Sunday, January 4, 2009

Silencing the background noise

Whether you're on the plane, riding the train, or want to drown out fussy kids in your automobile, a good set of noise-cancelling headphones can be a godsend.

The Globe plugged in three sets of these silencers. We tested the Sony MDR-NC40 ultra-light headphones at $99, the Philips HN 110 fold-up set at $36, and the Plane Quiet Platinum headset by the Outside the Box Group also at $99. All three feature active noise-cancelling technology. They use a battery-powered mechanism to emit sound waves that cancel out whatever is in the background - jet engines, locomotives, and kids.

For a professional opinion, we went to Best Buy in South Bay and met up with customer assistant Evan Penkethman, who likes to hang out in the MP3 player and headphone aisles.

There are also some very good earphone/earbud models out there, Penkethman said, recommending Bose and Sony brands for those applications. The earbud models are small and fit in your pocket but can deliver some amazing sounds. That's why the earbuds that come with your iPod are actually $40 if purchased separately. They're not throwaways.

But for traditional, over-the-head headphones, we liked what we heard from Sony.

Penkethman said the most important shopping tip is to look at the box and see which headphones will cancel the highest percentage of background noise for the lowest price. We both preferred the Sony model to the others because it removed the most background noise while also providing a quality musical experience. Sony's model delivered a loud, clear sound and kept everything else out.

The Phillips brand fit the best over our ears, but we were turned off by the fact that it keeps the battery inside the headphone compartment - right over our right ear. The Sony MDR-NC40 set has a compartment halfway down the wire that stores the battery and lets you switch it on and off.

All three sets sounded good and came with a variety of cases, plugs, and accessories. The Phillips brand claims to remove up to 75 percent of ambient noise, the PlaneQuiet set 80 percent, and the Sony set 90 percent.

"Eighty to 90 percent of ambient noise removed is good," Penkethman said.

The PlaneQuiet set was surprisingly good for a brand we've never worked with. We're impressed. The set had good definition and packed a loud punch while removing a good deal of noise in the background. It's just that, for the same money, it's hard to turn away from a known brand like Sony.

Pros: Sony delivers a rich, full sound in a set that's comfortable and soft on the ears while removing the most background noise among the sets we tested.
Cons: None. If you have a Benjamin in your pocket, buy these.
The final word: Sony wins this round.

Pros: This set is a real bargain. It was originally priced at about $90, but it's come way down lately. That will attract entry-level sound-cancellation experimenters.
Cons: The battery on the ear was a turnoff. It also reduced the least amount of background noise.
The final word: You can't beat the price. But you can beat the quality.

Pros: The PlaneQuiet comes out of the gate with respectable noise cancellation and a great sound. We recommend them highly for airplane rides.
Cons: In the $100 range, it's hard to justify these over the Sony model.
The final word: If they were $50, they'd be hard to beat.

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