InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame" Noise Canceling

Noise Canceling
Noise canceling headphones perform a fancy little electronic trick with microphones and electronic widgetry that sums an acoustic counter-signal in with your music that will help cancel out outside noise. At its best it works very well and will isolate you better than the passive isolation of sealed headphones. But it comes at a price as the electronic circuits that modify the signal can have some strange effects on what you hear. Even the good noise cancelers can sound a bit odd ... the bad ones can sound miserable. As a rule, I think the better sound of passive sealed headphones makes them the better choice for most everyday uses, and I usually reserve recommendation of noise cancelers to air travelers and rail commuters.

Noise canceling headphones require batteries to operate the electronic circuitry. These can be both replaceable or rechargeable, but many noise canceling headphones will not operate when the batteries die, so you'll have to plan your use on long excursions accordingly.

AKG N90Q ($1499)
WoF_photo_AKGN90QThe AKG N90Q is one sweet piece of headphone audio kit—especially for the headphone enthusiast business traveler. Though somewhat large, the headphones are very well made, comfortable, and nicely styled...though tending just a bit toward gaudy. Noise canceling and sound quality are very good. Accessorization is superb with a very nice hard shell case, a leather carry bag, four cables, and an extra storage battery for extending the 10 hour life of the headphone itself.

The noise canceling, EQ, Stage Control, and auto-calibration of the TruNote function are way better than I expected for this first-of-a-kind headphone. Its performance in this regard gives me great hope for DSP-based headphones in the future. Stage controls work very well and introduced only minor colorations problems in Surround mode. The Studio mode the introduces ITD and IAD psychoacoustic cues was excellent to my ears. The EQ control the emphasizes or de-emphasizes both bass and treble simultaneously was not as useful as I would have hoped. I would have preferred a tilt control that warmed or cooled overall response.

Sound quality was very good but for some unevenness of response in the low- and mid-treble. Bass response was powerful, punchy, and retained excellent microdynamic response. Imaging was above average in Standard mode, and improved significantly in Studio mode. Surround mode likewise increased depth of soundstage, but also introduced some mild room coloration that was a bit distracting at times, though worked well with some material (usually movie sound tracks).

While I don't think the AKG N90Q is quite competitive with passive high-end headphones at this price, I think it makes much more sense to view the N90Q as the next logical step up for enthusiasts looking to improve on the sound from premium noise canceling headphones like the Bose QC35, JBL Everest Elite 700, or Sennheiser PXC 550. In those comparisons, the N90Q is clearly the better sounding headphone, and as such will establish a new high-water mark on the Wall of Fame noise canceler page. This is a terrific headphone for the well-to-do business traveler...and my new favorite for time in the aluminum sky tube. Ahhhhhh!

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Bose Quiet Comfort 35 ($349)
WoF_photo_Bose_QC35I found this headphone value packed. I see it that way because I know how much very complex technology it takes to pull off the noise canceling trick and still sound decent. $350 isn't cheap, but the Quiet Comfort 35 delivers world class noise canceling and best-in-class sonic performance.

Add to that outstanding build quality; terrific comfort; convenient folding features; a dandy carry case; good performance when the battery dies;'re getting one hell of a value. If you're a traveler or someone who needs a good noise canceling headphone, bite the bullet, cry once, and get the Bose Quiet Comfort 35. A killer noise canceler.

Read InnerFidelity review here.

PSB M4U8 ($399)
WoF_Photo_PSBM4U8The PSB M4U 8 is a solid offering at this price. While styling is a bit clumsy, build quality, materials, control functionality, and accessories are top notch. Fit is a bit cozy, but well suited to portable use for sound isolation and security of fit during activity.

The M4U 8 sound quality in passive mode is good, but a bit bloated with the bass accentuation bleeding into the mids. In active modes I would characterize sound quality as fundamentally neutral with an emphasized bass and a modestly emphasized presence region. While this leads to a slightly too sharp a response in music listening, it provides outstanding speech intelligibility in movie watching and telephone conversation.

I think my overall preference for music listening remains with the Bose QC35, but it's close...damned close. I prefer music on the Bose by a modest amount, but I prefer movie watching on the PSB M4U 8 by a pretty healthy margin. I think these headphones are very well suited to folks who watch a lot of video and movies on their portable devices, and I think they may be particularly well suited for older folks who are starting to get some hearing loss for both movies and music. It's going to edge its way onto the Wall of Fame as a close second to the Bose, with a third no where in sight.

Read InnerFidelity review here.

Bose Quiet Comfort 20 ($299)
WoF_photo_Bose_QC20Bose have really outdone themselves with the QC20, it not only meets or beats the noise canceling abilities of the QC15, but sounds way better in the bargain. Performing as well as the best $100-150 IEMs, this is simply a fabulous sounding noise canceler.

The QC20 will operate for 16 hours on a full charge, batteries are not replaceable, but should retain full capacity for 500 charge cycles. The QC20 will operate in a passive mode when the battery is discharged or power turned off. Apple compatible remote is available on the QC20i version, order QC20 for Android/Blackberry/Windows smartphones. Ships with carry pouch, shirt clip, and Small, medium, and large StayHear+ tear-tips.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

JBL Everest Elite 700 ($299)
WoF_photo_JBL Everest Elite 700Though mostly plastic and not particularly stylish, I find the build quality and comfort of the JBL Everest Elite 700 very good. Ergonomic button placement give easy control of a rich set of features. TruNote calibration does seem to subtly improve tonality and smoothness. Two levels of Ambient Aware permit increased awareness of outside sound when not needing the very good isolation of full noise canceling on these headphones.

