NOISE CANCELING HEADPHONES

I had my first experience with noise canceling headphones on airplanes and was impressed by how effectively they cut down the effects of jet lag and made the flights more pleasant.

This isn’t news – the technology has been around for years – and frequent travellers pull them out routinely. Last month David Pogue, a marvelous technology columnist for the New York Times, wrote an article about several new models and apparently raised their profile; most outlets immediately sold out of the two that he praised, and Amazon immediately raised its price on those models by sixty bucks each.

Noise canceling headphones have a little microphone that listens to surrounding noise, then generates a signal that is 180 degrees out of phase. The roar of the airplane’s engines is subtracted from the sounds reaching your ears – not completely, but enough to make a large difference. They’re particularly effective on continuous low-frequency hums – airplane noise is the obvious example, but they can also help block noise from lawnmowers, air conditioners, office equipment, and the like.

Bose has made the QC-2 and QC-3 models for several years, which are generally agreed to be the most effective and comfortable – but at $300-$350, they should be the best. Pogue’s column praises headphones from Panasonic and Audio-Technica, but those were hard to find after his column appeared. I found a pair of well-reviewed Sony MDR-NC60 headphones at Circuit City and felt like they significantly improved our flights and our ability to sleep onboard and recover from jet lag. It’s daunting to drop two hundred bucks on a pair of headphones but we’ll never fly without these again.

Read some reviews before you shop, and make sure you know the difference between “on-ear” headphones that rest on top of the ear and “over-ear” models that surround the ear – you might have a strong opinion about which type is more comfortable.