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The savage whine of the city streets. The gasping protestations of the petulant child at Starbucks. The incessant nattering of the nabobs back there in coach.
These are all common annoyances that would drive an otherwise sane person to unspeakable acts of ultraviolence. They’re also why noise-canceling technology was invented.
Active noise-cancellation — which uses microphones on the outside of the headphones to pick up ambient noise, then produces opposing sound waves inside the headphones to neutralize it — has its drawbacks. It introduces hiss and other artifacts into the signal, and it requires batteries to work, which means you have to keep your headphones charged up. Also, I’ve found I can comfortably achieve world-shunning silence with a really good pair of isolating earbuds.
But there’s great love among consumers for the fit and feel of a full-sized pair of headphones that magically blocks out the din of the rat race. I can understand the attraction, as the best pairs of noise-canceling cans are comfortable and stylish, and provide a fuller, more rich sound than most of the tiny, in-ear options.
So with open ears and an open mind, I took a look at three new models.
AKG K495 NC
If you demand near-absolute silence from your noise-canceling headphones, these are the ones for you. The AKG K495 NCs get closer to dead silence than any other pair I tried.
In a nice design touch, you activate the noise-canceling feature by twisting the metal ring that runs around the left earcup. And when you turn it on, it’s actually shocking because all the noise around you just completely shuts off.
The sound overall is excellent — full and rich with surprisingly good bass. I noticed the AKGs provide tight, crisp details, so I found myself listening to a lot of classical music, acoustic rock and modern jazz while wearing them. This is where they really excel. Surprisingly, there’s almost no crunchiness or hiss present with the noise-canceling switched on.
Keep in mind these aren’t wireless — they have a cable that plugs into your phone with an in-line remote for adjusting the volume and answering calls. You also get a USB cable for charging them up. When the battery runs out, you can keep listening with the noise-canceling turned off, and they still sound great without it.
The pads are an on-the-ear design, not over-the-ear, so they aren’t quite as comfortable as the other headphones I tested. Also, the metal headband has some sharp corners, and my hair tended to get snagged in the angular hinges. But the pads are made of really nice, soft leather, and the clamping force isn’t too tight, so they aren’t torture machines or anything.
Sennheiser MM 550-X
You may recognize these Sennheisers, since we reviewed the previous model about a year ago. But they’ve been updated recently with some new firmware that gives them better audio. They look exactly the same, but there’s a new model number: They’re now called the MM 550-X.
They’re Bluetooth-compatible and they can be used wirelessly — an important distinction over the other two models in this review. The MM 550-Xs pair with a phone easily, they charge over USB, and they fold up into a highly portable bundle. The controls are all on the right earcup, and they’re pretty simple to operate. There’s also a pass-through feature — just press a button on the earcup and you can hear what’s going on around you without taking the headphones off.
The enhancement here over last year’s model is added support for the Apt-X codec, a form of lossless compression that lets you transmit hi-fi audio wirelessly over Bluetooth. You’ll need an Apt-X-compatible device to take advantage of this better-sounding wireless connection, but I got it to work on a MacBook Air and an HTC One X (Sennheiser lists compatible devices on its website). Unlike most forms of audio compression I’ve heard in wireless gear, Apt-X is very forgiving and gentle. The audio suffers from no discernible degradation before it reaches your ears. If your source isn’t Apt-X compatible (like my iPhone 4), the default of SBC Bluetooth 2.1 is used, which sounds fine.
This all adds up to an awesome pair of headphones. They’re very light, super compact, and the over-the-ear design is really comfortable for long periods. The noise-canceling technology isn’t super-silent, so you hear some ambient noise in the background while you’re walking around listening to music. But if you’re a purist, that’s a good thing — it means your music will still sound very close to what the artist intended. So, these are the headphones I’d recommend to people who typically dislike noise-canceling, or for those skeptical about wireless audio.
They’re really pricey though, about $500. You can find them cheaper if you shop around, but that’s still a lot of money, even for wireless noise-canceling travel headphones. One other thing: They’re too quiet for truly noisy situations. I wore them on a belching diesel-powered bus and I couldn’t get them to turn up loud enough.
get-gadget Stellar sound, even with noise-canceling activated. Support for hi-fi Apt-X codec. Super-portable, wireless design makes them perfect for all kinds of travel. Over-the-ear design stays put, keeps a good seal and feels great all day.
TIRED A whole lotta drachmas. Controls can be confusing — RTFM before use. Could definitely do with some more headroom.
You might think it’s crazy to spend $500 (or even $350) on a pair of headphones, so here’s a pair for you — the Atmos noise-canceling headphones from Rocketfish. The MSRP is $130, but you can find them online for around $80.
They’re over-the-ear headphones with a strong skull-clamp factor, so you get a good seal around your ear. There’s a battery inside that charges over USB.
When it comes to audio quality, you won’t find me raving. But I was surprised at how well they performed, given their budget-minded build. Subtler, intricate tracks, like Aphex Twin’s ambient classics and Sean Hayes’ soulful ballads, were rather muddy and undefined. But classic rock and anything with a punchier, modern sheen — Tennis, Sleigh Bells, Talking Heads, Rush — sounded pretty good.
The noise-canceling tech inside is provided by Wolfson, and it performs well enough. Street noises were mostly squashed, with only the lowest and loudest engine rumbles leaking in. Noise-canceling can be switched on and off, so you can keep listening to music after the headphones’ batteries are exhausted.
The Rocketfishes aren’t as comfortable as pricer cans, but they are very lightweight, given their mostly plastic construction.
About that: If you read the reviews on Amazon and in headphone forums, you’ll see complaints about how the headband snapped or one of the earpieces broke. That didn’t happen to me, but I only used them for a week, and I treated them pretty gently. But keep in mind: they don’t fold, they aren’t very compact, and the plastic is flimsy. And while the Atmos cans come with a molded case, they aren’t as well-suited for travel. This is odd for a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which are usually geared toward travelers, commuters, and those who traditionally want the ultimate in portability.
Sure, Rocketfish had to cut a few corners, but the company managed to keep these around $100 without sacrificing much in the way of sound.
get-gadget A good budget pick. Plenty loud, so even with the NC switched off, they still provide good isolation. Over-the-ear design is comfortable enough for a few hours of use.
TIRED Audio is loud, but lacks subtlety and liveliness. Cheap construction. Noise-canceling is a bit crunchy with noticeable artifacts.