A few weeks ago, on the way back from India, Rasmus let me use his noise cancelling headphones for an hour or so on one of the flights. Even though I understand the science behind how they worked (it's really not that complicated), I'd always doubted how effective they could really be.

I was happily impressed. The headphones worked surprisingly well. I'd say they blocked out a good 70% of the consistent background noise, namely the engines. And that made the music much more pleasant.

Knowing that I'd be travelling a bit more in the coming year (Ohio, Florida, India (again), Mexico (possibly), and Brazil (possibly)), I decided that I'd spend a bit of time researching the options and get myself a set.

After a bit of hunting around, the only headphones that didn't cost an arm and a leg and which seemed to have consistently positive comments were the exact ones he'd let me borrow. So, I'm the proud owner of a new pair of Sony MDR-NC20 headphones.

Posted by jzawodn at December 18, 2003 12:21 AM

Reader Comments
# Indigo said:

Sennheiser is the only way to go.

on December 18, 2003 12:26 AM
# Justin Blanton said:

I've owned a ridiculous number of headphones, and have looked into the noise-cancelling thing, but the fact that they use batteries really turns me off. At the moment (and for the foreseeable future) I use in-ear headphones, namely, the Shure e2c's which are absolutely incredible. You might want to check out my 'review'.

on December 18, 2003 01:32 AM
# Rasmus said:

Sennheiser has some very nice high-end headphones, but their noise cancelling PXC-250 which are the only ones you can compare to the Sony MDR-NC20 model just plain suck. I sat next to a guy on a flight to Singapore a while ago and we swapped headphones for a bit. The Senheiser's noise cancelling is not very effective and it has a very distinct hiss to it. Also, the tiny ear pads don't make a very good seal letting in lots of noise. And then it has this dildo of a battery pack you have to lug around. I would definitely stay away from these. If you are in the market for something like this and don't mind spending $300, the Bose QC2's are supposed to be good. I have only tried the first-generation Bose and although better than the Sennheisers didn't match the Sonys in my opinion.

on December 18, 2003 01:40 AM
# Matt said:

I prefer the Etymotic ER-4Ps ($249). Just like the Shure headphones, they are in the ear headphones and block out about 20db worth of background noise. Not only can you not hear the jet engines... You can't hear the captain announcing the plane is about to crash!! The Etymotic ER-6 are a lot cheaper ($129) and are almost as good.

on December 18, 2003 08:01 AM
# John Stafford said:

The Sony in-ear headphones are great as well (1 AAA battery) for noise cancellation and are much smaller for packing. I prefer in-ear for comfort and they don't plug your ears up so you can still hear people talking to you. However, they're quite big for in-ear -- you need to be accustomed to earplugs/etc. or you'll probably find them unbearable.

on December 18, 2003 09:05 AM
# Will Macdonald said:

I found the sound cancelling headphones great on the plain, however when wearing them in the office I felt slightly disorientated, especially when turning my head from side to side.

Great for use in noisy environments that have a 'steady' background noise like a plain.

on December 18, 2003 10:07 AM
# ziggy said:

The Shure e2c's are absolutely *wonderful*. They work by blocking out external noise and having a very snug fit in your ear. It's like a combination earplug and very good quality headphone.

Plus they're quite compact, come with a carrying case, and don't take batteries. (If you use the foam earpads, make sure to order extras; the foam will tend to get compressed after a month or two of regular usage.)

Also, Phil Windley did a review of noise cancelling headphones a few months ago, specifically for dampening the background noise when he's flying his plane. IIRC, his favorite was the Bose, because it both cut down on the noise, and it was comfortable enough to wear for 2+ hours at a time.

on December 18, 2003 12:42 PM
# Indigo said:

I've checked out the Bose $300 noise-cancelling (as well as the non-noise-cancelling $150) headphones. They did seem to do a good job at cancelling out noise, but they really do feel easily-breakable cheaply made, and all audiophiles I know regard Bose as crap ("Those who don't know buy Bose" is a favorite saying of theirs). I got the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro closed-back headphones. Absolutely amazing sound and they seal off all but the very loudest outside sounds.

on December 18, 2003 01:55 PM
# Maggard said:

FWIW my quiet-headphone of choice is Koss's "The Plug". Available at most chain stores and relabelled from Radio Shack they cost US$10-20. Small, light, durable, discreet, and frankly, losable, I find them a must-carry.

