How Noise Cancelling Headphones Can Make Travel More Comfortable

How Noise Cancelling Headphones Can Make Travel More Comfortable

We have all had those nightmare plane flights, where we are stuck between the teenager with their headphones blasting, and a mother with a wailing baby. Nothing is worse on a long-haul flight than this kind of constant noise pollution.

The next time you have to take a noisy bus or train journey or want to block out the monotonous sound of the road when riding as a passenger in a car on a long trip, noise-cancelling headphones could be just the thing you need.

What Are Noise Cancelling Headphones?

Noise cancelling headphones, as the name suggests, help to block out background noise. This can be done either by using them as a kind of ear defender, to produce semi-silence, or while using them to play music or produce sound form some other source. In the latter case, the volume of the sound can be kept much lower than normal headphones, as interference from background noise is reduced considerably. Noise cancelling headphones come in on-ear, over-ear and in-ear styles. However, the noise cancelling technology used does not generally transfer well to in-ear or earbud style headphones, unless you are willing to pay for a top of the range set of earbuds. At the top end of the price bracket, it is in-ear noise-cancelling headphones which are considered to be the best.

How do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?

There are two ways to minimize background noise. The first is to insulate against it, by soundproofing. Soundproofing doesn’t really fit with the small form factor of noise cancelling headphones though. The second way, the cleverer way, is to use active circuitry to negate background noise.

The human ear is a complex thing, but it can be tricked. Any noise we hear can be negated by a sound which is 180 percent away in phase. Noise cancelling headphones exploit this idiosyncrasy in the way we hear.

These headphones feature a small built-in microphone that listens to the ambient background noise. The headset then produces a tone that is 180 percent out of phase from this background noise, thus cancelling it out almost completely.

Of course, background noise is never 100% constant, it does fluctuate, and there is a slight amount of lag between the headphones picking up background noise on the microphone and generating the tone to cancel it. Therefore, they are not perfect, they will not remove background noise 100%.

Most good noise cancelling headphones have multiple settings, that allow the user to match them up for a specific type of background noise. For example, many have a setting to cancel out voices.

It should be noted though, that noise-cancelling headphones won’t work to cancel out the noise of your partner snoring on the pillow beside you. Part of this sound is being transmitted by vibration, and cannot be cancelled by the headset itself.

Similarly, if you are resting your head on the headrest of a car seat, much of the road noise is being transferred via vibration directly to your skull, and then to your ears. Noise cancelling headphones won’t help with this.

On-Ear versus Over-Ear Noise versus In-Ear Noise Cancelling Headphones

With traditional headphones, choosing between on-ear or over-ear and in-ear styles is simply a matter of taste and comfort. With noise cancelling headphones, the choice is a little more complicated.

• On-ear noise-cancelling headphones are lighter, and often more comfortable especially in hot climates. Unfortunately, they generally tend not to perform as well as over-ear or even in-ear models. This is because the ear itself is exposed, and can pick up sound via vibration more easily. Although it should be said, that at the top end of the price spectrum, even on-ear headphones work very well at negating background noise.

• Over-ear noise-cancelling headphones are heavier and bulkier, and in hot climates can often make a person’s ears sweat. However, since these headsets completely encapsulate the ear, they do perform a little better when it comes to negating background noise, especially at the cheaper end of the market.

• In-ear noise cancelling headphones only really come into their own if you are willing to pay for a more expensive product. Cheap in-ear sets tend not to work as well as similarly priced on-ear and over-ear headphones. That being said, if you are willing to pay for a good quality set, then in-ear offers exceptional performance and comfort.

What are the Best Noise Cancelling Headphones?

Popular product reviews website recently undertook an in-depth study to find the best noise cancelling headphones. Dozens of different models were evaluated.

As we might expect, the more expensive products tended to perform the best, with a few exceptions. The top performer was the Sony MDR-1000X over-ear noise cancelling headset. A great performer at a good price. In the over-ear category, the Bose QuietComfort 35 also performed very well.

Bose took the field when it came to in-ear noise cancelling headsets, with both the Bose QuietComfort 30 and Bose QuietComfort 20 being singled out as exceptional.

Interestingly, none of the on-ear headsets that were tested was highlighted by the study as being exceptional.

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