A Review of Five of the Best Noise Cancelling Headphones: Sennheiser PXC 450, Bose QuietComfort 15, Sony MDR-NC500D, Monster Beats by Dr. Dre, and Denon AH-NC732K.

“A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence. We provide the music, and you provide the silence.” – Leopold Stokowski

“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation…tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego. His anxiety subsides. His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.” – Jean Arp

The headphones themselves seem a bit too humble to boast, so we tend to overlook their almost magical ability to deliver on a paradox: to give you both sound and silence. Headphones are both a sanctuary where we draw close to the sacred music of our soul, and refuge away from the chaotic din of modern life.

Traditional sealed headphones have long been delivering on this promise, and have gotten better and better at delivering great sound over the last few decades, but they haven’t really gotten much better at delivering great silence. Noise cancelling headphones attempt to remedy that, and largely succeed … largely, but not completely.

Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself here, let’s start at the beginning …

Providing Silence with Headphones

There are two types of traditional full size headphones: open and closed. Closed headphones are basically a sealed cup around your ears that tries to block out external noise. Open headphones don’t have a sealed enclosure, and the sound from the rear of the driver can radiate out into open space.  Generally, open headphones sound better because the designers don’t have to deal with the resonances of a sealed enclosure.Over the last 5 years or so, we’ve seen manufacturers produce much better sounding sealed headphones, and you can now get very good sound while shutting out some outside noise.
Noise reduction data for and open (AKG K701), closed (Sennheiser HD 280 Pro), noise cancelling (Bose QC15), and in-ear (Etymotic ER4P) headphones.

Noise reduction data for and open (AKG K701), closed (Sennheiser HD 280 Pro), noise cancelling (Bose QC15), and in-ear (Etymotic ER4P) headphones.

Unfortunately, while sealed headphones do a pretty good job of getting rid of higher frequency outside noise, they are virtually transparent to low frequencies. (<~200Hz). Noise cancelling headphones are specifically designed to get rid of this lower frequency noise.The graph on the right shows how much reduction in outside noise is achieved by four different headphone types. The open headphones (AKG K701 in this case) provides no reduction in noise at all below 1 kHz. The sealed headphones (Sennheiser HD280 Pro) start to provide some isolation at around 200Hz, and provide about 25dB of isolation above 1kHz. The noise cancelling headphones (Bose QuietComfort 15) are 15dB down almost immediately at the low end, and average about 20dB down over 100Hz. The best isolation of all headphone types are the deep fitting in-ear headphones (Etymotic ER4P) which completely block the ear canal. In this case almost all noise reaching your ears is coming through bone conduction and other secondary acoustic pathways.
How Noise Cancelling Headphones Work

Noise cancelling headphones product an equal and opposite acoustic signal to cancel outside noise.

Noise cancelling headphones product an equal and opposite acoustic signal to cancel outside noise.

Inside each earpiece of noise cancelling headphones is a small microphone (or two) that listens to the noise outside the headphones. The signal from this mic is sent to a signal processing circuit to produce essentially an inverted signal, which is then mixed with the incoming music, amplified, and sent to the headphone driver. Once the sound is emitted from the driver the noise cancelling part of the sound mixes with the outside noise entering the headphones and, because they are equal and opposite, both dissapear in a silent “poof” of destructive interference. The only remaining audio is the music.

This technology has come a long way in the last two decades since it was initially developed for headphones by Dr. Bose. In early versions the “signal processing” function was a simple analog circuit that merely filtered and inverted the input from the microphone.  Currently, the best noise cancelling headphones use sophisticated digital signal processing techniques to achieve noise reduction and work amazingly well.

Okay, ‘nuf of that, let’s get on with the testing —->

2 Responses to A Review of Five of the Best Noise Cancelling Headphones: Sennheiser PXC 450, Bose QuietComfort 15, Sony MDR-NC500D, Monster Beats by Dr. Dre, and Denon AH-NC732K.

  1. Rich July 6, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    Wow, great information. It really shows that the best noise cancelling headphones can vary depending on the manufacturer selected. Thanks for your post

  2. James Nabors December 22, 2011 at 3:57 am #

    noise canceling aren’t needed by the huge majority of people and actually diminishes sound quality http://audioproheadphones.blogspot.com/

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