A Comparative Review of High-End Noise Canceling Headphones

Tyll Hertsens's picture

What's All the Noise About?
A typical question from someone wanting a headphone to shut out environmental noise goes something like this: "I want to get rid of the noise around me, so I need noise canceling headphones, right?" No, not necessarily. Most in-ear headphones that seal in your ear canal will provide better isolation from outside noise than most active noise canceling headphones. And while they often won't provide quite as much isolation from outside noise, regular sealed headphones will often cost less and sound better than noise canceling headphones. (The active circuitry of noise canceling headphones often makes them sound a little weird.)

The thing is, Bose has managed to convince the popular consciousness that noise canceling is the way to get good isolation. I reckon people regularly ask for noise canceling headphones without any idea of what they're asking for, and that demand has spurred competition and new models from makers like PSB, Polk, Klipsch, and Fanny Wang. So, I rounded up a healthy handful of these new headphones and compared them with my favorite noise canceler, the Bose Quiet Comfort 15. But first, let's do a quick review of how a noise canceling headphone works.

How Noise Canceling Headphones Work
To tell you the truth, it's quite tricky. Way more complicated than you'd think...if you want to do it right. Let's start with a pair of regular sealed headphones sitting on your head: any noise around you is somewhat blocked by the headphones, but some muffled sound does manage to get in past the seal of the headphones. It is this muffled sound that we're trying to get rid of with noise canceling headphones.

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Basically, noise canceling headphones have little microphones in the earpieces to sense the noise around your head. The signal from the mikes goes to some filtering circuitry (sometimes simple analog filters, sometimes very complex digital signal processing filters) so that it more closely matches the muffled sound inside the earpieces, and then it is inverted and sent to the driver in the earpieces. Because this signal is (hopefully) an exactly equal but opposite mirror image signal to the muffled outside sounds coming into the headphone, the two sounds cancel each other and leave you in silence. If you're playing music, it just gets summed in with the noise canceling signal in the headphone electronics, and when the noise gets canceled, you're left with your music.

The problem is, as noted above, accomplishing this is way more difficult than it sounds. The amount of ambient sound getting into the headphones changes with how you wear them; whether you're wearing glasses; and how much hair you have preventing a seal. So, the amount of cancellation signal needed changes with those factors as well. Some noise canceling headphones have microphones both inside and outside the earpieces, and the digital signal processing (DSP) algorithm is programmed to change with variations in the seal.

The noise in your environment can be of differing types, as well. Some noise canceling headphones may be programmed to characterize the type of sound in the environment and employ differing DSP schemes to more effectively cancel that particular type of environmental noise. For example, motors have a repetitive acoustic character allowing a smart DSP to predict the sounds it will be canceling and iteratively improve its canceling performance. On the other hand, most noise on an airplane is random wind rumbling, which needs a different DSP approach than repetitive sounds if it is to cancel noise optimally. A good noise canceling headphone will employ a lot of computing power to both cancel noise well and sound good.

There is so much going on in noise canceling headphones it's amazing the sound is intelligible at all...and, in fact, sometimes it's almost not. On the poorer units, outside noise can end up modulating the music you're trying to hear with some very odd effects. One pair I tried started to oscillate with a strange sort of feedback at roughly 40Hz when I turned it on...all by itself, no music playing or environmental noise.

Bottom line: I'd stay away from noise canceling headphones if possible. But if you're a regular plane or train commuter, or find yourself regularly in loud environments needing peace and quiet and don't want in-ear headphones stuck in your ear canals, noise cancelers are probably the way to go. Read on and I'll point you toward a few good ones...and away from some others.

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Comments
melvin's picture
Great writeup!

The biggest thing that I picked up in this writeup is how noise cancelling headphones work. I agree that in-ear monitors work best in isolating noise but my friends are not 'sharp' enough to realize this.

I'm just curious because in your Wall of Fame, you have mm450 as a noise cancelling headphone. I own the PXC 310 (and I think they have the same drivers as mm450) so I was curious why the headphones was not included in this review.

Other than that, I'm not surprised that Bose edged out everyone in terms of noise cancelling

kiranjhons's picture
To my ear, it isolates better

To my ear, it isolates better than HD25-1ii which I thought the best until I met Momentum. Of course Momentum's isolation is not as good as good IEM's such as Shure SE535 or Etymotic E<
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TheWuss's picture
driver matching...

man! some of these NC headphones have poorly matched drivers.
well, at least more deviation in FR than i've noticed before....

