Noise cancelling headphones review 2008

What price should you pay and will they cut the racket?
 
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  • Updated:26 May 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Noise-cancelling-headphones

Test results for 15 noise cancelling headphones from $70 to $599

We tested them for:

  • Noise cancellation
  • Comfort
  • Ease of use

CHOICE tests are different. We buy the products we test — no freebies from manufacturers. Companies can't buy ads on our site and our work is funded by people like you.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market. For more recent information, see our Noise cancelling headphones and earphones review 2012.


Findings

  • Noise-cancelling headphones reduce intrusive ambient noise such as the drone of a plane.
  • The best performing models make you wonder how you ever coped without them.
  • Both active and passive features in headphones contribute to the overall reduction of a noisy environment.

Brands tested

  • Acoustic Research ARH500 (model now discontinued)
  • Bose QuietComfort 2
  • Bose QuietComfort 3
  • IRhythms A-9900
  • Jabra C820s (model now discontinued but may still be available in some stores)
  • JVC HA-NC80
  • Koss QZ PRO
  • Logitech (model now discontinued)
  • Panasonic RP-HC150
  • Panasonic RP-HC70
  • Philips SHN5500
  • Philips SHN9500
  • Sennheiser PXC 150
  • Sennheiser PXC 300
  • Sony MDR-NC6
 
 

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What to buy

  • Jabra C820s # $199
  • Logitech # $249
  • Bose QuietComfort 3 $599
  • Bose QuietComfort 2 $499

# The Logitech has now been discontinued, but may still be available in some shops. Try Harvey Norman, computer shops, or online retailers such as shopbot.com.au, myshopping.com.au and citysoftware.com.au.

Results tables

  Performance
Brand / model
(in rank order)
Type Overall score (%) Comfort score (%) Ease of use score (%) Noise cancellation score (%) Listening evaluation
score (%)
Active cancellation (dB) Passive reduction (dB) Battery life (hours) Price ($)
Jabra C820s
www.jabra.com
Around the ear 87 86 70 94 90 14.3 8.3 34 199
Logitech (A)
www.logitech.com
Around the ear 87 88 64 95 88 15.9 7.8 >42 249
Bose QuietComfort 3
www.bose.com.au
On the ear 82 82 88 80 90 19.5 4.8 >42 599
Bose QuietComfort 2
www.bose.com.au
Around the ear 79 86 82 74 90 13.3 3.9 >42 499
Sennheiser PXC 300
www.sennheiser.com
On the ear 76 76 96 67 83 11.9 4 >42 320
Sennheiser PXC 150
www.sennheiser.com
On the ear 75 76 100 64 76 11.2 4 >42 198
Philips SHN9500
www.philips.com.au
Around the ear 70 76 82 62 83 10.6 3.3 >42 250
Acoustic Research ARH500
www.musicway.com.au
Around the ear 67 76 58 65 81 11.7 3.3 37 199
iRhythms A-9900
www.irhythms.com
Around the ear 61 70 76 49 82 7.7 2.7 34 99
Panasonic RP-HC150
www.panasonic.com.au
Around the ear 58 74 86 37 80 6.3 3.1 >42 150
JVC HA-NC80
www.jvc.com.au
On the ear 54 52 88 41 88 4.7 3.3 >42 79
Sony MDR-NC6
www.sony.com.au
On the ear 54 74 74 34 77 7.9 1.1 >42 199
Koss QZ PRO Around the ear 53 70 60 40 77 5.9 2.0 >42 180
Panasonic RP-HC70
www.panasonic.com.au
On the ear 52 70 66 35 72 3.8 0.9 >42 119
Philips SHN5500
www.philips.com.au
Behind the neck 39 56 36 33 72 2.5 2.7 36 150
 

 

