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
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.
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.
Photos used courtesy of Bose, Creative and Philips companies.