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Bring on the Noise, but Not So Loud

Thursday, 3 Dec 2009 | 10:58 AM ET

“Sleigh bells ring, are you list’nin’?” “Strike the harp and join the chorus!” “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away!” “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,” “Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling, too!” “Shall I play for you, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, on my drum?” “The cattle are lowing — the poor baby wakes.”

Well, of course the poor baby wakes; who could sleep with all that racket?

The holidays aren’t just festive — apparently, they’re positively deafening. Maybe that’s why companies like Bose are hoping that ’tis the season for some good noise-canceling headphones.

Bose QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones
Source: bose.com
Bose QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones

O.K., that’s a cheap joke. Noise-canceling headphones do not, in fact, do anything about general cacophony like tingling sleigh bells, striking harpists and lowing cattle. I mean, any headphones minimize those kinds of unpredictable sounds to a certain extent, simply because they’re covering up your ears.

But true noise-canceling headphones are made to reduce steady sounds like airplane engine roar, car road noise and train rumble. These headphones involve “a microphone, placed near the ear, and electronic circuitry that generates an ‘antinoise’ sound wave with the opposite polarity of the sound wave arriving at the microphone. This results in destructive interference, which cancels out the noise within the enclosed volume of the headphone.” (Well put, anonymous Wikipedia contributor!)

Bose-type headphones are great at eliminating low-frequency roar, but eliminating higher-pitched sounds is a much more challenging technological task. In consumer headphones, those sounds are primarily blocked by the earcup itself, making the design of its seal rather critical.

Once you have noise-canceling headphones, you can listen to music or videos on the train or plane at a much lower (and safer) volume level. You avoid “noise fatigue,” a tiredness and edginess that supposedly arises from long hours of exposure to loud noise. And, of course, you strike your fellow passengers as a savvy, experienced hard-hitter who knows all the tricks in the travel game.

Bose has led the industry for years, lately with two headphone models: the QuietComfort 2 ($300, AAA battery, complete ear enclosure) and the QuietComfort 3 ($350, rechargeable battery, slightly more compact because they sit on your ears instead of surrounding them).

The thing is, a lot of your $300 or $350 pays for the Bose name and the ubiquitous ads, and everybody knows it. So it didn’t take long for Panasonic, Audio-Technica, Creative, Sony and others to start selling equally effective headphones for half the price.

Well, if your sales are getting eaten alive by cheaper rivals, and you don’t want to play the price game, you have only one option: play leapfrog. Make your gadget so much better than the me-toos that people will be willing to pay your premium once again.

That’s the idea behind Bose’s new QuietComfort 15 model ($300), which replaces the QuietComfort 2. (Whatever became of the QuietComfort 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, anyway?)

Bose has added a second set of microphones on the inside of the earcups, redesigned the earcup seal and further refined the audio circuitry. Bose says that the results are immediately obvious: much, much better noise cancellation than even its own previous headphones.

To test those claims, I took the QuietComfort 15, the QuietComfort 2 that it replaced, and my own Panasonic RP-HC500 headphones on a series of plane trips. As I took them off and put them on in flight, the other passengers must have thought I must have some kind of audio attention deficit disorder. But I did discover some amazing things.

First, the QC15 model really, truly does advance the art of noise cancellation — big time. The QC 2 headphones and my Panasonics cut the airplane roar by half. But the 15 reduced it by, say, 85 percent, leaving only a distant, whispery whoosh to remind you that you’re in an aluminum tube 39,000 feet up in the air. Taking them off after a while, as you’ll want to do because your ears get sweaty, is like walking into a rock concert when you’ve been outside the building.

There is absolutely none of the hiss that plagues some rivals. Music sounds fantastic: crisp highs, solid bass, well-defined midrange. (Note to letter-writers: Yes, yes, I know: they’re not audiophile quality. For normal people, though, they sound great.)

As with their predecessors, the cups on the QuietComfort 15 turn 90 degrees to pack flat into the included zippered (rather bulky) hard carrying case. That case also carries a detachable cord, so that you can listen to the armrest audio on the plane or your own music or video player, and a couple of adapters for the audio jacks on various kinds of planes.

And so: a slam-dunk, right? Bose wins again?

Not quite. There are two caveats: a minor one and a more alarming one.

The 'pop' problem.

The quibble is that the QuietComfort 15 maintains more than just the looks, the 35-hour AAA battery power and the pricing of its predecessors. It also maintains the requirement to power the headphones up just to listen to music.

In other words, you have to turn on the noise-canceling circuitry, using up battery power, even when you’re sitting in your perfectly silent home, listening to songs on your iPod. Most of Bose’s rivals work just fine as regular headphones even when they’re turned off.

The second concern may be a bit more of a showstopper.

A few seconds after turning on the headphones in flight, I suddenly felt inner-ear pressure, as if I needed to “pop” my ears. So I yawned and drank and gum-chewed and swallowed, generally exhibiting every tic ever documented. But the pressure never went away.

Headphones on: uncomfortable pressure. Headphones off: no pressure. I began to wonder if I’d gotten the name wrong, if they weren’t really the Bose QuietDiscomforts.

I shared the headphones with my travel companions; they all noticed the same effect, but only some were bothered by it.

Bose’s response: “What you’ve described is something we’ve heard occasionally from some of our customers — no more with the QC15 than our other headphones.

“The sensation of needing to ‘pop’ your ears is normally caused by a static air-pressure difference across your eardrums — something that occurs in an ascending (or descending) airplane. Headphones that reduce more low-frequency sound pressure from surrounding noise (like the QC15 or our Aviation headset) is perceptually similar to the ‘thin’ sound caused by a static air pressure difference. We believe this can explain the sensation of pressure on the ear when none is actually there.”

Interesting, although the older Bose headphones don’t give me that feeling.

Anyway, when I’m listening to something through the headphones, I can generally adapt to the feeling. Clearly, though, that weird pressure will drive certain people buggy, and that’s probably why Bose offers a 30-day return policy.

The point is that for now, at least, the QuietComfort 15 is the best noise-canceling headset you can buy. It doesn’t make it rivals obsolete — you can still get a lot of noise reduction at half the price, without the “must be turned on to listen” feature and without the potential ear-pressure problem. But on the QC15 headphones, the noise-cancellation itself is leagues ahead of the less expensive would-bes, the sound is excellent and the 30-day trial provides financial protection in case you turn out to be one of those sensitive-eardrum types.

Either way, if you travel a lot, you really should be interested in noise-canceling headphones as a category. Because you know that bit about “Silent night, holy night; All is calm, all is bright”?

In your dreams, baby.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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