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Strong Silent Types

The best over-the-ear headphones (or incognito earbuds) for keeping outside noise where it belongs



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Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones

THAT THE PAIR sitting next to you have discovered that they’re soul mates is undeniably heartwarming. But their scintillating repartee threatens to disturb your sleep or interfere with your ability to hear every word of the critical-plot-twist-revealing dialogue in the movie you’re watching.

For reasons such as these, when I travel I bring one of two kinds of headphones — or sometimes both — that are designed to keep the din at a distance: active noise-canceling and passive noise-isolating. The former is an over-the-ear style combining a soundproof casing with battery-powered technology that creates inverse sound waves to help negate ambient noise. The latter are classic earbuds, which minimize outside noise by simply sealing up your ears with rubber tips. These can be bunched up into your hand and stored in your pocket, making them ideal for anyone who doesn’t want an overstuffed carry-on (but also making them easier to lose).

Which headphones actually do a better job of blocking out intrusive noise? More important, which make music, movies and phone calls sound the best? After spending the past year with about 15 different pairs on dozens of flights, I settled on some favorites.

First up: the high-end Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones ($300, bose.com). With clear, defined midrange and bass, these over-the-ear beauties sound every bit as good as most standard headphones do — a claim that can’t be made about all noise-canceling models, which often end up overcompensating and muffling the overall sound. The QC 15 is noticeably better at eliminating outside noise while preserving interior sound quality, no matter how hushed the dialogue or music might be. The cushioning around the earcups is substantial, which must have a lot to do with it.

The only other active noise-canceling product that can hold a candle to the Bose QC 15 is the Able Planet Clear Harmony ($350, ableplanet.com). These cans are slightly bulkier than Bose’s, but I found their bass packed even more of a distortion-free punch. I just wish they looked nicer.

Looks aren’t a problem with the Beats Studio headphones ($350, beatsbydre.com), which have a sleek one-piece design, a glossy, scratch-resistant finish and a bunch of hues to choose from. The noise canceling turned out to be less across-the-board precise than that of the Bose and Able Planet models, but the bass and midrange came through loud and clear.

If you’re keen on a lower profile — as well as a lower price and a lighter load — your best bet is a pair of earbuds. I found the V-Moda Vibrato ($130, v-moda.com) to be competitive with the battery-powered noise-canceling models in terms of keeping out noise. Isolation aside, the bigger the rubber earpieces are, the bassier and boomier the sound, and few earbuds deliver low-range oomph better than the Vibratos. Given that they’re playing directly inside your ear canal, the sound does tend to be dense, with none of the subtle separation offered by over-the-ear headphones, but if you don’t mind sticking things in your ears (and not sharing your headphones), these more than do the trick. Another plus: The Kevlar-reinforced cords are tough to tangle.

Slightly more refined, the Klipsch Image X10i earbuds ($350, klipsch.com) may dial back the bass a tad, but they deliver more clarity in the midrange — making them my go-to earbuds for classical music, jazz and acoustic tunes.

So, which kind should you bring on your next trip? The truth is, passive noise-isolating models are pretty good at what they do, and the amount of space they take up in your luggage is a fraction of what the noise-canceling headphones use. But pretty good isn’t the same as stellar. The verdict? Bring both.

Hemispheres tech writer TOM SAMILJAN would like to know where he can get his Sony Walkman Professional fixed.

A century of headphones

Nathaniel Baldwin builds the world’s first pair of modern headphones, which purportedly contain a mile’s worth of copper wire to transmit sound.

Jazz musician John C. Koss creates stereo headphones.

The Sony Walkman makes its debut with a pair of lightweight over-the-ear headphones, which quickly become the standard in portable headphones in the ’80s.

Bose unveils the Aviation Headset, the first pair of consumer-ready active noise reduction headphones.

The inaugural Bluetooth headset is released.

Audio Bone releases the first wireless bone-conduction headphones, which transmit sound through the bones next to the ear canal.

October 2011
Jabra introduces a Bluetooth mono headset with active noise-canceling technology.

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