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Air travel is OK, provided you're going on holiday with someone. Conversation does a lot to alleviate the boredom.
Travelling on your own is not quite the same, especially on a long-haul flight. There's usually work to be done and a bit of sleep to catch up on. Some of which requires concentration, all of which would benefit from a quieter environment.
So it was a reasonably smart move by the folks at Bose to give some of their excellent Noise Cancelling headphones out for a trial on a flight I took back in July. The headphones, with their active technology, significantly reduced the level of noise during the flight and made working, sleeping etc that bit easier. So impressed was I that a resolution was set to own a pair of these things before my next flight.
A week or two later, on discovering that mid-flight quiet from Bose would set me back the best (or worst!) part of £300, I started shopping around for other options. To my relief I found there to be a range of solutions covering the majority of price points and form factors, from £30 ear-buds all the way up to the £300 1960s recording studio look of the Bose.
I've never been a fan of ear-bud type headphones and, while they are wonderfully compact and ideal for travelluing, I did winder how a company could charge 1/10th of their competition. So I skipped over these. Next on the list was the PXC250s from Sennheiser. Weighing in at a moderate £90 they were comfortably priced; not too cheap, not too expensive. A quick scan of some e-pinion sites revealed that they were generally well regarded so I ordered a pair.
Turning up in a blister pack, the initial signs were promising. A neat folding design shrinks them down to barely bigger than a pair of spectacles, and coming with a carry case and a couple of adapters to make sure they fit all airline headphone sckets, they are perfect for travelling. Unfolding them reveals a pair of headphones that are very similar in design to the traditional, head-band type walkman headphones of old. A 1cm wide band of metal & plastic, complete with luxurious padding to ensure a snug, comfortable fit across the top of your head, has hinges halfway down each side. Below the hinges are the usual extendable parts that allow you to adjust the headphones to fit and they are quite generous in this respect, it would be a big head indeed that these wouldn't fit. The ear-cups are mounted on ball & socket joints, again to allow them to fold down as small as possible and it is these that are my first worry. The ball is only plastic and given the folding/unfolding action I am a little worried about it's durability although how long it actually lasts remains to be seen. The ear-cups themselves are of a decent size and , while they don't enclose the ear they do have a generous amount of padding that creates a good "seal" and helps keep out unwanted noise.
The cables run from each ear of the headphones for about a metre and finally converge on the "control wand". This slimline piece of gadgetry is the bit that contains the fancy noise-cancelling electronics and the 2 AAA batteries that power the headphones. About as long as a biro and as thick as your thumb, it's not particularly cumbersome. Again I have some concerns over durability as the catch on the battery compartment isn't the sturdiest but time will tell. The only other features on the control unit are the power button, power LED and a belt-clip. The belt-clip can rotate to pretty much any angle and can accomodate some fairly chunky belts,which is a good thing because with two batteries installed the control unit has a bit of weight. The power button is ergonomically positioned and the LED bright enough to notice. It's worth pointing out that you don't HAVE to have the power on to use the headphones but it does make a BIG difference. As well as the metre of cable from the control unit to the heaphones there's a second metre of cable from the control unit to the plug, which gives a reasonable degree of freedom, certainly more than enough for an airplane seat!
So that's how they look, how do they perform?
Listening to music without the power turned on give a fairly flat and lifeless sound. It's passable but not exactly pleasing. Turn on the NoiseGard technology though and everything changes. There are tiny microphones built in to each ear of the headphones. These pick up ambient noise and feed it back to the control unit where some gadgetry works out the "opposite" noise and sends a signal to the headphones that effectively cancels out the ambient noise picked up by the microphones. Even without music playing through the headphones, this noise reduction is quite amazing. I've tried them in computer data-centres, on planes and trains (but not when driving my car!). In all cases there was a significant reduction in the low, rumbling components of the background noise and that was without music playing! Plug the headphones into a sound source and be amazed at the level of detail you can make out compared to headphones without the noise reduction. The real benefit is in being able to listen to music at a much lower volume, meaning you're less likely to be setting yourself up for deafness at a later age. It's worth pointing out at this stage that the NoiseGard technology only cancels low-frequency sounds, up to about 1000Hz. On a long-haul flight, it means that you can still hear the cabin crew talking to you, so no more "Huh?" as they ask you if you want another drink and end up having to repeat themselves. It's also the lower-frequency sounds that make up most of the volume in travelling, so the NoiseGard does a great job of reducing the ambient noise by around 10db (according to the manual). I can only say that it does a great job of turning down the dull rumble of the cabin mid flight.
In comparison to the Bose headphones that offer similar benefits, the Sennheisers are much smaller and significantly cheaper. They don't offer quite the same level of noise reduction, probably due to the fact that they don't enclose the ear like the Bose. The overall effect remains the same though, music & films can be listened to in relative peace & quiet (and at much lower volume) on a long flight, I even found them better than ear-plugs when trying to get to sleep. So all things considered, an excellent purchase for someone that travels a lot, and of particular benefit to frequent long-haul flyers.