Aimed at frequent travellers and those working in environments that suffer from a constant din, noise-cancelling headphones can bring some much-needed peace to your musical listening – but until recently, they’ve have been relatively high-end and expensive.
How noise cancelling works
Beloved of pilots for years, the core technology behind these decibel-dodgers doesn’t change: the ambient noise from around the listener is measured, then soundwaves are created that cancel out the low frequencies, resulting in what sounds, to the listener, like silence – or something very close.
Traditionally, most noise-cancelling headphones have been big, bulky over-the-ear models that double as serious’ hi-fi headphones. Most use a battery and cost upwards of £200 – though beware cheaper versions that claim to be noise-isolating’ – these in-ear types rarely match-up.
We’ve chosen to compare three quite different models from Denon, Sennheiser and Sony that cover, respectively, Made for iPhone’ functionality, Bluetooth connectivity… and the brave claim of noise-cancelling from an in-ear design.
Denon AH-NC800, £250 inc. VAT
These over-the-ear models are the kind you’ll sometimes spot on transatlantic flights – and with good reason; devishly effective at banishing ambient noise, they’re light and can even be folded flat.
One of the ear cups takes a single AAA battery, which may seem a tad old-fashioned in these days of USB charging, though it remains the most practical solution for travellers. Otherwise working as normal passive headphones, a switch on that same cup activates the noise-cancelling feature.
As well as giving a boost to volume, that effective mode is complemented by a ‘restorer’ button that’s designed to up-scale compressed MP3s, though the effect is barely audible. If only the same were true of whatever music you’re listening to – you could find nearby passengers annoyed, as there’s significant spillage from the ear cups.
A nice touch is two lengths of detachable cable, but since the Denons lack any in-line controls (with the lack of native iPhone compatibility surprising) these seem slightly overpriced at £250. They’re nevertheless worth searching for online if you take a no compromises’ approach to sound quality, and don’t mind the expense or the bulk.
Contact www.denon.co.uk, (02890) 279830.
Sennheiser PXC310 BT, £270 inc. VAT
The most effective at cancelling out surrounding noise from the three on test, Sennheiser’s £270 PXC310BT headphones are the top choice for several other reasons, despite their high price.
As compact and foldable as any £20 pair of Sennheiser headphones, these solidly-built over-the-head cans make for a startlingly impressive upgrade. Instead of covering your ears like the Denon model, the earcups here are more like suction pads, literally clamping onto your ears with soft padding to create an airlock.
It may seem a tad hands-on, but it’s comfortable and quite brilliant – with the NoiseGuard switch flicked – at removing any semblance of ambient sounds. We’d put the overall effect, taking into account the punchy, dynamic music it produces, as about equal to the Denon.
The big advantage here – apart from a smaller size – is that when you’re not travelling at 30,000ft, you can put away the removable cable and use their easy-to-configure, built-in Bluetooth wireless connection. A built-in mic also makes the PXC310BT’s ideal for hands-free phone calls – though this feature obviously prevents these impressive headphones from having in-line controls for track-skipping and volume.
Contact www.sennheiser.co.uk, (01494) 551551.
Sony MDR-NC33, £70 inc. VAT
Costing around £70, Sony claims that these in-ear headphones can get rid of 90 per cent of all ambient noise. They use a lone AAA battery in a compartment mid-way down the fixed audio cable, while the three sizes of silicon in-ear vessels supplied in the box prove exceptionally comfortable.
The good work continues with standard sound quality, which is powerful and nuanced – though the good news ends here; when activated, the noise-cancelling feature appears ineffective, and to our minds actually reduces the sound quality.
That’s a shame because otherwise the MDR-NC33 includes a brilliant, well thought-out design that includes a monitor option that the user can hold down to kill audio completely, ostensibly to answer Red wine please!’ to the air hostess – but just as useful for commuters waiting for train announcements.
Contact www.sony.co.uk, (08705) 111999
Which pair of headphones is for you will depend on your preferences - though it should be obvious that the Sennheisers impressed us most. Relatively compact and with a thoroughly effective noise-cancelling feature, these are what to go for if you're after a terrific all-rounder.
If the price of the Sennheisers is too high and Bluetooth is a feature too far, consider Sennheiser's otherwise identical PXC310. If you can live with their bulk, Denon's AH-NC800 set is just as effective - while Sony's MDR-NC33, while failing to deliver on their noise-cancelling claim, nevertheless impress as everyday headphones.