DennisBeaverNovember 12, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

When reading airline magazines or while booking travel online, it has been impossible to miss ads for active noise cancelling headphones from Bose, Sony, Panasonic, Audio Technica, Sennheiser, JVC, Jabra and others.

Are they worth the money? Do these electronic headphones really shut out noise on an airplane, subway or bus? Does the average consumer understand what they can and cannot accomplish? Are there others – non-electronic – which deliver as good or even better isolation from noise?

This week and next, we are examining this technology. We’ll help in making an informed buying decision, and something else which will be of special interest to parents of autistic and certain special-needs children.

Beware of noise-cancellation claims

John Gresko, president of St. Louis-based Direct Sound Headphones, believes there is a great deal of misleading advertising associated with the sale of active noise cancelling headphones, telling You and the Law:

“There are so many exaggerated claims. Most people do not understand how these headphones work, expecting that once you put them on, all noise from the outside world will simply vanish. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

His comments were echoed by the following email from readers in the Central Valley, which was the basis of our story.

Now we’re seeing the world by air

“My wife and I retired two years ago from the Navy and decided to see the world, but this time, by air. So a few months ago, we purchased Circle Pacific airline tickets and visited many of the friends we had made while in the service,” Reed’s email began.

“Military personnel have a much higher degree of hearing loss than the general population. So when our family doctor heard of our trip – which, because of the distances involved, meant spending a great deal of time on airplanes – he recommended obtaining hearing protection, such as noise cancelling headphones, to minimize exposure to high levels of airplane noise.

“A day before departure, we went to a home electronics store, and a salesperson, Nick, sold us widely advertised active noise cancelling headphones for almost $300 each. He told us they eliminate engine noise, most conversations, crying babies and sounds coming from the galley or washroom, and wearing them would be like sitting in a quiet living room, with no need to crank up the volume to watch the movie or listen to the audio program. We paid using our American Express cards.

It was no living room

“We used them for the first time as the plane took off and during the three months of our trip, but were very disappointed with how much noise they actually reduced. Yes, low-frequency roaring engine sounds were diminished, but not nearly as much as we were told and little for most other kinds of noise, as we still had to raise the volume level louder than we wanted to. When the batteries died, the headset was useless.

“Upon returning home, we went back for a refund, but they have a 30-day policy. The manager would do nothing. Are we out of luck? Is there anything else we can do? What is the straight story on noise-cancelling headphones? Are there any which really deliver as advertised? These were just a waste of money.”

Active noise cancelling explained

“Active noise cancelling headphones were originally developed for the military. They create a sound wave which is directly opposite to the low-frequency noise of army tanks, jet engines, subways, lawn mowers, leaf-blowers and other machinery. With certain limitations and annoyances – such as batteries going dead – they are effective in reducing (cancelling out) some of that noise and provide limited hearing protection.

“But when you start going up the frequency scale- beginning at around 1,500 hertz with a baby crying and then into human speech – they are completely useless, doing nothing at all. So, in an airplane, while there is jet engine noise, there is still much more noise which is not low frequency, such as people talking, moving around, galley carts, cups, plates and very loud announcements which are more than irritating and actually raise blood pressure. With all of that, you may still have to crank up the volume to hear the film,” Gresko points out.

Simpler solutions to the noise problem exist

While active noise cancelling headsets have an extremely important role in industry and the military, it is not necessary to spend hundreds of dollars to acquire significant isolation from noise. Next week we’ll offer some suggestions.

With one, you’re going to think that the price – and how far it removes you from the world outside – is a misprint.

All of that and how we got our readers their refund, next time.

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