The better packaging options include a variety of earplug shapes and sizes so one can find the perfect fit. Actually my preferred earplug is not a Koss-supplied one but a trimmed & hot-nail-bored "Laser Lite" industrial ear plug, YMMV. In any case for under a dollar a set for "real" foam earplugs it's worth trying out a variety to learn what works/fits best for you.

Prices from Froogle
Impressive project to further improve these cheapie earphones
Howard Leight brand industrial earplugs

on December 18, 2003 08:52 PM
# rr said:

I bought the MDR-NC11 ear buds at Narita for the trip back. Wasn't sure whether I'd be able to stand them for 10 hours, but they actually turned out to be pretty comfortable and definitely made the trip more tranquil.

on December 18, 2003 10:59 PM
# Indigo said:

I got some of those Koss plugs. Great sound and noise blocking, but after six months the "sound tubes" have broken off and the plugs are in crumbles.

I got some Sony ear plugs and they're holding up much better.

on December 19, 2003 12:12 AM
# Harmen said:

I've got both a Sennheiser PXC-250 and a Etymotic ER-6. The sennheiser is great for the office. It blocks some computer noise but it is possible to notice people who want to ask you something. Not recommended for use in a silent place (it makes a little noice when put on, which you won't hear if there is noise around you) or on the road (the dildo somebody mentioned is not really practical and needs batterys).

The ER-6 is completly different. It really blocks most of the noise and sounds _very_ good. You won't hear your phone ring if you have some music on. They take a little time and fiddling to put them in and out of your ear so they are not really suited for in-office use when you need to provide the occasional answer. But when you really do not want to get disturbed they rule. And in a train... ah, the silence :)

on December 19, 2003 04:43 AM
# Mark Denovich said:

I use the Koss headphones mentioned above, with the ear plugs from Etymotic. About $40 for the comb. Works very well.

on December 19, 2003 12:45 PM
# Indigo said:


on December 19, 2003 01:40 PM
# Maggard said:

I assume "Combination"

on December 20, 2003 11:14 AM
# Micah said:

I can speak for the Etymotic ER-6 since I have a pair. In short, the sound blocking is wonderful. I use them on plane trips all the time now. They sound great too. I would use them all the time except 1) they lose their comfort after a 1+ hours (I think the longest I wore them in one sitting was 4 hours), 2) since they really do a good job at blocking ambient noise you can only use them at times when it's okay to be completely in your own space. Which is hard to do at work. Also you really look strange putting them on 'cause you're inserting this thing into your ear canal (you need two hands free to do it right), a little spit helps with the rubber tips too. There's also the ear gunk to deal with. The first couple times you wear them, you will be surprised at how much earwax you'll pull out of your ear every time you wear them.

Anyway... sold yet? In Summary: They're kind of niche purpose (for me) but are absolutely a must-have on plane rides.

on December 21, 2003 06:29 PM
# Homer said:

Mmmmmmmmmm earwax.

Etymotics sound like great headphones, except for the very high price.

on December 21, 2003 08:34 PM
# Victor Voo said:

Hi Jeremy,

You do a lot of flying. Would you have any objections to testing out a
special pair of headphones? They are supposed to be great for blocking
aircraft noise.

Would appreciate hearing from you.

Victor Voo

on September 5, 2004 03:18 AM
# Ronda Scott said:

I have a Bose Qiet Confort 2 $300 Noise Cancelling Headphones set. As noted by another commentator, they feel flimsy. In fact, they are flimsy. My first set broke under warrenty and was chearfully replaced by the Bose store that sold them to me. The replacement set has now broken under normal use and is no longer covered under warrenty. They are currently held together by tape while I look for a non-Bose replacement.

That said, they do sound very good when they are working correctly and are confortable to wear. However, the replacement set was also prone to making an intermittent low-level buzzing sound even before the set broke, leaving me with serious doubts about the quality of assembly as well as the robustness of the product.

on September 6, 2004 04:58 PM
# Keith said:

I have the Sennheiser noise-cancelling headphones and just bought the Sony MDC-NC20, based on the comments here. Short answer, I much prefer the sound from the Sennheisers. The Sony's are muddy with all mid-range. The Sennheisers are just the opposite, for a brighter, crisper sound.

Construction-wise, The Sony's are more substantial. However, the Sennheisers are more compact. The external batery pack is not elegant, but I leave it in the pouch and put the pouch next to me on the plane. I disagree that they "just plain suck." But I would prefer them to go over my ears instead of on them.


on September 13, 2004 02:16 PM
# Jack Lanford said:

I have an EX29 noise reduction headphone from Proheadphones.

