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Sound Check

Sound Check
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First Published: Thu, Aug 02 2007. 01 03 AM IST
Updated: Thu, Aug 02 2007. 01 03 AM IST
As you may have heard, air travel this year is not going to be pretty.
You will be crammed in, delayed and bumped—if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, your flight will just be cancelled.
Fortunately, not all of this misery is out of your control. Take, for example, the noise-cancelling headphones that Bose began making popular a few years ago.
Until you try them, you won’t believe what a difference such headphones can make. As tiny microphones monitor the mind-numbing roar around you, circuitry in the device creates a sound wave 180º out of phase with the original sounds.
Presto: The roar of the engines is magically subtracted from the sound that would otherwise have ground away at your well-being for six hours. You can wear them just to be more peaceful, or you can connect them to a music player, DVD player, laptop or the plane’s audio system. Because the engine roar is missing from the mix, you can enjoy enormously improved audio quality at substantially lower, safer volume levels.
Nobody disputes the quality of Bose’s market-leading phones. But at what price?
Little wonder rival companies are now trying to bring you similar peace in the stratosphere without propelling the price up there, too. Panasonic, Sennheiser, JVC, JBL, Audio-Technica, Logitech and Able Planet have now joined the noise-cancelling marketplace, with hopes of cancelling a few of those Bose sales along the way.
There is only one good way to test these headphones: Wear them on planes, trains and automobiles. So, when a three-leg trip loomed, I grabbed a carry-on bag and crammed it with 10 pairs—two Bose models and its six rivals.
Airport security probably thought I was a little unbalanced, and my seat mates thought I had some kind of attention deficit disorder. But in the name of science, I shrugged off the humiliation and proceeded with my A/B test.
Most of these headphones are powered by a single AAA battery. Each comes in a carrying case that keeps the devices together with their accessories: the mini-plug cable for your music or DVD player, for example, and the adapters for quarter-inch phono jacks and dual-pronged plane armrest jacks.
Most of these cases exude elegance but take up a huge portion of your carry-on bag. The “active noise reduction” technology used by these headphones cancels only lower frequencies. Higher ones are difficult to stifle electronically. Whatever upper-register noise cancellation you get from these headphones, therefore, comes from the seal they make with your ears, which is “passive noise reduction”.
None of these products touches the sound quality of high-end audiophile headphones. Some people say, for example, that they can hear a faint hiss in some noise-cancelling headphones when music is not playing, although my 44-year-old ears couldn’t detect it. Here are the contenders (I did not test earplug-style phones, which earring wearers may prefer; my trip wasn’t long enough).
There are three refreshing points to note about JVC’s entry. First, the street price is only $40; you could buy seven pairs of these for the price of one Bose set. Second, these phones rest on your ear instead of surrounding it. As a result, they are so small they come in a compact drawstring bag, rather than in a hard clamshell.
Finally, the audio cord is retractable—a brilliant, obvious and extremely handy feature.
You can probably feel a “but” coming, and here it is: the circuitry cuts out only a chunk of the lower frequencies, leaving much of the engine roar unabated. And the music quality is only average and weak on bass.
Panasonic RP-HC500
The pleasantly smushy-edged earcups on this new model do an excellent job of isolating your ears. That may be one reason the noise cancellation works so well; all but the highest frequencies are subtracted. Better still, the music reproduction is stellar, especially in the crisp, clean higher registers. I waited to look up the prices for these products until after I had tested them.
So, I was astonished to discover that you can find these online for $100. You get quality that is nearly indistinguishable from the Boses—for one-third the price.
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7
Here is another winner, with another surprising price: $132 for these comfy, solidly built, absolutely great-sounding headphones.
The circuitry cuts out a huge swath of engine, road or train noise, and the music is crystal clear and finely textured. It is Bose without the marketing campaign.
JBL Reference 510
You cannot accuse JBL of designing with the herd. Instead of putting the circuitry and the battery in the earcups, JBL’s engineers offloaded them to a little box that dangles on the cord. You can clip the box to your clothing.
Thus relieved of that extra weight and bulk, these on-ear headphones are positively microscopic compared with their rivals. They fold down into a little pocketable stretchy bag.
Unfortunately, these $150 phones are the least comfortable of the lot; those tiny earcups feel like tongs trying to grip your head. The external-fob approach means a lot more wiring to fuss with, too. And you cannot detach the cords when you want to use the headphones for noise cancellation only.
Music sounds terrific, but beware: With a 125 decibel peak, these cans will blow out your eardrums if you are not careful.
The noise-cancelling circuit is superb, cutting out both the low roar and most of the middle frequencies. Inside the gigantic case, labelled loops keep everything, including jack adapters and even an iPod, in its place. Music sounds pretty good for the price (Rs9,995), though it does not keep up with the Boses.
Bose Quietcomfort 2
Mmm, nice. Bose may charge a lot (Rs16,763), but you have to admit they know their acoustics. The noise cancellation is amazing; when you throw the switch, the world just falls away. Music sounds fantastic —wicked bass, clear highs.
Unfortunately, you cannot use these as regular headphones; when you turn off the noise-cancellation, you turn off all sound.
Bose Quietcomfort 3
This Rs21,263 pair are smaller than the QuietComfort 2s; they are on-ear rather than surround-ear. There is no room for an AAA battery. You get a snap-in rechargeable battery instead, which means that you have to pack and track its charger. The 3s are incredibly comfortable, and both the circuitry and music reproduction is outstanding—but like the cheaper version, they can play music only when the cancellation circuitry is turned on.
So, what is the verdict? Nobody has yet knocked Bose off its pedestal, but Panasonic and Audio-Technica have climbed up there with it. These headphones sound amazing, but cost a half or one-third as much.
Then again, any noise-cancelling technology is better than none. Now all we need is technology that gives us overbook-cancelling, delay-cancelling and cancellation-cancelling.
(Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com)
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First Published: Thu, Aug 02 2007. 01 03 AM IST
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