The Sounds Of Silence: We Test Drove 3 Pairs Of Noise-Cancelling Headphones

As a tech reporter/writer guy, I’m presumably an avowed early adopter who’s surfing a wave of new and unreleased gadgets all-day, everyday. For the purposes of my work life this is absolutely true, but outside the job this is hardly the case. Up until about a month ago, I had never even so much as used noise-cancelling headphones. Now I can’t imagine ever taking them off.

Here’s the broad idea behind how noise cancellation works. As you cue up your desired audio diversions, microphones outside the headphones detect all that nasty environmental noise that would otherwise interfere, be it a noisy city street or the low-frequency drone of an aeroplane in flight. Because all sound waves have a mirror opposite of “anti-noise,” we can play that anti-noise into our ears and, for all intents and purposes, we can engineer silence.

Noise-cancelling headphones take this bit of acoustics science and make it dead simple to apply. At a certain point these ceased being “noise-cancelling headphones” and instead just become “really great headphones.” That’s the thing about this review — all of the products below are great. I tried three different models from three different manufacturers and each one was tremendously effective in reducing or eliminating the din of the subway or sidewalk. There are things to love about each one, so let’s get into it.

Here are my thoughts on three models I tested.

Logitech UE 9000 – $319.99

I absolutely loved the fact that Logitech went for a USB-rechargeable internal battery in its design (the others require AAA batteries — what aristocrats!). Its noise-cancelling capabilities, while completely effective, struck me as the fairly middle-of-the-road. If you want to use these specifically to generate silence, you could do better. but as a tool for simply inhibiting background noise while listening to something else entirely, these are much more suited to the task. The sound quality here is awesome.

Logitech’s other major selling point is its wireless Bluetooth capabilities. They work great, just as you’d expect from other wireless Bluetooth headsets.

Audio Technica ATH-ANC9 — $239.99

Audio Technica’s headphones seem to be the most accessible. They felt more comfortable than Logitech’s (and certainly looked more unassuming, which I liked). Audio Technica’s is a simple black design that just does its job. It’s the most affordable of the three I tested, but it’s a solid compromise on that ever-troubling balance between price and quality.

Flipping the switch to activate the noise cancellation takes a couple seconds to kick in, but once it does you can hear your audio as if you were in your living room.

Bose QC15 — $299

These were my favourite of the three and stood head and shoulders above the rest. And when you consider that $US300 price tag, they better be great.

Thankfully Bose really delivers here. Both the noise-cancellation performance and the sound quality itself were second to none. They’re more lightweight and comfortable than those headphones of similar design without noise-cancelling functionality, and a single AAA battery will let it run for 35 hours.

The QC15s were completely effective at squelching out all kinds of pesky background noise, whether it was to better hear my podcasts or to simply mellow out in an artificially peaceful environment of my own creation (the BI newsroom is loud). As it turned out, I ended up using them mostly for the sake of peace and quiet.

If money were no object, I’d opt for the Bose headphones every time. But that’s just the thing — while darn near magically good at noise cancellation, that $US300 price will be prohibitively expensive for most people, I imagine. Which is a shame. These are good.

At the other end of the spectrum, still performing quite well at a fraction of the price, I recommend Audio Technica’s ATH-ANC9s to anyone who wants noise cancellation without breaking the bank. Bose’s noise cancellation is better than the others, but the others are still perfectly useful.

As for the Logitech headphones, I was disappointed in the price. For $US20 less I could buy the far superior Bose QC15s. They look cool, they work great, but the price really spoils it all for me.

My takeaway is as follows: If you want an affordable and capable pair of noise-cancelling headphones, spring for Audio Technica. If you want to just go right ahead to the sports car of the noise-cancelling world, go for the way more expensive but far better performing Bose QC15s. If you want something that looks and sounds great and you aren’t scared off by what I consider an undeservedly high price, go for the Logitech UE 9000s.

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