Update: This review was originally written in 2013 and I still stand by every word in 2021! While I do use Apple AirPods much of the time, I still rely on these for flights and any other long-haul trip.
I had always thought noise-canceling headphones were for rich people who couldn’t stand the sound of coach from their first class seats. I considered them an unnecessary luxury and a manifestation of our consumer culture.
And then I tried some.
BJ let me try his on our first flight to India together and I was sold. They were the sort that fits over the ears, and the amount of airplane engine drone they cut out was remarkable. It made for a generally more pleasant experience and I enjoyed them, but I still thought they were ultimately unnecessary, particularly due to their size.
As we were exploring gear for our long-term travels abroad, I started researching noise-canceling earbuds. None of the ones I found had exceptional reviews and I figured buying one would be a crapshoot, so I didn’t want to aim for the most expensive. I found one that had the most positive (least negative?) reviews out of the lot and bought them from Amazon.
Why wear noise-canceling headphones?
Here’s where I admit my ignorance. I didn’t realize the huge benefit of wearing noise-canceling headphones is so that you don’t have to crank up whatever you’re listening to in order to drown out the ambient noise. Duh! Maybe they’re not such an unnecessary luxury after all! Instead of turning the volume all the way up and damaging your ears, you can have the volume at a much more reasonable level when the noise canceling function is switched on.
Active vs Passive noise canceling
There are many options when it comes to noise-canceling headphones (who knew?) The first is active vs. passive. Passive basically means that by virtue of having something jammed in your ear, it’s canceling noise. Yes, yes, it can get more complex, but not this on this it’s not! Active noise canceling means there is some kind of electronic voodoo at work to bring you peace; in actuality, the unit is producing soundwaves in an exact opposite pattern as the ambient noise in order to negate it. “Destructive interference,” they call it—how cool is that?!
Actual headphones have the benefit of being more comfortable and adding another layer of sound-busting insulation; however, they’re also gigantor! Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint noise-canceling earbuds are tiny and amazing. They retail for about ~$30 USD these days and I think they are worth every penny. They take one AAA battery, so don’t forget to pop that bad boy in!
Not only did I use them on the seemingly endless flight to India this last go ‘round, but I’ve been using them on our long haul drives. We’ve spent almost 30 hours in a small car over the past few days, surrounded by India’s noisy vehicles, horns honking, and general city sounds. When I turn on the noise canceling function of these headphones (as you can also use them without), I can turn down the volume a great deal and hear my music perfectly. You can even use them without music, just turn on the noise canceling function and enjoy a less hectic environment.
A huge factor for me was comfort, as well; earbuds usually hurt my ears almost immediately (and for a long time thereafter). I am using the hard foam covers that come with these (they come with a selection of actual earpieces) and not only do they fit perfectly, but they are virtually painless, even after hours. I still can’t believe it.
I’ve never really been a headphone person, preferring to take in the sounds of my surroundings. However, there are some times when you prefer to escape for a bit; for those times, these are the perfect choice.
UPDATE: Over three years after publishing this review, it’s still as true as ever. I LOVE these headphones, particularly with the harder foam earpieces. They are magic!