Canal earphones, together with their clean and truly uniform midrange (they have no crossover being full range) are the best way to monitor a live concert, even when being close to the stage, where sound pressure levels are frequently insane.  (You can even try to place a heavy duty muff type noise protector OVER the Shure earphones, but you will find that a well fitting In-Canal Earphone already has a very high isolation, so that the noise protectors only add a couple of dB of additional noise attenuation, in the best case!
NOW, how can you achieve the best degree of comfort when using Earphones? 
First do your homework and systematically try EVERY type of the several options of tips; there are people that swear by the triple flange type, some others find that cutting the first flange produces the best result fot them, and others find that their era canals are on the narrow side, and therefore cut the third outermost flange!... most people find a properly used foam type the most comfortable. Be aware that proper fitting of the foam types requires some training, too shallow insertion and you lose all the bass; too deep and the foam tip becomes too large and rough for the delicate inner part of the ear canal... but there is a sweet spot where there is adecuate comfort AND proper bass sealing, it only requires patience and some dedication; impatient people never find it.  Shure Earphones offer  probably the widest assortment of tips with their models.  Finally, if you find that making a DEDICATED effort to accustom yourself to the In-Canal Earphones, and find that you can tolerate say, more than half an hour of enjoyable listening, then go to your nearest Audiologist (those which sell and adapt Hearing Aids to elderly people, and bring your In-Canal Earphones with you to ask them to take a mold of your ear canal, so that a CUSTOM FITTING silicone tips can be CUSTOM MADE to your ears...  If correctly done, a custom made mold can produce a VERY comfortable and perfectly fitting pair of Earphone tips, that fitted to the better In-Canal Earphone models can transport you to Nirvana, guaranteed.
Forget about active noise cancelling headphones.  With foam type tips, my old Shure E1 can completely suppress ALL the noise inside a passenger jet plane, except perhaps during the full thrust take-off phase of the flight, where a faint roar of the engines can be heard.  I have been alarmingly startled by the flight attendant when close to the end of the flight, they check the passengers to have the seat belt fastened and the seat recline in the upright position too many times... I COMPLETELY FORGOT I WAS FLIYIN ON A PLANE !  By using the latest silicone formulations, your ear molds can remove the heat of the inside of your ear canals, making it possible to use the Earphones for EXTENDED periods without becoming unconfortable.  BEST LUCK.

dlaloum -- Sat, 10/23/2010 - 10:16

 Well it depends on what you expect...
I used the Senn PXC250's for a trip from Australia to Europe (28 hours in the air) - made the whole experience more bearable (these flights can go from horrendous to bearable... but no better than that)....
Then I used the pxc250's when working in noisy computer environments (mostly pc/server fans) - they were good, but I wanted to improve the sound quality - so I got a set of PXC450's.
A noticeable and substantial step up in sound quality.
This then prompted me to get back into "head listening" something I had not done since the 80's.... my Revox 3100 is substantially better than the PXC450's - and cost me less than a third the $$$.
Do I expect the NC HP's to provide the same SQ.... not really - it would be nice if it could be done, but the priority is to provide good enjoyable music with noise cancellation / isolation - and this they succeed at doing admirably.
I have yet to try the PXC450 on an intercontinental flight.... I don't take those that often, but for my purposes in computer environments they do the job I got them for - while providing mid to high fidelity - probably the equivalent of $2000-$4000 speakers..... course the Revox gives $10k speakers a run for their money, but that is the nature of really good HP's.
If it wasn't for the fact that I already have 2 NC headphones I would be tempted to try the Sony.
For now my requirements are covered

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