I have used them for a 18 hour flight from Singapore. During that time I watched a couple of in flight movies and listened to the comedy channel on the audio channels. I could hear everything and the jet noises just vanished. I expected them to work but this was a pleasant surprise. The quietness does make a positive difference when you reach your destination. Guess it was a more relaxing flight. The set comes with an airline connector adapter which made plugging the headphones easy.

I also use them to listen to music while lawn mowing. The previous headphone I used required me to turn up the volume of my MP3 player to the point where it was probably harmful. I have tried other noise cancelling headphones and frankly, they just don't work! With the EX29 - WOW! All I can say is that they are awesome and live up to the claims made on their rather unconventional website.

At about $100, they are a bargin compared with the $300 Bose. I think they are at www.proheadphones.com


on September 14, 2004 10:02 PM
# BroncoFan said:

I have a Denver Bronco fan/friend who is loosing his hearing but loves to listen to the game on the radio/headset while at the game. The noise around him, combined with some hearing loss has made it impossible to hear the radio any more. Most of you speak of using the headphones on an airplane. Does anyone have any experience with one of these types of noise cancelling headsets plugged into an AM radio in a noisy background area like a stadium?

on October 13, 2004 10:55 AM
# Zeia said:

The best that I've heard was the Commercial grade noice cancellation Bose aviation headset. If you switch that on, you'd swear that you just lost your hearing because you couldn't hear anything else. It's just too freaky. It's expensive but the best NC headphone you can get.

on October 14, 2004 11:09 AM
# Ben said:

I have the same Sony noise-cancelling headphones - I found them to be very good (bought them in Singapore, really benefitted on the way back to the UK). But. After 8 months of low-impact use, a connection inside the left ear-cup has come loose.

My verdict - good sound quality and noise-cancelling, questionable build quality.

I need to get them fixed :)

on November 1, 2004 08:10 AM
# Jack Lanford said:

Hi BroncoFan,

Sorry to rave so much about the EX29 (see post above), but give it a try. I'm not a football fan but if I can use it for listening to music while lawn moving, listening to an AM radio clearly and comfortably at a noisy football game would be well within the capabilities of the headphone.


on November 2, 2004 12:12 AM
# Dave Griffiths said:

Very interesting log. But here's a question - are any of these NC headphones suitable for eliminating your partner's snoring? Yep, this is a serious question. They would need to be in-ear type to enable sleeping. Any comments

on November 13, 2004 05:13 AM
# James Leahy said:

I need to buy a pair of good noise canceling headphone for my son.I want to get him a good pair that actually works. Can some one please help me out!!!

on November 20, 2004 04:10 PM
# kyle p said:

HiI'm buying a pair of noise cancelation headphones for my Ipod any suggestions? Also my budget kinda low 0-100$.

on November 21, 2004 01:50 PM
# kyle p said:

sorry about the speling errors.Damn I'm getting old.

on November 21, 2004 01:54 PM
# James Leahy said:

Hey Dave Griffiths,

Try the stuff on this webpage:

on November 21, 2004 08:30 PM
# Hank Z said:

I'm a postal worker at a mail processing plant working 8 to 12 hour days in an 85db noise environment, looking for a really good noise cancelling headphone set for everyday use with my mp3 player. I've looked at Bose QC-2 but see your postings on flimsy durability. I'm very active on my feet constantly feeding and sweeping mail from the machines and frequently take my headphones off to communicate with coworkers, so they have to be rugged as well as comfortable. I'm on the local USPS ergonomics team and would like to be able to recommend several headphones at different price points. There are 250,000 of us nationally that do this type of work. Many or most of us have diminished hearing and wear some sort of headphone set to get through our work day.

on December 10, 2004 09:49 AM
# gpbacker said:

Any of these work for cancelling out loud
office conversations?

on December 20, 2004 09:47 AM
# Pete said:

Try the Philips SBC HN100. They are a bargain at about $50. They really cut down the low frequency jet engine noise. Uses a AAA battery. Comes with various Airline jacks & Standard Jack adapter. The head band is uncomfortable, especially if you are a bit thin of hair on top. You can hear speech, but it really cuts down the jet rumble. Have lent them to friends and they have given positive feedback.