Mkubota1's picture
Nice to see some validation

I completely agree with your assessments of the Beats Studio and QC15- the only two of the bunch I've really heard. It's also nice to see that all of the people wearing these aren't as crazy as some of us might have thought. After a while it gets difficult calling the rest of the world crazy while maintaining that we're the only sane ones around. That said, I still have no idea what those people wearing the Solos are thinking (or hearing).

SuperFocker's picture
Very interesting review!

If only Tyll knew as much about the use of semi-colons as he does headphones! haha

One thing I don't get...you seem to rave about the Polks more than the A-T, yet in the end you suggest the Bose and the A-T, not Bose and the Polks. Is this just based on relative value?

DaveBSC's picture
No Denon NC800?

Thanks for covering these, but I'm sorry to see the Denon NC800 not on the list, I've heard a few of them and the Denon is my favorite. It doesn't isolate as well as the Bose but it sounds much better to my ears. It's really a very competent headphone. Bass, midrange, treble and headstage are all not bad, really nothing to complain about for a NC headphone. It lasts 40hrs on an AAA battery, and unlike the Bose it will continue to work with a dead battery or with no battery, it just loses efficiency and a bit of sound quality.

The only flaw I've noticed with the Denon is that it lets you know the battery is too low by emitting a nice 70dB squeal when you switch on noise cancelling. I've learned to hit the switch first, THEN put the headphones on.

mikes62's picture
Heard the Bose QC15's

Heard them back to back with Denon AH-nc732 and felt the Bose's did a slightly better job in NC'ing but the Denon's sounded more detailed and balanced.

bigb121074's picture
Nice write up...

...confirmed what I've believed for the longest: If you need noise cancelling, get the QC-15's....and do NOT get noise cancelling unless you absolutely need to.

Audioaddict's picture
Great review, but..

I know this was mainly focused on high end NC headphones but Rocketfish introduced the Atmos noise canceling headphones for 129$ and while the noise canceling isn't as spectacular as the bose QC 15 it's better then any sealed and decent in general, especially at 129$. And I didn't think the sound quality was all that bad. If you could you might would like to check them out and write a review.

maverickronin's picture
QC15

The QC15s are also great to wear over your IEMs for even more isolation.

You can do that with $20 industrial hearing protectors but those get can get pretty uncomfortable.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Great idea!
Great idea!
e_resolu's picture
Zik Parrot

Great Review as always...

Do you plan to include the new Zik Parrot in a near future ?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've attempted to contact
I've attempted to contact them.
Lex_J_Luthor's picture
Something else to consider...

Great article! As a frequent business flyer I wish there was better variety of feasible options. ANC seems like an afterthought feature for many companies.

My $0.02...ATH-ANC7b have actually sold for as little as $100-109 whether Bose vice-grips the $299 MSRP. From owning both, I agree that Bose is a better unit, but nowhere near the demanded mark up. $50 better? Probably...$200 better? Definitely not. That money is better put towards a good IEM, which is what I did.

Any chance you can do another comparison or article on ANC IEMs (ex. ATH ANC23)?

steble's picture
AKG K490 NC

AKG K490 NC has gotten some good reviews. It would be fun to read about what Tyll thinks about them.

ednaz's picture
Nice review

I've been a two or more flights a week traveler for almost 30 years now, and I've dipped into the noise cancelling headphone pool several times, beginning with a pair of Sony back when the concept was fresh and new.

In every case, I wear them for awhile and think, this is OK; then during a trip I listen to some music on the one or two high quality 'phones I travel with, and my opinion of the noise cancellers starts to fade, eventually to zero. And then I would go back to wearing mostly my Etymotic universal fit ear phones, which I've had at least one set of since forever. I can hear odd sound artifacts, many up in the high frequencies, some that make my teeth hurt. (I have unusually good high frequency hearing, can hear all kinds of electronics even though I grew up and continue to be a fan of Detroit rock and roll.) Sometimes they get into a woofy wow kind of feedback loop, too.

The earphones block sound better; they don't add weird artifacts and sound signatures to my music; easier to carry and no batteries. I've got a couple more brands of universal fit earphones, too, and enjoy the sound. But the universal fits never were comfortable for long trips. Which would eventually drive me to try a new set of noise cancellers... back to the pattern.

For a couple years recently I wore my closed, but non-cancelling, headphones on my longest flights, where the earphones would get uncomfortable. I was willing to give up a bit of sound blocking to have my music sound right.

