The Rest is Noise

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There is little more annoying than having to endure repetitive tinny beats emanating from a pair of cheap in-ear headphones, especially when stuck next to the culprit wearing them on a train or a plane. Equally, for those trying to listen to music in loud environments with excessive ambient noise, headphones that aren’t noise-cancelling are as good as useless – classical music and speech becomes inaudible, while rock has to be turned up so loud as to damage your hearing.

Relief can come in the form of “noise-isolating” headphones – either big, closed-back sets that cut hubbub down by about 10dB, or more portable earbuds that give a 15dB reduction. But they still let through the roar of jet engines.

A solution was actually devised decades ago, and was used as far back as the 1950s by US helicopter pilots. Active noise control (ANC) uses simple acoustics to block unwanted babble. In theory, when any sound wave is combined with its acoustic opposite, the two cancel each other out, creating beautiful silence. By mounting a small microphone on the headset to monitor external noise, and using clever circuitry to calculate that “acoustic opposite” and feed it back in, substantial noise reduction can be achieved.

In practice, there are technical difficulties with cancelling high-frequency sounds and sudden unexpected noises. But it works beautifully on the constant, low-pitched rumble you hear in an aircraft. Little wonder many airlines offer noise-cancelling Bose sets in first and business class.

Whether you are flying in premium cabins or economy, a pair of good ANC-enabled headphones is essential for every frequent traveller. But the important thing to look for is the tell-tale battery – noise-cancellation requires power, and any headphones without a battery can only block sound using traditional isolation methods. A good pair could have 120 hours of battery life.

If you’re seduced by cable-free alternatives, there are wireless options – usually using Bluetooth, which draws less power and works well over the small distance between your head and the sound source. Noise-cancellation and wireless operation both have a slightly detrimental effect on sound – the challenge that has been tackled admirably by technology companies is making that slight dip in quality as unnoticeable as possible, allowing you to enjoy the in-flight entertainment to the full. Or, if you prefer, choosing to fall into a deep sleep. 

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9  
$430

eu.audio-technica.com
The straightforward, no-frills design belies a high-quality product. Four microphones deliver efficient noise reduction, while three operating modes cater for various types of noise. The first handles low frequencies such as engine hum, the second works best in offices, and the third (“study mode”) is for quieter environments. With noise-cancelling switched off (passive), the sound is as good as you’ll find on any set of high-end headphones – they’re also light (220g) and comfortable to wear. Power comes from a single AAA battery.
Pros Lightweight, exceptional audio quality in passive mode.
Cons Only 25 hours’ playback from an alkaline battery.

Bose QuietComfort 15 
$460
bose.co.uk

The QuietComfort range has, over the past few years, become the de facto standard for noise-cancelling headphones. There’s a reason why they’re so popular – the frequency response is excellent, the noise reduction as good as you’ll find, and they fold down flat into a rugged case. They’re incredibly comfortable and do their job exceptionally well.
Pros Light, easy to carry, and come with a hands-free cable for Apple products.
Cons No passive mode, so when the battery runs out they stop working.

Sennheiser MM 550-X
$540
sennheiser.co.uk

The combination of wireless operation and active noise reduction is a major selling point for these high-end cans, as is the built-in battery (rechargeable over USB) and its weight (a mere 179g). Sound-wise, Sennheiser has done a great job – if your music source has the new Bluetooth apt-X codec, you’ll get even better wireless sound. Noise-cancelling is activated by a button on the right earcup – it works particularly well with low frequencies.
Pros Talk-through switch lets you hear external noise.
Cons There are few devices that can take advantage of the Bluetooth apt-X feature.

Sony MDR-NC500D
$415
sony.co.uk

When launched a couple of years ago, these were billed as the first-ever digital noise-cancelling headphones – intelligent on-board circuitry picks up the microphone signal, assesses the ambient noise and suppresses the most annoying frequencies. If you need the headphones to recalibrate, you simply press the “mode” button. How this actually works isn’t immediately apparent – but it does work, and brilliantly. Other headphones in our round-up might give more faithful musical reproduction, but the NC500D’s noise-reduction can’t be bettered.
Pros Exceptional noise reduction, talk-through capability.
Cons Rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasts only about 15 hours.

Pioneer SE-NC31C
$230
pioneer.co.uk

You’d be forgiven for thinking that decent noise cancellation is going to cost upwards of $300, but these Pioneer earbuds crush that theory. They don’t make any grand claims (“noise cancellation of up to 90%”) but for the price, they perform very well, assisted by the isolating effects of in-ear buds. Powered by a single AAA battery lasting up to 120 hours, they also have features you’d associate with more upmarket models – bypass (passive mode) and talk-through (to let you hear external noise), for example.
Pros Light, portable, perfect for the gym or the street; great battery life.
Cons Noise reduction less than perfect, slightly bass-heav.

