ROAD TEST: NOISE-CANCELING HEADPHONES
Giving Your Trip the Silent Treatment
Is the world really getting louder, or is it just us? With the holiday gift-giving season approaching, we decided to test some noise-canceling headphones to determine whether we could get the peace we crave on the road. After asking experts for their favorites, we winnowed the list to three of the top-rated (and most expensive) models. These are the headphones you reach for if cutting down engine roar and the hollering of other people's children is worth a premium. We used them on planes, subways and trains. Since many travelers are tuning in to music or audio downloads as they get around town or spend time in hotel rooms, we also checked out how they work with MP3s. Here's what we found. -- Gary Lee
Bose QuietComfort 3 (800-999-2673, www.bose.com)
WHAT IT IS: These sleek headphones are the latest design from the best-known producer of noise-cancellation devices. With this model, the company's technicians have streamlined and added new features. While the QuietComfort 2 is bigger and fits over the ear, this version goes right on the ear. With special cushions and enhanced technology, they're a smaller and easier product to use. A charger eliminates the need for batteries; jacks allow easy hookup to iPods and other MP3s, cellphones that play music and other tech toys.
WHAT IT COSTS:$349.
PROS: Excellent at blocking plane engine roars and quite good at cutting back baby screams and other crowd noises. Smaller, lighter and less bulky than the competition. Less background hiss than in most other models. With 20 hours of juice, the battery can last for multiple flights without a recharge.
CONS: While the sound quality for music and cinema audio was good for this novice listener, some music aficionados say it could be better.
BOTTOM LINE: Tough to beat for reducing in-air noise. More compact, less cumbersome than other models. Tops for comfort. Fine to use for audio and video, but serious music buffs can probably get sharper sound with another model. For $299, the QuietComfort 2 is just as good at reducing noise and delivering audio.
Sennheiser PXC 450 (860-434-9190, www.sennheiserusa.com)
WHAT IT IS: The most recent in a wide and impressive range of products from Germany's Sennheiser, a well-known producer of high-quality audio devices.
WHAT IT COSTS:$450.
PROS: Great at cutting in-air noises to a bare minimum. Excellent sound quality. Equipped with a special button that allows you to stop the music and chat without having to take it off. Easy-to-use volume controls are right on the earpiece. The case is big enough to fit an iPod, various jacks and extra batteries.
CONS: The priciest of the three models tested. Bulky size makes it more clunky and not as comfy as the other two. The look is less streamlined and trendy than other models.
BOTTOM LINE: A match with the competition for reducing engine roar and other noise, though the size can get cumbersome on a packed plane. But for serious music buffs, the sharper sound makes the added price worthwhile. (Hot tip: The Sennheiser PXC 300, an earlier model, delivers very good sound quality and adequate noise reduction for $219.95. While not the latest, it's a better buy.)
Clear Harmony (303-215-9770, www.ableplanet.com)
WHAT IT IS: While lesser-known than the other two, this headphone compared well. It has a handsome design, including comfortable over-the-ear cups and an adjustable cushioned headband. Manufacturer Able Planet is a leader in making devices to assist the hearing-challenged, and it equipped this product with Linx Audio. This technology makes the headphone useful for travelers with varying degrees of hearing impairments as well as those with no hearing loss.
WHAT IT COSTS:$349.99.
PROS: Performed quite well at reducing ambient noise levels. Excellent at delivering sharp audio, even at low volumes, thanks to the Linx Audio technology. A handy knob on the cord makes volume control easy.
CONS: The leatherlike ear covers and headband, while helpful at reducing noise, can sometimes produce sweat, particularly on long flights.
BOTTOM LINE: It performs almost as well as Bose at reducing noise and about the same at delivering sound quality. The technology makes it possible to get clear, sharp audio without raising the volume, and the clear voice levels are ideal for listening to language tapes, podcasts and downloadable walking tours. The design is sleek but slightly bulkier than the Bose model.
CONCLUSION: Since no one headphone set suits all travelers, shopping around helps. For serious music aficionados with deep pockets, the Sennheiser PXC 450 is probably best. For casual listeners who mostly want a peaceful trip, Bose and Clear Harmony are both viable.