Last year I had a set of custom in ear monitors made, along with a set of custom tips for one of my set of Ety, and I should have done it a decade ago. Could have saved a lot of money spent seeking both noise reduction and comfort. The custom tips improved the sound of the Ety earphones, which work with my mobile phone as a headset. The in ear monitors are sheer bliss in sound quality and comfort. Neither cuts as much sound as the silicone multi-layer universal tips on earphones, but the difference would really only be significant if I directed jet planes to parking spaces.

For anyone disturbed by the bits of sonic weirdness that can show up in noise cancelling headphones, but has trouble with comfort on earphones - the money spent for a custom fit earphone is worth every penny. If you don't hear the sonic weirdness and like the sound, then noise cancelling phones may be your answer. Having owned a few of the ones reviewed - and many others - I agree with the assessment. The ATtoolongobscurename 'phones are great, but the Bose do a better job on noise. I used to use them for lawn work and they make John Deere's roar into a far away rumble.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
^^^This!
"Last year I had a set of custom in ear monitors made, along with a set of custom tips for one of my set of Ety, and I should have done it a decade ago."

One of the best things I've ever done is get custom molds made for my ER4Ps. I particularly like the ability---after getting old and worn out---of easily sliding the drivers out of the tips so I can leave the tips in my ears when I need to talk to someone. Totally cures having to take them in-and-out all the time.

But for lots of other reasons you mention as well, IEMs are really the way to go, and custom tips or custom IEMs are superb for traveling. The comfort is much better.

Beagle's picture
PSB is more than "quite good"...

Having had these for more than a month, I can now say that the M4U 2 is perhaps the best balanced overall headphone I've heard. No bass hump, no treble spikes, the midrange is mid, not hiding in the background. Of course, it took more than an hour of listening for me to realize all this..

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'm going to listen more.
I know I sort of damned them with faint praise in the review --- and you should hear the Polks --- but I will be listening more to the PSBs. "Quite good" is fairly high praise from me, and I did like them ... I just liked other stuff more for noise cancelers.

Like I said, I will be listening more.

rem451's picture
maybe a review about psb's headphones could be helpful..

Hello Tyll, first time here, love your reviews and comments, i want to ask if you listening this psb's more and if you have more details, i would love to see you make seperatelly a review regarding this headphones.
I would love to buy the white version but i m not quite sure also i can't find it anywhere just to see it first of all..
i would go with bose's qc15 headphones but i don't like the look, and the polk's audio cannot cancel noise at all so.. i think psb's headphones is a good solution. what's your opinion?
keep up the good job

Beagle's picture
PSB passive version...

PSB will be issuing a regular (passive only) version in the fall. It will be interesting to see if the sound remains the same, what with earpieces not stuffed with plastic cabinets, batteries and circuitry. Looking forward to these.

Giteau's picture
Awesome review Tyll

Loved the article and the video on youtube too!

dborda's picture
Nokia BH905i

Hi!

 

What do you think about the BH905i by Nokia? I bought them a year ago and I think (without being an expert) they have a pretty good sound and the noise isolation is good. They also are Bluetooth and wired what gives you battery independence.

 

Thanks!

bindertwine's picture
Beat Monster Dr Dre

Dr Dre headphones may have adequate sound and NC, but the design flaw is so horrific that they will let you down- screws holding cheap plastic is a loosing situation and they bust after normal use, at which time the hinge assembly will also crap out. The next horror will be dealing with Beats who care nothing about your broken headphones. If the warranty is lapsed, your outta luck. Try find someone that will fix them... Far prefer Den's and Senn's.

Reticuli's picture
Blocking outside music

How well do these headphones block loud outside music?  I can't seem to find an answer for that.  I hear a lot of theories and hearsay, but no definite answers from anyone that's tried it.  I'm talking about playing very loud full range music all around you and listening to another piece of music through the headphones.  I'd be interested in their functioning both without wearing musicians earplugs and with musicians earplugs, which would be an indication of how well the NC, mics, and drivers work at normal and also very high amplitudes.

drmnz's picture
Bose QC15 sound great but unreliable on aircraft

HI, I purchased a pair of QC15 headphones and at home they work great.  Unfortunately, on an aircraft they seem to mangle the audio and it is better to use my Bose TP-1A headphones.  Not sure why this is the case. Thanks for your review - interesting info.  Cheers