Logitech UE9000
$460
logitech.com

You might associate Logitech with PC peripherals such as keyboards and mice, but these headphones prove they’re far from average. Stylish, solid and weighty (a hefty 330g), the UE9000 also has wireless capability, with a Bluetooth range of up to 15 metres (compatible with the majority of iPhone and iPod models). Whether you go wireless or not, you’ll find most of the controls on the right earcup, with a talk-through button at the top of the left; the rechargeable lithium-ion battery gives 20 hours of noise-cancellation, or ten if you’re using wireless.
Pros Excellent wireless quality, sturdy build.
Cons Weight could get uncomfortable

Panasonic RP-HC700
$200
panasonic.co.uk

Not everyone wants to splurge upwards of $300 on a pair of headphones, particularly if the device they’re connected to costs less. But this slightly retro-looking pair is a good budget option. Panasonic has audio expertise in Technics turntables – the DJ’s top choice – so the sound quality is full, rich and warm, whether or not you have noise-reduction enabled. The manufacturer states that noise cancellation works for 34 hours on a single AAA battery – in practice, you’re more likely to get 20-25 hours. With a promise of 92% noise reduction, it’s not the quietest option – but, you get what you pay for.
Pros Inexpensive, light (186g) and easily portable.
Cons Doesn’t score many points for style.

AKG K 495 NC
$385

uk.akg.com
Sometimes, when you want to look good, you have to take a small hit on personal comfort. That’s certainly the case with this AKG headset – it’s attractive, minimalist and stylish, but its on-ear headphones (rather than encasing the ear) can get uncomfortable after a while. In terms of noise, however, it’s incredibly hard to beat, creating near-silence in most noisy situations. It also boasts an impressive battery life of over 40 hours, and there’s the added sci-fi touch of noise-cancellation being activated by turning a ring on the left earcup, coolly cutting yourself off from the outside world.
Pros Stylish, easily foldable, USB-rechargable.
Cons Not the most comfortable pair here.

Parrot Zik Wireless Headphones
$460
parrot.com

The result of a liaison between Parrot and French designer Philippe Starck, this pair of headphones is, unsurprisingly, beautiful in its construction, and technologically advanced, too. It can operate wirelessly over Bluetooth and NFC (near-field communication – so advanced that barely any media players are yet equipped with it), delivers exceptional noise cancellation, has intuitive touch-sensitive controls on the earpiece for volume and track-skipping, and even automatically stops the music when you take your headphones off. However, it’s a rather weighty, at 325g.
Pros Looks good and comes with an app to fine-tune noise cancellation settings.
Cons The heaviest here, and only about five hours’ battery life.

Sennheiser CXC700
$300
sennheiser.co.uk

Sennheiser buds are a hugely popular option for anyone who’s bought a new smartphone and dislikes the earphones that came in the box, because you get substantially improved audio quality without breaking the bank. Sennheiser’s expertise is evident in the CXC700s – while more expensive than normal buds, they sound fantastic whether noise-cancelling is switched on or off. Also, as with the Audio Technica ANC9s, there are three modes to cope with varying levels of ambient noise. They won’t turn heads, but they’ll do you proud on a long-haul flight.
Pros Small, easily packed, great for the gym.
Cons The bulky battery housing on the cable can feel cumbersome.

AUDIO APPS

Audio Xciter Apple/Android, free
Lifeless-sounding mp3s are given pro-audio pizzazz with this impressive app from Aphex. It restores missing harmonics that are lost during the conversion to mp3, bringing extra richness and detail to the music.

BeyondPod Android/Windows, from $7
“Podcasts your way” is the BeyondPod slogan – and it’s one of the most impressive podcast apps for Android. It has a huge built-in directory of shows, allows you to add your own feeds and supports background downloads.

Instacast 3 Apple, from $4.50
If you’re an iPhone owner, you’ll find Instacast more attractive and functional than Apple’s own Podcasts app. Easy resumption of listening, background play and impressive download management tools all come as standard.

DoggCatcher Android, from $5
Offering support for audio and video podcasts, Doggcatcher is a mini entertainment hub of its own. It features variable speed playback, remembers your last playback position and suggests new podcasts based on your existing library.

Uberhype Android, free
If you’re looking for cutting-edge, undiscovered music, Uberhype is essential. A version of the Hype Machine website in app form, it indexes songs based on popularity across the blogosphere, giving a real indication of what’s currently buzzing online.

Track 8 Apple, from $2.30
Whatever Apple devotees might say about Microsoft, they’d have to admit that the “Metro” design principles used on Windows Phones are rather beautiful. Track 8 is a gorgeous music app that brings the Metro sheen to Apple’s iOS.

Lively.fm Apple, free
Discovering new music is just a button-click away. By gauging the popularity of music from tens of thousands of blogs, Lively brings you a constantly updated selection of music that you can browse through easily.

DoubleTwist Android, free
Often described as the equivalent of iTunes for Android, this app lets you organise your music collection, subscribe to podcasts and listen to live radio. An optional $7-odd upgrade allows you to sync your music wirelessly to Mac or PC.

TuneIn Radio Apple/Android/Windows Phone/Blackberry, free
The ultimate radio-listening app, TuneIn is a gateway to more than 70,000 radio stations. Categorised shows, trending lists and a recommendation engine help you find precisely what you’re after.

Spotify Apple/Android/Windows Phone, free
Spotify has revolutionised the way we consume music, and transformed our phones into powerful digital jukeboxes. It’s well worth the ±$15-a-month subscription to Spotify Premium so that you can use this app to its fullest.