How to buy noise cancelling headphones

Hate engine and cabin noise? Designed for pilots, these clever noise cancelling cans are quietly moving down the aisles

Bose QuietComfort_15We’re all familiar with the din at 40,000ft, but did you know that the noise levels in aircraft cabins regularly reaches 80 decibels?

No wonder you can’t sleep. However, help is at hand from a new breed of noise-cancelling headphones – and now, more compact earphones – that are proving perfect for shutting out engine and cabin noise on short-haul and long-haul flights.

Great for work, movies … or sleeping

Once the reserve of pilots and those in First Class, noise cancelling headphones are quickly and quietly moving down the aisles to help out all passengers. Sales of headphones have rocketed in recent years, but there’s a lot of confusion.

Noise isolating vs noise cancelling

Don’t confuse the two; the former is a meaningless marketing term designed to sell second-rate headphones, while the latter is a description of some awesome travel technology. Noise-cancelling headphones work like this: microphones embedded in them measure the ambient noise levels in the cabin before creating a kind of antidote in the form of sound waves that cancel-out the low frequencies. The end result borders on silence – it’s clever stuff.

On the other hand, noise isolating headphones are usually much smaller earphones that tend to use ear inserts that resemble ear-plugs of the kind you might wear to a motor race. They’re nowhere near as effective at creating a barrier around your ears – and their low prices reflect that.

Disadvantages of noise-cancelling headphones

There are downsides. The first is bulk; noise cancelling headphones almost always have a headband and relatively large ear-cups to create a vacuum. They also all use batteries – often embedded in one of those ear-cups or in a compartment on the cable – to create the anti-noise sound waves, and therefore have an on/off switch. This is why you’ll often hear them referred to as Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) headphones.

Unfortunately, many don’t have a Passive mode, so unless you have charged batteries (usually AA or AAA-sized) it’s not possible to use them to listen to anything at all. They don;t tell you that on the packaging.

It’s therefore advisable to travel with a spare pack of batteries, though some newer models are rechargeable over microUSB, so can be attached to a laptop for a quick charge-up.

Better still, only buy noise cancelling headphones that have both an Active and Passive mode.

Are noise-cancelling headphones getting smaller?

Bose QC20iYes they are. Until 2014 they were all big and bulky, but the launch of the Bose QuietComfort QC20/QC20i compact noise-cancelling earphones changes everything – if you can afford them. In the long run it should make noise cancelling headphones predominantly in-ear, so much smaller and more attractive those who like to travel light.

What else do I get with noise-cancelling headphones?

Most come with a travel pouch or bag, while all have a two-prong airline seat adaptor (and often a 6.35mm jack plug adaptor as well). Some models are specific to the iPhone or Android devices and have dedicated in-line volume controls on the cable.

Some also have a ‘pause’ or ‘comfort’ button that can be depressed to temporarily switch-off the noise cancelling trickery while you speak to a passenger or steward.