Sometimes you just want to get away from it all—to escape the din of a busy office, or the roar of a plane, and enjoy your favorite album or podcast. Or maybe you just want the world around you to be a little quieter so you can concentrate or relax. Noise-canceling headphones aim to provide just such an aural refuge. I took a look at five models marketed as premium noise-canceling solutions to see if they live up to their hype (and price tags).
Headphones can use two approaches to reducing the amount of external noise that makes its way to your ears: passive noise isolation and active noise reduction. Passive noise isolation involves physically blocking noise from reaching your ears. Traditionally, this has been accomplished using larger earpieces and earpads that completely surround your ears (over-ear, or circumaural, designs) or at least cover your ears (on-ear, or supra-aural, designs). Recently, many people have turned instead to in-ear-canal headphones (canalphones), which fit deep in your ear canals like earplugs.
Active noise reduction, on the other hand, aims to reduce the level of audible noise via technology. One or more microphones built into the headphones sample external noise, and the circuitry inside immediately pumps an inverse audio signal through the headphones (along with whatever audio you're listening to). In theory, this inverse audio signal cancels out the external noise—thus the name of the technology.
In reality, there are limits to how effectively this circuitry can counteract external noise. For example, while noise-canceling technology is generally effective at blocking continuous, low-frequency audio, such as a jet's engines or the hum of a room full of computers, its less capable when it comes to higher frequencies and intermittent noise.
Because of this, most noise-canceling headphones use a combination of passive and active noise reduction: large, sound-blocking earpads (or in-ear-canal earpieces), along with noise-canceling circuitry.
(A quick aside: Thanks to the additional cost of including noise-canceling circuitry, manufacturers often focus resources on that circuitry rather than a headphone's audio components. The result is that noise-canceling headphones tend to be more expensive than comparable or better-sounding traditional headphones. In other words, you can get better audio quality for the money—or for less money—from headphones that offer only passive isolation. Given the prices of the five headphones reviewed here, ranging from $299 to $399, you would expect fewer such compromises, but I found that's not necessarily the case.)
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Active Noise-cancelling Headphones
Audio-Technica is a company long associated with professional audio products. I've used the company's microphones for well over a decade, and the ATH-M30 closed headphones are required equipment for every student enrolled in the Recording Arts and Technology program at the college where I teach. The company's $349 ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Active Noise-cancelling Headphones (4/5 rating) is the higher-end sibling of the ATH-ANC7 and ATH-ANC7b noise-canceling models, both bang-for-the-buck standouts.
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