  Features Specifications
Brand / model
(in rank order)
Type Volume control Can be used with noise-cancelling turned off Cable detachable Carry case Cable length (cm) Number and type of batteries Weight (g, with batteries and cable)
Jabra C820s (A)
www.jabra.com
Around the ear Hard case 161 1 x AAA 187
Logitech (A)
www.logitech.com
Around the ear Hard case 160 1 x AAA 200
Bose QuietComfort 3
www.bose.com.au
On the ear Hard case 142 1 x Li-Ion (B) 157
Bose QuietComfort 2
www.bose.com.au
Around the ear Hard case 170 1 x AAA 196
Sennheiser PXC 300
www.sennheiser.com
On the ear Hard case 195 2 x AAA 139
Sennheiser PXC 150
www.sennheiser.com
On the ear Pouch 195 2 x AAA 133
Philips SHN9500
www.philips.com.au
Around the ear Hard case 129 1 x AAA 211
Acoustic Research ARH500 (A)
www.musicway.com.au
Around the ear On earpiece Hard case 164 2 x AAA 190
iRhythms A-9900
www.irhythms.com
Around the ear On cable Pouch 192 1 x AAA 196
Panasonic RP-HC150
www.panasonic.com.au
Around the ear Pouch 155 1 x AAA 163
JVC HA-NC80
www.jvc.com.au
On the ear Pouch 156 1 x AAA 166
Sony MDR-NC6
www.sony.com.au
On the ear     Pouch 152 1 x AAA 147
Koss QZ PRO Around the ear On cable     131 2 x AAA 289
Panasonic RP-HC70
www.panasonic.com.au
On the ear On cable     153 1 x AAA 132
Philips SHN5500
www.philips.com.au
Behind the neck On cable     186 1 x AAA 92
 

Table notes

(A) Has now been discontinued, but may still be available in some shops. Try Harvey Norman, computer shops, or online retailers such as shopbot.com.au, myshopping.com.au and citysoftware.com.au.

Overall score
The overall score is made up of:

  • Comfort - 30%
  • Ease of use - 20%
  • Noise cancellation - 50%

Noise cancellation score
The score ranks the reduction in noise achieved by the headphones when combining both active and passive elements.

Active cancellation
Indicated in decibels, this figure shows the ability of the headphones’ noise reduction circuitry to eliminate low-frequency noise, while the passive reduction figure shows the ability of the headphone earpads to keep external noise out with the active noise cancelling turned off.

Features
(B) The Bose QuietComfort 3’s Li-Ion battery is rechargeable and comes with international adapters and an additional battery.
All the AAA batteries can be rechargeable or non-rechargeable.

Prices
Recommended retail prices, as of May 2008.

How we tested

A panel of trialists wore the headphones with noise cancellation activated for 60 minutes and commented on the overall comfort. We used the results to determine the comfort score.

For the ease of use score, a CHOICE tester assessed each pair of headphones for the range of adjustability and ease of adjustment to fit different-sized heads; the ease of packing them into any supplied case; and ease of cleaning the various components.

The tester also carried out a listening evaluation on each set of headphones to determine audio quality with noise cancelling turned on and off (if possible). These scores are not included in the overall score.

The National Acoustic Laboratories determined the degree of noise cancellation, using synthesised pink noise as well as recordings of ambient sound from a city train and a domestic jet aircraft. A combination of active and passive noise reduction was measured to determine the overall noise cancellation score.

Passive reduction was measured with the headphones turned off, with a separate active cancellation figure derived through analysis of both the passive and overall noise reduction results.

For the battery test, a pink noise source was set up near the headphones and noise cancellation turned on. The tester twice measured how long the batteries lasted, repeating the test a third time if there was more than 10% difference between the two tests. The battery life shown in the table is the average of all tests; it didn’t form part of the overall score, as the batteries of all models lasted longer than a long-haul flight.

Product profiles - the best

Jabra C820s #

Price: $199

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Excellent combination of active and passive noise reduction.
  • Trialists rated it very good to excellent for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • Comparatively short battery life, although still good enough for a long-haul plane flight.
  • Minimal adjustability of the headset may make it too big for small heads.

Logitech #

Price: $249

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Excellent combination of active and passive noise reduction.
  • Trialists rated it very good to excellent for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • Minimal adjustability of the headset may make it too big for small heads.
  • May be difficult to find, as it has now been discontinued. Try Harvey Norman, computer shops, or online retailers such as shopbot.com.au, myshopping.com.au and citysoftware.com.au.

Bose QuietComfort 3

Price: $599

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • The best active noise cancellation by a significant margin.
  • Very good overall noise reduction.
  • Trialists rated it very good for overall comfort.
  • Removable ear muffs are very easy to clean.

Bad points

  • Passive noise reduction isn’t as good as the top two models.
  • You can’t listen to music with noise cancelling turned off/flat batteries.
  • Minimal adjustability of the headset may make it too big for small heads.
  • Expensive.

