Tuesday, February 27, 2007

REVIEW: Noise-Cancelling Headphones

In the past, I've talked about noise-cancelling headsets which filter out background noise. Today, I'd like to briefly talk about noise-cancelling headphones which use technology to filter out background noise, making it easier for you to listen to music and other audio.

If you like, just skip to "The Bottom-Line" for my recommendations.

Below are three noise-cancelling headphones I've tried out, recently:
* QC3 - Bose QuietComfort3 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones ($349)

* MDR-NC6 - Sony Noise Canceling Headphones ($49.99)

* MDR-NC50 - Sony Noise Canceling Headphones ($199.99)

Sound Decision.
Let me begin by saying that I'm not the audiophile that some people are (like Harv Laser at TreoCentral.com). I won't be focusing on the audio range technical specifications. If I can hear the voices, highs (like violins), and lows (bass) pretty well, then I'm happy. Sony and Bose are well-known for audio quality, so I've no concerns there. Perhaps Bose has a slight edge over Sony, but I didn't notice it. Sound-wise, all three headphones are impressive.

With that in-mind, the noise-cancelling feature will be my main focus. So, let's get down to it.

Bose wins.
Thanks for stopping by.

Deal or No Deal.
Okay, it's not quite that simple. While the QC3 has the most active noise-cancelling system, it's also the most expensive of the three. At $349, the QC3's cost almost twice as much as the $199 NC50's and a whopping SEVEN times as much as the $49 NC6's.

So, the main question becomes: "Is the noise-filtering difference directly proportional to the price difference between these headphones?"

In a word, "No."

Quiet As It's Kept.
While the QC3's filter noise somewhat more effectively, the NC50 benefits from "cans" which completely surround my ears, providing a physical barrier to complement the noise-cancelling circuitry. The result is a very similiar filtering experience.

Both headphones are good at eliminating much of the ambient noise which can interfere with one's listening experience. Of course, closer individual voices will still be audible as will other sounds that don't contribute as much to the general cacophony surrounding you. However, if you're in a mall or convention center or airport where there's a general hum of people walking, salesmen talking, and jet engines blasting, you'll find that, with these headphones, you'll still be able to hear your favorite tunes - without having to crank up the volume so high that you risk damaging your hearing.

The NC6's, as you might expect, don't filter out the background noise quite as effectively, but they're still very effective and, at $49, definitely worth consideration.

Too Close For Comfort.
The QC3's are smaller than the SONY models, so they're easier to transport. Sometimes I have to take my headphones off, while doing something else. The easiest place to hang them is around my neck. Larger headphones can be rather cumbersome and uncomfortable at the throat, so the QC3's have the advantage, there.

Power Play.
The QC3's have a built-in, rechargeable power source, so there are no AAA batteries to keep up with. Still, AAA batteries are pretty cheap, so keeping a spare around is much easier and less expensive than the $50 extra battery for the Bose model.

The QC3 even offers an optional cellphone package, enabling you to use them with your mobile phone to listen to music AND take calls. That's a great option, but it's also an additional $39.98.

Not Ready for Prime-Time.
Sony's NC6 model is comparable to Bose's QC2, which goes for $299. They're so similar in quality that I can't see buying the QC2's under any circumstances. If you're going to spend three hundred bucks, you may as well spend another fifty and get the QC3's. Those who bought them before the QC3's were released, of course, didn't have that option.

Again, the NC6 is just as good as the QC2 and, at fifty bucks, is a fraction of the cost.

So, with all that information, how's a person supposed to make a choice? Well, based on nothing but quality, I submit the following:
Sony NC6: Get'em if you want very good noise-filtering quality, at an affordable price. Last I checked, Amazon offered a set for $35.

Sony NC50: Get'em if you want exceptional quality, but aren't prepared to drop almost four hundred bucks after taxes.

Bose QC3: Get'em if you want the best of the best and have more $$$ than the rest. You'll love'em.
Honestly, as long as you can afford'em, you'll probably be pleased with whichever set you get.

The Bottom-Line.
My recommendation: At fifty bucks, the Sony NC6 headphones offer the best bang for your buck.

And, for putting up with me for so long, here are a couple of tips:
1) If you ever want to try out a pair of noise cancelling headphones, test them without music playing through them. That's the best way to see how well they filter out background noise.

2) These headphones are also good if you're ever trying to have a conversation in a noisy location (and leaving isn't an option). Two people, in close proximity, both wearing noise-cancelling headphones, will be able to hear each other very well, without the distracting din of their surroundings.


B. Good said...

Very interesting. These noise cancelling headphones would be SO awesome on my plane rides. I always end up next to the jet engines, the crying baby, the snoring businessman, and the talkative fat woman. I might just drop 50 large on one of those bad boys!!

(ok I know you said they were $35, but "35 large" just didn't sound as cool).

Thanks West!

West said...

No problem!

Keep in-mind, though, that they're meant to filter out the dull roar of noise more so than close voices.

In other words, they can handle the engine noise, but the baby's another story.

You may want to get the $200 model for that, since it cups the ears.

B. Good said...

Oh hell! I'm ballin' on a budget, lol.

West said...

I can respect that.

Now that I think about it, you may be fine as long as you've got somethin' playing THROUGH those headphones.

I've been testing them without music for so long that I sometimes forget people actually use'em for that.

*V-8 slap*

ANGELO said...

i purchased the MDR-NC6 a few months ago and was impressed with the noise canceling features, however i noticed that while walking against the wind i would get a very loud whooshing sound, so loud I'd have to turn off the noise canceling.
I recently purchased the bose qc3's and i gotta say I'm really impressed with the noise canceling and the audio quality. That pesky whooshing sound is no longer a problem even on severely windy days!!
IMHO well worth the $499 CDN!!!!

West said...


That's a whole lotta money. That Canadian wind must be a $#%^&!