Comparing noise-canceling headphones

I’ve been a big fan of the Bose QuietComfort headphones for years. My first pair was a cheap, beat-up display model from the Apple Store which I later upgraded after the release of the second generation to take advantage of the more compact and travel-friendly form factor. I’ve used my Bose QuietComfort headphones everywhere from my own office to long international flights, and they have always come through.

But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. The biggest problem I’ve had with them is interference from GSM phones. You know the annoying ticking you get on speaker phones when someone has their Treo or Blackberry sitting on the table? The Bose QuietComfort headphones let you experience that pleasure directly in your ears. Of course, they are primarily intended for flying which presumably means everyone’s phones are turned off, however when you live in the city and work in sea of cubes, you never know when you’re going to need the little extra peace and quiet from noise canceling technology.

Unfortunately, the interference problem recently got worse after upgrading my wireless network. I went from my ancient Lucent ORiNOCO gateway to the much more impressive looking Linksys WRT54GX, which, in addition to producing a stronger signal, also produces a constant buzz through my QuietComfort headphones. I’m a glass-full kind of guy, though, so when I run into incompatibilities like this one, I look at it as an excuse to buy new toys (fortunately, I had an Amazon gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket).

This time, I decided to go with a much more low-tech solution to noise cancellation: the Etymotic ER6i Isolator Earphones. Rather than sampling ambient noise and generating a correction signal to cancel out unwanted sound, the ER6i headphones are basically earplugs with tiny speakers in them. They cancel noise the old-fashioned way: by physically blocking it.

I just got back from a trip to Seattle during which I had a chance to really give the Etymotics a thorough evaluation. Here’s how they measure up to the Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones:

  • Effectiveness: It’s hard to compare the effectiveness of the Bose and the Etymotic headphones because they actually block different kinds of noises. I found the Bose to be more effective at blocking things like the low drone of an airplane engine, and the Etymotics to be more effective at blocking less predictable sounds, like those you experience in your cube when your co-workers are yapping or laughing at the newest YouTube video.
  • Sound quality: I’m going to say that the two are tied here, but only because my ears are not discriminating enough to hear the difference. I’m sure a sound engineer could tell you which delivers better what, but to me, both sound good enough.
  • Portability: The Etymotics win hands down in this category. They fit into a little 2"x2" pouch which adds no bulk or weight to your bag during a trip. To be fair, the QuietComfort 2 headphones are much more compact than the first generation, but they still add the size and weight of a good sized paperback to your travel load.
  • Comfort. I actually find the QuietComfort headphones to be slightly more comfortable than the Etymotics. The only problem with the Bose headphones is that they tend to tickle the inside of your ears for some reason that seems to be related to pressure after extended use, but in general, I prefer headphones that cup over my ears rather than get crammed inside them. I also don’t like how the Etymotics accumulate ear wax, no matter how clean you keep your ears, meaning they really can’t be shared among people who are the least bit concerned with hygiene.
  • Price. The Bose QuietComfort headphones go for $299, and the Etymotics can be had for about $89.99.

So which would I recommend? It depends on what you need them for, and how important portability is to you. As always, the only true answer is to probably just own both.

3 thoughts on “Comparing noise-canceling headphones

  1. The Bose noise-cancelling headphones do just that… literaly. They do a fantastic job of cancelling a source of contant sound like the hum of my office air conditioning or other low level background noises like the refrigerator compressor at home. The effect of this is that it accentuates sources of variable sound like, say, a person talking.
    So for example, when I go to a Starbucks to read, the general noise of the cappucino machines and such is gone, but I hear the conversations around much better, and in fact makes it much harder to read since I find I’m suddenly tuning in to what’s around me.
    The only effective means of using the Bose headphones for me has been to play some instrumental music through the headphones such as Enya, Mozart, or even some Techno… anything that doesn’t have clear spoken lyrics. Then I’m able to escape into my reading material without getting distracted.

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  2. Very useful review. Could we assume that current noise cancelling technology is not yet effective with speech and/or variable sounds, but just with background constant noise ? I

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  3. Very useful review. Could we assume that current noise cancelling technology is not yet effective with speech and/or variable sounds, but just with background constant noise?

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