I have used the Bose headphones that American Airlines give you in Business Class: Although I haven't done a one on one test comparison I think the Bose are better as they seem to cancel higher frequencies as well. I did notice that you can't hear voices with these. But these cost $300.

on January 1, 2005 07:09 PM
# Dmitry Kirillov said:

Yesterday I've bought a Sony mdr-nc20 headphones from stereophones.ru magazine for about 100 euro. Today I've got some conclusions. First, noise cancelling is very and very pleasant option - I've liked it on the streets, in the clubs and in the Moscow underground. A day passed and and I found some disturbing features in it. First of all, it's headphones sensitivity to GSM phones, when Noise Cancelling (hereafter - NC) function is on. I felt like I am a gsm phone myself. The second feature I found is that sound changes too much when NC is on - it gets louder, and sound becames more equalized - higher frequencies comes to the top. Moreover, when NC is off sound is very rough (at least to me) - looks like these headphones are not too good with the middle range. I've compared it to Apple's ipod headphones, which gave me more sharp and precise sound. And, as conclusion. Not too bad for 100EU phones, but I still looking for good headphones with NC.

on January 6, 2005 10:14 AM
# Dmitry Kirillov said:

Yesterday I've bought a Sony mdr-nc20 headphones from stereophones.ru e-shop for about 100 euro. Today I've got some conclusions. First, noise cancelling is very and very pleasant option - I've liked it on the streets, in the clubs and in the Moscow underground. A day passed and and I found some disturbing features in it. First of all, it's headphones sensitivity to GSM phones, when Noise Cancelling (hereafter - NC) function is on. I felt like I am a gsm phone myself. The second feature I found is that sound changes too much when NC is on - it gets louder, and sound becames more equalized - higher frequencies comes to the top. Moreover, when NC is off sound is very rough (at least to me) - looks like these headphones are not too good with the middle range. I've compared it to Apple's ipod headphones, which gave me more sharp and precise sound. And, as conclusion. Not too bad for 100EU phones, but I still looking for good headphones with NC.

on January 6, 2005 10:15 AM
# Matt said:

The fact is that most "noise canceling" headphone don't have good sound quality. What you should look into are "sound isolating" headphones. These usually come in two styles: in the ear and large over the ear. For in the ear styles look for brands like Etymotic and Shure. For over the ear style look for headphones that are sealed (sometimes referred to as closed). Beyerdynamic makes of the of best sealed over the ear headphones that I have used. Check out the buying guides at headphone.com. They are great for doing research one the different types of headphones. Also head-fi.org is a great place to ask questions and read about everything headphone related.

on January 11, 2005 04:11 PM
# susan said:

I'm just looking for a headset comfortable enough to sleep with (I'll stay on my back)that blocks out snoring! Can't stand earplugs and my boyfriend sounds like a leaf-blower right next to your head. Suggestions?

on February 28, 2005 10:17 PM
# Asgeir said:

Just got a pair of MDR-NC20 from ebay (they are non-existant in Europe), and they're absolutely great! Even a trip to the server room was almost comfortable with these..

on March 1, 2005 01:17 AM
# PeterL said:

When I was flying enough to have 1K status, I bought Sony MDC-EX71SL earbuds -- I preferred both their noise-blocking and sound quality to the noise-cancelling headphones in business class. They come with 3 sizes of silicone rubber ear pieces, and are comfortable enough to leave in for 12 hours.

They also do a good job of blocking the noise emanating from nearby cubicles at work.

You can buy them for about $40 at discount shops in Japan or online (Amazon etc.) - a lot cheaper than Shure or Etymotics, but I don't know how they compare in sound quality.

on March 10, 2005 10:56 AM
# Tony said:

I thought it would be neat if you could take the noise cancellation device and hook it up to external speakers. It would be great for the home and also an excellent prank for work....people having conversations that suddenly can't hear one another.....maybe. I would like to know seriously if this is possible for the home. And if so, who has it?

on March 23, 2005 12:15 AM
# Bernie Goldbach said:

Etymotic ER6 earbuds block more than 70% of the background noise so I get more work done on trains, planes and buses. An added benefit: they're black and reduce my iPod's threat of pilferage. A second benefit: people don't know I'm tuning them out. I get the stare from colleagues when wearing over-the-head phones but polite smiles with earbuds. I spent $130 for the things. A third benefit: They come in a soft zippered case with a longer lead than most phone jacks. The whole lot fits in my shirt pocket. The zip has a mesh pocket that holds my stash of cash.

on March 24, 2005 09:58 PM
# Joe said:

Susan - you ought to try out a few others and get a new one. Boyfriend, that is.

on April 10, 2005 09:33 AM
# Ben said:

I have been considering purchasing some noise cancelling headphones for a long time. I tried the Bose QC2's, and I was very happy with the sound quality and the noise cancelling, however I felt like they would be easily breakable. So on an impulse, while I was picking up my girlfriend's film at Wal*Mart, I grabbed a pair of "Maxell NC-II Noise Cancelling Headphones" for the grand old price of $32. I was pleasantly surprised.

