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Review: 5 Premium noise-canceling headphones for peace and quiet

Jim Metzendorf | July 23, 2013
We take a look at five premium noise-canceling headphones designed to give you some relief from the noise of the outside world.

The design of the QuietComfort 15 is focused on portability. Bose includes a cable with an Apple-style, three-button remote/mic module; the semi-hard travel case has the smallest footprint of all the models tested; and, like the ATH-ANC9, the QC15 requires just a single AAA battery for operation. However, if that battery dies, you can't use the QC15 at all.

Harman Kardon NC
 
Harman Kardon NC headphones

Harman Kardon's $299 NC (2.5/5 rating) features both a simple name and a minimalist design: If you're a fan of Apple's hardware, you'll appreciate the look of the NC. Thin, metal trim surrounds rectangular, black earcups, which are connected by a sleek, metal headband. Harman Kardon provides two different size headbands, so you can choose the one that fits your head the best.

The NC may be the best looking model of the lot, but it's definitely not the most portable or travel friendly. Whereas every other model covered here includes a zippered, rigid case, the NC includes only a flimsy travel pouch. And while this pouch may not protect the headphones much, it's necessary to protect your other gear from the headphones: The metal frame around the earcups has a hard edge that could scratch your laptop or other items.

Unfortunately, the NC's sound quality disappoints. Midrange frequencies are over-exaggerated, music sounds thin, and spoken word is especially harsh and fatiguing. The noise-canceling performance is also average—it does reduce external noise, but the other models here are far more effective.

The NC is powered by a non-removeable battery that you must recharge via USB—if the battery dies on a flight, you're out of luck if you don't have your laptop or a USB battery charger handy. The NC's audio cable has an Apple-style, three-button inline remote for controlling playback and volume level, along with a microphone.

The NC works with or without the noise-canceling circuitry enabled, and unlike with the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9, the sound quality remains largely the same either way.

Logitech UE 9000
 
Logitech UE9000 headphones

Logitech's $399 UE 9000 (3.5/5 rating) is the company's top-of-the-line full-size headphone, and the sibling to the UE 4000 and UE 6000. The UE 9000 is the most expensive model in this roundup, but it's also the most versatile: In addition to a (detachable) wired connection to your audio source, it also offers Bluetooth connectivity and active noise cancelation.

The UE 9000 paired easily with my iPhone 5, and the play/pause and volume buttons, built into the right earpiece, worked well. These controls work only when paired via Bluetooth; for wired use, you use the inline remote/microphone module on the audio cable. (The volume buttons on the wired remote work only with Macs and iOS devices.) An internal battery, charged via USB, powers the headphones; Logitech includes a USB cable and a USB charger. If the battery dies when you're out and about, you can still use the UE 9000 as standard headphones.

 

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