A look at noise cancelling headphones

I’ve recently had the chance to try out three noise-canceling headphones:

I looked at these criteria as I used the headphones:

  • Effectiveness of noise-canceling technology
  • Quality of sound
  • Fit and comfort
  • Price

What may or may not surprise you is that all noise-canceling headphones block only low sounds, like the rumble of jet airplane engines. They do not block all sounds. They also rely on passive noise reduction, due to their around-ear design with thick cushions. In other words, don’t expect them to block all sounds, or you’ll be disappointed.

I only looked at around-ear designs, because I cannot stand on-ear designs. They make my ears numb after a half hour or so of wearing them. I need something that fits around my ears and doesn’t press down on them in order to get the comfort I need for prolonged wear.

One thing to keep in mind with around-ear headphones is that some will make your ears hot after a while. If care isn’t taken with the materials used in their construction, the heat that emanates from your ears will build up inside the headphone chamber and raise the temperature, making you uncomfortable. Heat and lack of air circulation are two things that will caused increased bacterial growth in your ears. Yes, this isn’t appetizing, but keep it in mind as you look at headphones and your own headphone-wearing habits.

All three of these headphones come with carrying cases, adaptors (2-pin and 6.3mm) and cables, so don’t let that be a differentiating factor. While I’m on this subject, keep in mind the Bose and Philips headphones only use one AAA battery while the Creative headphones use two AAA batteries. That is a differentiating factor.

Bose Quiet Comfort 2

The Bose Quiet Comfort 2 is priced at $299 and is the pricier of the three. There are more expensive noise-canceling headphones on the market (Sennheiser has a couple of more expensive models), but the Bose headphones are the most well-known of them all.

Its noise canceling capability was decent, but for the market leader, nothing special. It reduced the sound of jet aircraft, but all voices around me remained clearly audible, though just a little muted. I suppose I could describe the technology as elegant, since it allows one to carry on a conversation with someone while wearing the headphones, but I’m sorry, at $300 you ought to be able to adjust the level of noise-canceling in order to block as much or as little of the ambient noise as you want. They didn’t have that capability and disappointed me.

The quality of the sound was tinny. The noise-canceling technology did a number on the lower sounds coming out of the headphones as well, so everything sounded a bit like a tin-can telephone.

I could find nothing wrong with the fit. It was great. It didn’t press down on my ears, it didn’t press down on the top of my head, and the cushioning was just right.

Creative Aurvana X-Fi

These headphones retail at $249 currently, but beware, they’re still listed at $299 at Apple Stores. I have to say I was doubtful of Creative’s ability to offer great headphones, and also suspicious of their price point (frankly, they haven’t earned the right to charge $300 for headphones), and I was proven right on both counts.

The noise-canceling technology was very similar to the Bose QC2 headphones. Same comments apply, and the quality of the sound was just as annoying. I found that the noise-canceling button distorted the sounds significantly, much more so than the Bose headphones.

Creative added two buttons to the headphones, one called X-Fi Crystalizer, which is supposed to give detail and vibrancy, and X-Fi CMSS-3D, which adds spatial characteristics to the sounds. I sat at home for an entire evening, playing with the buttons, turning them on and off, trying to see what and how much the affected the sounds that the headphones produced. I found them to be gimmicky. They did nothing for me. Oh sure, they changed sounds slightly, but not enough to warrant their fancy names and the price of the headphones.

What really annoyed me was their fit and comfort. They pressed slightly on my ears, but their real crime was the quality of the materials used in their build. Within 5 minutes of wear, my ears got hot. Didn’t Creative do any real testing before releasing these? Who did they test them on? Any real person would have noticed that their ears got hot while wearing them, and would have said something.

Philips SHN9500

These headphones offer an equivalent level of noise-canceling technology. Having already explained how I feel about it, there’s no need to go over it again. I found the quality of the sound to be better than with the other two headphones. Quite acceptable, as a matter of fact, and it wasn’t severely affected when noise-canceling was turned on.

What I also liked was the presence of a Mute button on the headphones, which will turn off any sound coming through them, and also turn off noise-canceling. This allows you to hear someone better while you have the headphones on, without needing to remove them. You might say, well, why not just turn off noise-canceling? Because that’s a slider button, while the Mute button is a push-button with a very light action. Quite thoughtful on their part.

The fit and comfort of the headphones was another surprise. They fit nicely, and they’re made of quality materials. My ears do not get hot while wearing these, even for extended periods of time.

The biggest revelation for me was the price: $70 at Costco when I got them less than a couple of weeks ago. Now I see they’re $90 — they must be popular.

All in all, the Philips SHN9500 headphones have the right combination of features, comfort and price to make me happy. These are the headphones I would recommend to you.

More information

Photos used courtesy of Bose, Creative and Philips companies.