For some reason, with the noise cancelling is turned off, there is virtually no bass, which really doesn't bother me because I only use them with noise cancellation on. The sound reproduction is adequate for the average listener - that is to say, it's not great. It seems to be a little fuzzy on the lower mid-range. The lows and highs are fairly clear and defined.

The ear cups cover my ears completely which helps with passively blocking out noise. The noise cancellation feature is also good for the price. It blocks out the hum of the air conditioning and my desktop/laptop at work completely. It doesn't block out voices or dynamic sounds at all. That's ok. They cost $32.

This pair will hold me over until I decide which high-end pair to buy. Awesome for the price.

on April 25, 2005 07:19 AM
# Ray said:

For Tony, you suggested that the noise cancelling technology be hooked up to speakers. Unfortunately, that would not work because the microphone that reads the "noise" and the speakers that cancel the noise have to be close to the ear. In a room full of people, sounds in the room reach different people with different volumes and the speakers in one location could not cancel out what each person hears from various places in the room. But there was a science fiction story written years ago by Arthur C. Clark about a sound cancelling system that did exactly what you suggested. I don't remember the details of the story, I think the owners of the device used it to play tricks on people or rob banks or something.

on May 13, 2005 07:23 AM
# said:

My mom was subjected to nightly snoring and now wears the amplifying headphones to watch TV so her husband isn't disturbed while he naps in front of the TV. I suggest that you may be progressing in encumbrances so get your partner to a sleep clinic and perhaps, if it is severe enough the CN appliance should be installed in his throat not over your ears. See Reader's Digest Canada publication this month for blurb on new implants to stop snoring.

on June 6, 2005 04:24 PM
# Richard Benish said:

Sennheiser, Sony, Bose...Has anyone tried the Koss QZ 2000?

I'm looking for comfort, sound quality, noise suppression and durability (and I don't like sticking things in my ears). Price less of an issue. Since Bose has been slammed for breakability, I'm trying to decide between the remaining three, but haven't seen much if anything here on the Koss. Anyone?

on September 26, 2005 12:35 AM
# Rob Ayliffe said:

I recently bought a set of sony MDR-NC60 headphones and i am generally very impressed. I use them for biking / rollerblading (off main roads of course :}), and they really cut down of the drone of traffic and wind noise. They are not perfect, but 100% better than what i had. Listening used to be nearly impossible. Sound quality is probably not as good as my regular sony over-ears, but thats not why I bought'em. My biggest issue? I paid $250 at future shop (Canadian) - I have seen these on line ranging from $99 to $199. Is this American? Did i over-pay?? Can anyone tell me what they are really worth?

on December 1, 2009 07:01 PM
# S Miller said:

I just bought the Sony MDR-NC60 noise reducing headphones. What a waste of money. They cost me about £100. I am, unfortunately, blessed with superhuman hearing, am irritable, and an insomniac, and I thought these things may be the answer to blocking out the persistent horrid interferences of other human beings. How wrong I was. First of all, the noise reduction does not work on regular sounds such as people talking, cutlery and crockery being moved about, kids screaming, or even moronic people eating with their mouths wide open. When turned on, the only thing the headphones block out is constant, low frequency noise, such as machinery hum. That's it. Also, when switched on, you are treated to a constant, high-frequency hiss. So what's more annoying, listening to that or listening to the sounds you are failing to block out? As for sound quality, dismal. I have a pair of Sony XD200s that cost about £15 new. They are superior in quality, but compare the price... £100 for poor headphones that don't block much noise or £15 for good ones.

If you are looking to block out noise, I'm afraid wearing earplugs will have to do. If you are looking for good quality sound, other headphones will have to do. Don't waste your money on this 'modern, ground-breaking technology'. It's rubbish.

on June 7, 2010 02:00 AM
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