If you're interested in noise-cancelling headphones, you're probably looking for refuge from the roar of jet engines or the murmurs from the water cooler. Good ones should make you deaf to the world around you. Like earplugs only better -- because you're listening to your favourite music in a completely oblivious trance.
We tested seven pairs of top active noise-cancelling headphones that cost around $300-$500; that's the going rate for a quality pair, and anything cheaper will be garbage. (We await your thoughtful response in the comments section.) We were looking for the cans that best eliminated exterior noise without sacrificing the sound within. Beyond isolation and sound quality we were interested in practical considerations like comfort, build quality and portability -- these are, after all, the headphones of choice in airport lounges and during long-haul flights.
Active noise-cancelling headphones pose a complicated technical problem. They use built-in, battery-powered electronics to block out the noise of the outside world by measuring the ambient noise with microphones and producing "antinoise" sound waves that cancel out the offending drone. When you switch them on, you immediately hear the slight hiss of sound destroying circuitry; when you put them on, you immediately feel the weight of batteries and wires. They've got to be done just right, because if the noise-cancelling signal is just a little bit off, it'll damage the good sound waves you are trying to hear.
We listened to 320kbps MP3 and AAC files in our top-secret laboratory to test sound quality. Then, we took the cans out on the train to see how well they dispensed with the din of rattling steel. To test intermediate noise, we put the cans up against the brain-scraping screech-whirr of a cheap air conditioner -- an excellent simulation of a noise aeroplane cabin. With one exception the batteries survived four hours of music and eight hours with the noise-cancellation turned on but no music playing. Overall, we were very impressed at how good the headphones sounded.
Honourable Mention: Monster Inspiration
Like all Monster headphones, the Inspirations sport a unique design that some people will find appealing and others will find atrocious. At about 340g, they're among the heaviest cans we tested, and to make matters worse, they don't sit securely on your head. Again, they're by Monster, so there's maybe too much bass. But overall the Inspirations sound pretty good. Noise cancelling was passable.
Honourable Mention: Sennheiser PXC-450
The design of PXC-450s mimics Bose's semi-iconic, boring, silver design. When testing battery life, the Sennheisers crapped out after just four hours of play time and four hours on without music -- a lot less than any of the others we tested. The noise-cancelling electronics inside the ear cups jut out and scrape against your ears unless they're positioned just right against your head. We usually love Sennheiser products, but these were a disappointment.
Honourable Mention: Polk UltraFocus 8000
Polk is a legendary loudspeaker company, and this is its first foray into over-ear headphones. So maybe you can forgive the engineers for making a few mistakes. The good news is that the UltraFocus 8000s sound beautiful. They're clear and balanced across tonal frequencies. The downside is that the build quality is clunky -- like the 8000s are still a prototype. And at nearly half a kilo, they're much heavier than our favourites.
4th Place: Bose QuietComfort 15
Bose's noise-cancelling headphones are incredibly popular for a good reason, and these cans were the most comfortable ones we tested. They feel practically weightless on your head, and do a great job of blocking out stray sounds. We desperately wanted to hate them for their sterile, yuppie-chic style, but we couldn't. In addition to being comfortable, they just sound too good: great detail, but they're also punchy and bright. They're bass-heavy though; if you're listening to a track with a real beat or baseline, it'll overpower the rest of the music.
Bose QuietComfort 15 • Weight: 193g • Battery: 1x AAA • Price: $400-$450 in Australia
3rd Place: AKG K 495 NC
These AKGs are unique in this Battlemodo. They're the only on-ear cans we tested -- rather than fitting over your ears, the pads sit directly on them. They're also the loudest headphones we tested by a long shot. We reviewed their non noise-cancelling cousins a few months ago and dubbed them the ideal city cans because of their relatively lightweight, comfy leather earpads, tough build and awesome sound. Well, the K 495 NCs also sound spectacular: clear and detailed. Unfortunately, that audio prowess seems to come at the cost of noise-cancelling skills. The 495 NCs don't scotch the din as well as the others we tested. On the bright side, they work with the noise-cancelling turned off, which is uncommon. Switching it on gives the bass a noticeable boost but doesn't isolate you completely. Still these are great, and we recommend them -- unless you're looking for something to take on the plane week after week.
AKG K 495 NC • Weight: 235g • Battery: built-in rechargeable, charges with included USB cable • Price: $449 RRP in Australia
2nd Place: Sony MDR-NC500
Like the Bose headphones, these Sony cans are so light and well-designed that you'll barely feel them sitting on your head. But we much prefer the even, balanced sound of the NC500s over the bounce of the Boses. The Sonys capture a lot of subtle details like the texture of instrumentation and tiny dynamic differences. They have an "intelligent" noise-cancelling system that listens to the noise around you and automatically chooses the best of three noise-cancelling modes for your current situation. Except pushing the button to activate the automatic setting didn't appear to make a noticeable difference. By the AC and in the office, the noise-cancelling did the job, but the noise-cancellation was no match for the noise of an approaching train. In other words, they did acceptably well but got their arses handed to them by our Battemodo winner.
Sony MDR-NC500 • Weight: 176g • Battery: built-in rechargeable, charges with included DC cable • Price: $599 RRP in Australia
Bestmodo! Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9
There's a lot to love about the ATH-ANC9s. They headphones don't quite fit all the way over your ears like some of the others in the Battemodo, which might lead you to think that they'd put uncomfortable pressure on your head or that the noise-cancellation would be lacking. Not the case. The plush leather pads on the earcups are so soft that they don't put much of a pinch on your head. On the inside, the cans have a great, slightly bottom heavy sound that doesn't blow up the clarity or detail on other frequencies. Thanks to these cans we even discovered a new overdubbed guitar track on a Smashing Pumpkins song we've listened to probably 20,000 times. That's the kind of experience you expect when listening to fancy audiophile headphones.
As for the sound of silence, the ANC 9s have three different levels of noise-cancelling like the Sonys do -- the only difference is that it, in this case, it really works. In fact, when riding home with the ANC9s on one night, the silence was so peaceful that we nodded off and missed our stop. Eternal slumber aboard a horrible, lumbering machine. That's what we were after all along.
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 • Weight: 221g • Battery: 1x AAA • Price: $350 RRP in Australia