9 Thoughts

  1. I am looking for headphones that willblock all noise, including voices. Please let me know if anyone can direct me. It seems that the ones that I have found are noise cancelling only. I do not need any music, just a noise block. Please respond to crackerkatz@hotmail.com
    Thanks

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    1. Mitch, it sounds like you’re looking for ear plugs. They’re made of expandable foam, usually colored green or beige, and you can find them in most any drugstore. Or you can get headphones made for shooting practice, they’re made to block most noises. If you want a model that will also let you listen to music while passively blocking outside noises, they’re available from various companies like Sennheiser, Sony, etc. The thing to remember though is that you’ll be paying just as much or more, in some cases, than you’d be paying for the Philips headphones, which also block noises passively, without needing to turn on the noise cancellation. You’ll need to look for the bulky, around-ear designs. They’re usually called studio headphones.

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  2. I recently bought a pair of noise canceling headphones you didn’t even mention: the Sennheiser PXC 450. I was prompted by this review . . .

    http://tech.spotcoolstuff.com/review/noise-canceling-headphones/bose-vs-sennheiser

    . . . that compared them to the QC3.

    Though it is impossible to know the road not taken, I’ve been really happy with my 450s so far. i was going to comment that one of the best things about them is that I can sleep on an airplane with these headphones on. And then I saw the last commenter mentioned this point as well. But I think in most reviews this important fact gets overlooked.

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  3. Hi Raoul,

    I wanted to say first that I have very much enjoyed a number of your reviews! You get into the right level of detail as well as bringing it to the level of the common user.

    I was surprised that you didn’t review the Bose QC-3 (ok, I know they are expensive and you don’t care for the on ear designs ;-). On a recent trip, I had the opportunity to use the QC-3 on 2 9-10 hour overnight segments. I got upgrades to business class on American Airlines and they provide these to business class passengers for the duration of the flight. Pity that we have to give them back at the end of the flight!

    I carry the Philips HN110 headsets (model previous to the 9500) – which to my ears has about the same airplane noise reduction as the 9500 and slightly less than the QC2. In many long flights, I’ve had the opportunity to compare the HN110 against nearly every other headset and never found one that was reduced noise enough to justify paying extra for one of the top end models. I’m sure the same is the case with the 9500.

    What impressed me with the QC3 is they had *significantly* more noise reduction over my HN110. It was also the first headset I used that in addition to the airplane sounds, muted the other higher frequency ‘noises’ in the airplane. It really made a difference and I wanted to buy them on the spot! I have to say that I was never a believer in the on ear design – however in this case, lightly fitting over my ears – they reduced the noise a lot more than my over the ear model. Also they were comfortable. I didn’t notice any heat issues either. For me what was key was that I could, with a little care, *sleep* on them! E.g., I could put my head on the side and sleep comfortably – something hard to do with the ‘can’ over the ear headsets.

    If you ever have the opportunity to try them out, would love to know what you think about them.

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  4. Jeff, there’s a big difference between noise cancelling (which relies on circuitry to cancel out certain sound waves) and noise reduction (which relies on a brute physical barrier to block sound waves from entering the ear canal). I have looked at in-ear headphones as well, and plan to write a review of a few of those models fairly soon. They would be what you’d call noise reduction headphones. The Comply NR-10 look good, but I’d have to test them in person to know how well they work.

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  5. Not all noise reduction headphones need batteries or cost $200-$300. I use the Comply NR-10 earphones for travel all the time. The soft foam tips expand and fill your ear canal to block outside noise across all frequencies. Much easier to travel with than other bulky around the ear designs. I bought my set on their website at http://www.complyfoam.com.

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  6. I received the aurvana x-fi during my birthday.. I will be using that for my upcoming trip. Have been trying out the headphones and I’m glad to know that I’m still able to use it as a normal pair of headphones when the batteries run out (as I know some headphones that runs on battery does not allow you to use it once the battery runs out) I would considered the crystalizer and cmss nice add on to the headphones. When listening to music with them turned on, I did noticed improvement in the overall sound, more details of the music can be heard too.

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  7. J., I had a feeling the technology was watered down in these products. Ideally, I’d like to see noise-canceling technology cancel out all sound waves, regardless of whether they’re low or high, or to have a dimmer-like control that lets me select how much or how little noise-canceling I want. I don’t know why that’s not put forward. It’d be okay for me if they weren’t true headphones that I could listen to music with, and only did noise-canceling — if they did it well, across the whole range of sounds. If, when I put on a pair of these headphones, I could get supreme quiet, I’d be pretty happy.

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  8. The best noise-canceling headphones I have ever had were made by the original patent-holders of the technology. They required a 9-volt battery in a separate box, but they were great.

    I would include a link, but unfortunately I lost them several years ago and I can’t remember the manufacturer name.

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