Active Noise Reduction (ANR) Headphones: You Get What You Pay For


In May, I wrote briefly about active noise reduction, ANR headphones. I've used an expensive ($500) aircraft quality ANR headset in my private plane for many years and love them. I've owned a pair of inexpensive Aiwa headphones for several years but found them to be uncomfortable on long commercial flights. So, over the past few weeks, I've conducted a "good, better, best" test of noise reduction headphones to find a pair that I can use on commercial flights in comfort.

Active noise reduction is a technology that employes small microphones and digital signal processing (DSP) technology to cancel out ambient noise. The microphone samples the ambient noise and the DSP chip creates a a sound wave 180 degrees out of phase from the outside sounds. When this sound is played through the headphones it cancels out sounds in low frequency ranges. Noise reduction doesn't cancel out all noises, just low droning ones. So don't buy these thinking you'll be able to work while the kids run around outside your office screaming. You'll still hear them just fine.

Nevertheless, these headsets are perfect for flying. I find that I can play my music or the airpline movie dialogue at a level sufficiently low that I can't hear it when I turn off the active noise reduction. Flying with noise reduction headphones creates a quieter environment that makes flying less stressful.

A short disclaimer: The only time I use headphones is on airplanes. Consequently, noise reduction and comfort are my two big criteria. If you want great sound quality and use your headphones in environments where noise reduction won't make much difference, you can probably find great sounding, even better sounding, headphones for a cheaper price. What you're paying for with these headphones is the noise reduction.

The three headphones I reviewed are shown in the following table:

Manufacturer Model No. Street Price Style Rating
Aiwa HP-CN6 $59 open air Good
Sony MDR-NC20 $179 closed air Better
Bose QuietComfort 2 $279 closed air Best

I used each of these headphones in real-life conditions: each was used exclusively on the outbound and inbound legs of flights between Salt Lake City and cities on the East Coast (about 4.5 hours each way).

Aiwa HP-CN6

As I mentioned, I've owned the Aiwa headphones for several years and have used them on many flights, short and long. The active noise reduction feature of the Aiwa headphones works very well. Turning them on brings an amazing cessation of the low drone of the plane. These headphones are "open air" style, meaning that the headphone piece sits on the ear rather than surrounding it. They come with a carrying bag and an adapter for two-prong airline headphone jacks. These headphones fold for stowing. I have found that the Aiwa headphones are uncomfortable on trips longer than about an hour (which is almost every trip out of Salt Lake). The headphones press against your ears and the headband is unpadded and uncomfortable on the top of the head after a time.


Sony MDR-NC20

I used the Sony headphones on a trip from Salt Lake City to Savannah, GA and back. The Sony headphones are closed air construction (over the ear). The noise reduction feature worked as well as the Aiwa and the sound response was better due to larger, more expensive speakers. Even so, I found the Sony headphones to be uncomfortable after just a few hours. The ear pockets are not deep enough to let your ears remain in their natural position and the headband is not padded. Consequently after a few hours, my ears felt pinched and the top of my head hurt. The Sony headphones fold for stowing and come with a carrying bag and two-pronged airline headphone adapter.


Bose QuietComfort 2

The Bose headphones were the most expensive of the lot, but also the most comfortable and the best sounding headphones. The headphones are constructed to repress noise even when the active noise reduction circuitry is not turned on. They have deep ear pockets and a padded headband. I used them on a 4.5 hour flight to and from Boston and was able to wear them in comfort the entire trip. The sound response from the speakers was excellent. Even though these headphones have the largest earpieces of any in the test, they folded to be the most compact for stowing. The Bose headphones, unlike the other two, do not work as headphones in passive mode (i.e. with the noise reduction turned off), so they're worthless without a battery. They come with a nice zippered carrying case, a two-pronged airline adapter, and a quarter inch headphone adapter for use with a home stereo.

Conclusions

The results of this review aren't too surprising. The Bose headphones cost $220 more than the Aiwa and $100 more than the Sony but have clearly superior performance in comfort and sound quality. All of these headphones deliver good noise reduction, so I think the real loser here are Sony headphones. Their comfort and performance are not sufficiently superior to the Aiwa's to justify a cost differential of $110. My suggestion: buy the Aiwa's and try them. If they aren't too uncomfortable for you, they're an excellent value and you'll get noise reduction at a bargain price. If you can afford it, treat yourself to the Bose headphones. Bose has a reputation for delivering high quality and these headphones are no exception. I plan on keeping my pair.