Review: 5 noise-canceling headphones keep things quiet

Driven insane by the chatter of the guy in the next cubicle? Can't take the steady drone of long plane trips? One of these headphones can help.

If you've ever been stuck on a five-hour flight trying to ignore the roar of the engines or tried to work while the guy in the next cubicle talked incessantly on the phone, you've probably thought seriously about investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

The question is: Which pair gets you the quietest ride for the least amount of money?

Noise-canceling headphones typically utilize a technique called active noise control to reduce ambient noise. Once the headphones capture ambient sound through an internal microphone placed inside the ear cup, the active noise control kicks in and emits a sound wave with the same amplitude and the opposite polarity to the original sound. These two waves combine to form a new wave and effectively cancel each other out, which creates the muted sound you hear when you use noise-canceling headphones.

What's more, the noise-canceling makes music sound even better than when it is turned off. (And there may be times when you want to turn it off -- for example, when you're walking down the street and want to catch ambient sounds.) You may expect the headphones' technology is what improves sound quality, but the actual reason is simply that noise-canceling eliminates the ambient sounds that contribute to audio degradation.

We've rounded up five pairs of comparable noise-canceling headphones made by AblePlanet, Creative, JVC and Sennheiser to see how they compare. To test the products, I wore each pair of headphones on an airplane and in noisy environments (including the airport and an office with distractions such as surrounding chatter and an inordinately loud radiator). I assessed each product's ability to reduce ambient noise and play back a set of high-quality classical songs (for you audio geeks: they were AAC-formatted songs recreated at a bit rate of 256Kbit/sec.) Beyond that, comfort was also a definite concern -- I wore each for one hour to evaluate how well designed each product was.

My conclusion? These noise-canceling headphones weren't all created equal. While each provides its own benefits, I was able to come up with a clear favorite.

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