April 13, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

“Mr. Beaver, I recall an article you wrote some years ago about the popular active noise-cancelling headphones sold by Bose, Sony and others. You were critical, and it seemed of the opinion that many of their ads were close to being false advertising. In researching this topic online, I’ve found a number of stories which also cast doubt about the wisdom of spending hundreds of dollars for these headphones.

“But today, are there any noise-reducing headphones which you can recommend? Six members of our family are planning a really big trip overseas to several European cities. If we can get something that you feel works, and is good value, that’s just fine by us! Thanks. Bertie, Hanford, California.”

We’ve all seen ads which picture a smiling airline passenger, wearing brand X active noise-cancelling headphones. Just put them on, and you are led to believe that silence will result, allowing you to listen to music, undisturbed by the roar of a jet engine, train, subway, passengers talking and children crying.

But there is just one teensy, weensy problem with that picture. It isn’t true, no way near with any consumer active noise-cancelling headset available on the market which we have been able to find.

If you want real quiet, industrial earmuff or earplug-type hearing protection does exist which takes that airplane environment — engines, people, kids and all — and the wearer will hear what would amount to little more than a whisper and does it without batteries.

Now, before we give you brand information, a little theory is important to understand, and Dr. Theresa Y. Schulz, Ph.D., Lt. Col. USAF (retired), hearing conservation manager for Honeywell Safety Products/Howard Leight Hearing Protection, gave us this brief explanation:

Active versus passive noise reduction

“There are two ways to reduce sound in general and protect your hearing:

• We can muffle or block it out with high-quality earplugs or specially designed earmuffs which are effective across most of the frequencies of sounds that we hear, from low to high. The figures we use to describe such noise reduction would have a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 25-30 decibels, lowering the din of an aircraft cabin to that of a quiet conversation. That is called passive noise reduction.

• Active noise cancellation refers to headphones which “listen” to undesirable low frequency sound — such as the growling of a jet engine, road noise or HVAC system — and electronically creates an opposite sound wave, cancelling the offending noise.

“Active noise cancellation is only effective for steady, continuous, low frequencies and was first developed for use by the military, in aviation, and especially in cargo aircraft. By itself, it does nothing to reduce higher frequency noise, such as people talking, children crying, much of the noise that you want to avoid, especially when in an airplane and just want to listen to music.

“Also, the electronics tend to introduce a peculiar hissing — and sound pressure — which can be highly irritating. Finally, when the batteries die, many of these headphones don’t work at all — so you hear as if you were using nothing.

“And that of course explains why many people are disappointed after they have purchased expensive headphones and still hear much of what they wanted to avoid,” she notes.

There is a solution

So, the ideal, affordable noise-reducing headphones would work on both the low frequencies, as well as all the other noises we don’t want to hear, would not need batteries and would just let you plug them into a music source, without cranking the volume up to eardrum-shattering levels. Technically, for that you need something with an NRR number above 25 decibels to block unwanted noises across many frequencies.

When something comes on the market which addresses a real consumer need, we think it’s important to bring it to your attention. Such headphones do exist and are called Sync Stereo Earmuff by Howard Leight, available on Amazon for $22. (You read correctly.)

The sound is excellent — not audiophile quality, but awfully good — plus they are comfortable, and at their 25 decibels of across-the-board noise reduction, when price and performance is considered, you would be hard pressed to find anything better for use in noisy environments, from mowing the lawn, vacuuming the house or travel.

We can also highly recommend extreme isolation headphones manufactured by Direct Sound Headphones of St. Louis. With NRR numbers of 25 and 29, they are very quiet. These are true audiophile products, intended for use by musicians and the recording industry where accuracy of sound is critical. They still cost far less than many of the highly advertised “active” types and just sound better than any of them to our testers.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.