I often hear audiophiles dissing noise-canceling headphones. This leads me to wonder how often they fly, because conventional over- and on-ear headphones really don’t work well on airplanes. Except perhaps on the very quietest new airliners, the droning, low-frequency noise of jet engines tends to drown out the midrange and treble of conventional over- or on-ear headphones, forcing you to crank the volume to ear-straining levels. Headphones equipped with active noise canceling can reduce this ambient low-frequency noise by 10-40dB, making it easier to hear your music and movies and, in my experience, reducing the fatigue of airline travel.
In a quiet environment, few noise-canceling headphones compete with the sound quality of the best conventional headphones. But that advantage in sound quality disappears when 80dB of low-frequency noise intrudes. In my opinion, the experience you get with a good set of noise-canceling headphones on an airliner is superior to what you’d get with even the finest audiophile closed-back headphones in the same situation.
Why bother with big noise-canceling headphones when you can just use earphones, most of which block noise as well as do typical noise-canceling over- and on-ear ’phones? That’s a matter of personal taste, but in general, I find over- and on-ear headphones more relaxing for long flights.
As always with my “Five Best” articles, a caution: This guide is subjective, reflecting my own tastes and biases. I can say, though, that in my work as a reviewer for SoundStage! Xperience and other sites, I’ve tried almost every noise-canceling headphone on the market, I’ve traveled the world with many of them, and I’ve listened to my colleagues’ opinions of them. So here, in alphabetical order, are the five noise-canceling headphones I think are most worth buying -- each for a different reason. (Prices in USD.)
AKG K 490 NC ($249)
If you especially value compactness -- i.e., you want noise-canceling headphones that can easily fit in a purse, murse, or slim laptop bag -- the K 490 NCs are the best choice for those who prefer not to use earphones. Not only do they fold into a neoprene case the size of a taco, the K 490 NCs sound really, really good, with a textbook-neutral voicing that doesn’t emphasize any frequency over the others. The K 490 NCs’ degree of noise reduction is average, but still plenty enough to improve the listening experience. Their main downside is that, like most on-ear models, the K 490 NCs tend to uncomfortably mash the earlobes after an hour or two of use. Also, they require a special cable for charging, instead of using a standard micro USB connection.
Bose QuietComfort 20 ($299)
Audiophiles’ habitual derision of Bose is based partly on the reputation of the company’s loudspeakers (which now represent only a small part of Bose’s business), partly on fear of ridicule by other audiophiles, and perhaps 10% on honest, unbiased evaluation. I can’t say that the QC20s sound great, only that they sound pretty good. I can say that the QC20s deliver the most effective noise canceling available today. They’re also the only noise-canceling earphones I’ve heard that deliver a big reduction in ambient noise compared with conventional, passive earphones. While the QC20s fit rather loosely and very comfortably in the ears, they somehow create a nearly perfect seal with the ear canals.
Bose QuietComfort 25 ($299)
Somewhere between 50 and 100 sets of headphones and earphones sit around my house, ready for me to use whenever I want. So why did I buy a set of QC25s? Because for cross-country and transoceanic flights, nothing beats them. The QC25s deliver the best noise canceling of any over- or on-ear headphone model I’ve tested, in many cases beating the competitors by 10-20dB in the “jet engine band” of 50-200Hz. They also cut out most of the hiss of planes’ ventilation systems, most of other passengers’ chatter, and -- hallelujah! -- much of the noise of crying babies. Just as important as the QC25s’ noise canceling is that they remain comfortable all the way from London to Los Angeles. To my ears, the QC25s don’t sound as good as, say, the PSB M4U 2s, but they sound good enough for me to sink deep into my favorite jazz albums. The QC25s’ case is also slim enough to slip easily into a laptop bag. One downside: Probably because of their superior noise-canceling, the QC25s give me more of the “eardrum suck” feeling -- a slight sensation of pressure on the eardrum that’s initially off-putting but that I’ve grown used to. Most noise-canceling headphones exhibit this to some degree, but for me, it seems more severe with the QC25s.
PSB M4U 2 ($399)
I doubt many people would argue with my contention that the M4U 2s are the best-sounding noise-canceling headphones available today. Even with their noise-canceling circuitry turned on, they sound better than probably 95% of the headphones I’ve tested. Designer Paul Barton’s RoomFeel voicing genuinely works to create the illusion of listening to real speakers in a real room. The noise canceling is much like the AKG K 490 NCs’ -- average but adequate -- and hardcore road warriors may want something more compact: the M4U 2s’ case is about the size and shape of a kiddie football, and doesn’t quite fit in a laptop case. Also, I don’t find the PSBs as comfortable as many of their competitors, though my colleagues with smaller earlobes disagree.
Sennheiser MM 550-X ($399)
Wanting to include a set of Bluetooth-equipped noise-canceling headphones in this roundup, I got it down to two contending models: Sennheiser’s MM 550-X and Definitive Technology’s Symphony 1 ($399), the latter of which I’m in the process of reviewing. Both sound very good, perhaps falling just a hair short of the PSB M4U 2’s performance, and with what I consider average but still quite useful degrees of noise-canceling. Both models are comfortable, the MM 550-X having a plusher feel that’s better for the first couple hours, and the Symphony 1 having a firmer feel that, for me, is better on a six-hour flight. It’s a hard choice, but I give the MM 550-Xes the slight edge because they’re more compact.
. . . Brent Butterworth