Sound quality is only fair when running on the wire and electronics off; sound is somewhat forward and hard. But many active headphones sound much worse in passive mode; the Elite 700 is listenable, which is better than most.

Sound quality in all active modes, both wired and wireless, are quite good. Only a modest forward/hardness in the upper-midrange, and a lack of nuanced resolve mid-treble modestly mar its performance.

All-in-all, I find this a surprisingly solid offering at this price point, with a solid balance of value in comfort, features, and sound quality rarely found in an active headphone.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

AKG N60NC ($299)
Boy there's a lot of crappy on-ear, sealed, wireless, noise canceling headphones out there, and the N60NC is not one of them. No, it's not going to wow audio enthusiasts with its great sound, but it will provide decent tonality and mid-fi performance in active modes, and even better, dare I say upper mid-fi, sound quality passively on the wire.

Bass is somewhat loose, mids a bit hard, and highs a bit rolled off in active modes—a decidedly middle of road sound. But sound quality gets significant better passively on the wire—a rarity among NC wireless cans! Simple decent tonality and consistency of performance in all modes should be the norm...but it's not. The AKG N60NC cheerfully delivers a satisfying listen in all modes, and ergonomically performs well on the head and in its pouch both in the home and office or portably on the road.

If you're a serious traveller and need a really good noise canceler in a plane or train, spend the extra $50 and go for the Bose QC35. But if you're just looking for a general purpose headphone to do anything and everything reasonable well, the N60NC may be just the ticket.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Wall of Fame Noise Canceling Retirees

Sennheiser Momentum Wireless ($499)
WoF_photo_Senn_MomentumWirelessThis headphone was retired with the superior sounding/noise canceling JBL Everest Elite 700.

While the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless M2 AEBT doesn't sound as good as the passive Momentum models, it does sound better than any other Bluetooth noise canceler I've heard. I'd characterize it as good upper mid-fi when run passive on the wire, and a notch lower with the power on.

Styling, build quality, comfort, and ergonomics are simply outstanding. This is a headphone that can be worn for hours and with confidence you won't look odd wearing them. Battery lasts 20 hours and you can keep listening when the juice runs out. The M2 folds to become more compact and the included carry case is as handy as it is stylish.

At $499 I would expect Sennheiser to have made the best sounding, most stylish and comfortable Bluetooth noise canceler available...and to my eyes and ears they have.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Bose Quiet Comfort 25 ($299)
WoF_photo_Bose_QC25Bose have long been making noise canceling headphones, and in the Quiet Comfort 25 it shows. Its ability to quiet the world around you is shockingly good, and the sound quality is likewise remarkable. Critical listeners will hear some oddities in the sound, but given their superior ability to deliver good listening in a noisy aircraft cabin I heartily recommend these cans.

The QC25 is an incremental improvement over the QC15 in every way, but it's not a huge improvement in any way. If you currently have a QC15 there's no need to replace it immediately.

This is a fairly neutral sounding headphone. Bass extension is very good, but might benefit from a bit more level; mid-range is very nicely neutral and coherent; treble balance is very good, but sometimes a bit artificial sounding making "s" sound a little more "th" than it ought.

The QC25 is comfortable on the head being very light, and having ample space in the earpieces. Ear pad protein leather is high quality and memory foam underneath making long listening session very comfy. Runs on a single AAA battery for about 35 hours, and will operate (though sound quality takes a solid hit) when the battery runs out.

Read InnerFidelity capsule review here.

Sennheiser MM 450 X ($449)
WoF_photo_Senn_MM450XThis headphone was bumped off the WoF by the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless that's significantly better sounding, more isolating, and more comfortable for only $50 more.

The excellent sound, small size, and freedom from tether make the noise canceling and bluetooth wireless Sennheiser MM 450 X a great traveler's headphone.

The MM 450 X bristles with features like: a TalkThrough button you can push to hold quick conversation with those around you without taking off the headphones; A2DP high resolution stereo Bluetooth with compatible devices (regular Bluetooth for other devices); a cable for times when Bluetooth is unavailable; it charges from USB or included wall-wart; and the headphones fold and store in included compact carry case.

Bose Quiet Comfort 15 ($299)
WoF_photo_Bose_QC15This headphone was retired from the WoF when Bose disontinued it and replaced it with the nicely improved QC20, which is now on the WoF.

Bose have long been making noise canceling headphones, and in the Quiet Comfort 15 it shows. Its ability to quiet the world around you is shockingly good, and the sound quality is likewise remarkable. Critical listeners will hear some oddities in the sound, but given their superior ability to deliver good listening in a noisy aircraft cabin I heartily recommend these cans.

The QC15 will not operate without a battery, but readily available AAA batteries will power the headphones for about 35 hours. Two cables are included: one plain, and one with 3-button Apple compatible mike and remote. A hard-shell case and airline adapter are also included.

The Bose QuietComfort 15 in included on page 3 of this review.