Noise-canceling headphones are great for planes and trains because they are good at blocking out the drone of engines and the general background noise of public places. Some users even report improved sleep with them during plane travel.
Full-size noise-canceling headphones primarily use an active (electronic) technology to eliminate ambient noise. To do this, most noise-canceling headsets require extra batteries, and some cannot function at all without batteries. Others have a switch, allowing listeners to turn the noise-canceling function on or off and still use the headphones when the batteries die. Closed over-the-ear headphones, unlike open models, are also effective at passive noise canceling -- they physically block sound waves. In-ear earphones, covered in our earphones report, can also passively block out sound.
Bose was one of the pioneers in active noise-canceling technology, and most reviewers agree that the Bose QuietComfort 15 (*Est. $300) and QuietComfort 3 set the standard in blocking out low-pitched noise like jet-engine drone, though they're less successful with shrill sounds such as screaming children or the squeal of train tracks. According to Jeremy Horwitz of iLounge.com, "Bose [has a] tradition of intentionally skewing warm and soft rather than delivering neutral or especially clear audio." Since these Bose noise-canceling headphones target frequent travelers who are looking for relaxation rather than audio nirvana, this may make some sense. Bose itself does not release the audio technical specifications for its headphones, including the frequency ranges, saying they're meaningless for comparison.
The Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones are an update of Bose's earlier, acclaimed QuietComfort 2 headphones. The QuietComfort 15 (sometimes referred to as the Bose QC 15) keeps the look of previous Bose models, but boasts improved circuitry, interior and exterior microphones and better padding to block and cancel out as much unwanted sound as possible. "Who knows whether it's the extra mic or the ear cups' seal passively reducing noise that's the real game-changer here, but the results are undeniable," writes PCMag.com's Tim Gideon. "Not only is the overall ambient rumble of a train or an airplane engine significantly decreased, but there's no audible high-frequency hiss, like you'll get with some other noise-canceling headphone pairs."
However, reviewers concur that this exceptional noise cancellation comes at a slight cost, as the QuietComfort 15's high frequencies may sound distorted to the ears of audiophiles. Although the headphones won't function at all without power from one AAA battery, critics add that passive sound blocking is very good, and the cable can detach for that use. A carrying case and airplane adapter are included, too.
Some reviewers compare the QuietComfort 15 with the QuietComfort 3. All find passive noise cancellation better on the QuietComfort 15 headphones, which have a closed-back style versus the QuietComfort 3's open-air design.
The QuietComfort 3 (also called the Bose QC 3) headphones are smaller and lighter, though, which is a big plus for travel, and come with rechargeable batteries and a charger, helping to offset the rather high cost. One review finds that the QuietComfort 3 headphones can block 19.5 decibels, well above the non-Bose competition (and about the level of rustling leaves). Sound quality is similar in both models, though most reviewers agree that bass is stronger on the QuietComfort 3. Both headphones are comfortable but expensive.
Creative's Aurvana X-Fi (*Est. $200) is a viable alternative, reviewers say. Tim Gideon at PCMag.com finds that these large headphones aren't as comfortable as Bose's noise-canceling headphones, but he likes their better-defined sound and more powerful output. He picks the Bose QuietComfort 15 as his selection for best current noise-canceling headphones. Several reviewers prefer the sound fidelity of the Aurvana X-Fi over that of the Bose headphones. Some users at Amazon.com and elsewhere agree, but a significant proportion report that the cheap-feeling X-Fi headphones can break, and that they are unsatisfied with Creative's customer support.
Sony's noise-canceling headphones get some good, though not wholehearted, recommendations. According to Jasmine France at CNET, Sony's MDR-NC500D (*Est. $265) headphones have very good active noise cancellation, as well as useful extras like a battery pack, hard-shell carrying case and swappable standard audio cables of different lengths. However, France notes that the fit is not ideal and that the sound quality is a bit lacking; she finds the bass "mushy" or not well defined. The MDR-NC500D headphones are first-to-market for digital noise-cancelation technology, but reviews of its success are mixed. The Sony MDR-NC500Ds cannot be used without activating noise cancellation. Users at Amazon.com are divided on the MDR-NC500D: some swear by these Sony headphones, while others insist that Bose's are superior.
A more stylish noise-canceling option are Monster Beats by Dr. Dre (*Est. $280) . Tim Gideon at PCMag.com is pleasantly surprised that despite the celebrity endorsement and high price, these headphones look good and have "intense low end," sure to please lovers of bass-heavy music. Justin Yu at CNET suggests they're a worthy investment for better sound from a noise-canceling headphone set. Both CNET and What Hi-Fi? also notice that they leak sound, however.