Bose QuietComfort 2

Price: $499

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Good overall noise reduction.
  • Removable ear muffs are very easy to clean.
  • Trialists rated it very good to excellent for overall comfort.

Bad p oints

  • Passive noise reduction isn’t as good as the top three models.
  • You can’t listen to music with noise cancelling turned off/flat batteries.
  • Minimal adjustability of the headset may make it too big for small heads.
  • Expensive.

Sennheiser PXC300

Price: $320

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • Very easy to use.
  • Compact storage size.
  • Trialists rated it good for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • Expensive.

Sennheiser PXC150

Price: $198

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • Very easy to use.
  • Compact storage size.
  • Trialists rated it good for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • No hard case, only a pouch for storage.
  • Can't detach the audio cable.

Product profiles - the rest

Philips SHN9500

Price: $250

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Very easy to use.
  • Detachable cable.
  • Comes with a hard case.
  • Trialists rated it very good for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • Minimum adjustment, may be too big for small heads.

Acoustic Research ARH500 #

Price: $199

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Good active cancellation.
  • Comes with a hard case.
  • Volume control on cable.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • Rated just OK for comfort by our trialists.

iRythms A-9900

Price: $99

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Easy to use.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • Expensive.

Panasonic HC150

Price: $150

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Compact storage size.
  • Very easy to use.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • Poor overall noise cancellation.

JVC HA-NC80

Price: $79

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • Very easy to use.
  • Compact storage size.

Bad points

  • Poor overall noise cancellation.

Sony MDR-NC6

Price: $199

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • Trialists rated it good for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • Poor overall noise cancellation.

Koss QZ Pro

Price: $180

Type: around the ear

Good points

  • Trialists rated it good for overall comfort.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • Poor overall noise cancellation.
  • No storage pouch or case.

Panasonic HC70

Price: $119

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • Compact storage size.

Bad points

  • Can't detach the audio cable.
  • No storage pouch or case.

Philips SHN5500

Price: $150

Type: on the ear

Good points

  • None to mention.

Bad points

  • Difficult to use.
  • Worst overall noise cancellation performance.
  • No storage pouch or case.

# Discontinued but may still be available in some stores

Useful features

The following features are worth looking for when choosing a noise cancelling headphone.

  • Volume control: A volume control, preferably on the cable, can come in handy, although if you’re listening to music on an MP3 player you can usually alter its volume without too much trouble.
  • Noise cancelling on/off control: If the batteries go flat, you won’t be left without music.
  • Detachable cable: If you just want a quiet environment to listen to nothing at all, you don’t need the headphones plugged into your music. A detachable cable keeps it out of your way.
  • Carry case: Particularly when you’re travelling, a good hard case protects your headphones and keeps extra attachments in order. A soft pouch can be easier to pack but doesn’t give as much protection.

Comfort counts

While some models scored highly for comfort, not one set of headphones gained an excellent rating for comfort by all our trialists. Different-sized heads and ears and areas of sensitivity mean that a set that feels great for one person may be uncomfortable for another.

Circumaural (‘around ear’) headphones completely surround your ear, providing added passive reduction to aid their active noise-cancelling properties. The cushioning effect may also help make them comfortable to wear for long periods. The downside is you may find they get hot and sweaty after a while and they’re often large and bulky to store and carry.

Supra-aural (‘on ear’) headphones are generally smaller. They rest on your ears, providing more airflow around them. However, they may keep out less noise and may not suit you as some press rather firmly on the ears. So before you commit up to $600 for a set of these headphones, try them out first — and leave them on for as long as the salesperson will allow.

How they work

You get a certain amount of what’s called passive noise reduction simply by wearing some headphones. Features like good padding that fully encompasses the ear can contribute to the overall reduction of background noise.

Active noise-cancelling headphones take it a step further. They incorporate a tiny microphone that ‘listens’ to soundwaves as they approach the ear and attempts to create a stream of soundwaves that are the exact opposite, cancelling them both out to create a pocket of silence between the microphone and your ear.

While never perfect, this technology works most effectively with constant low-frequency ambient noise such as the drone of a plane, train or air conditioner.

Active noise cancellation isn’t as effective for intermittent sounds, such as a pen dropping on a table or a person talking — these sounds will still get through.