Headphones: Gadget guru tested for noise reduction and enjoyment

Everything louder than everything else: Peter Nowak goes in search of some noise-cancelling headphones so he can watch his stories in peace.

Illustration by Ben Weeks

There was a time when I thought a flight delay was the worst kind of hell. It meant either sitting on a plane and skimming through the innocuous in-flight magazine over and over, or hanging out at the gate with nothing to do but, yuck, read a book.

With the advent of tablets, I now secretly look forward to being diverted to Nebraska or stalled in Guatemala. It gives me time to catch up on, as somebody’s grandma would call them, “my stories”—TV episodes that I never have time to watch otherwise.

Alas, that has created another problem. It’s tough to hear the dialogue over the loud drone of plane engines, never mind the guy passed out in the next seat. Those little earbuds aren’t made for that sort of background noise. So I trekked down to the local electronics store to look for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. I asked the guy, and he recommended the sexily named Panasonic RP-HC101, which I snapped up for about $65. It’s been a great purchase. No more engines. No more drunk snorers.


Still, I couldn’t help but wonder—what about the more expensive headphones, the ones that run up above $300. Are they really better than my cheapos? I decided to try them.

First up were the ones all the kids talk about: Beats By Dre Pro, from Beats Electronics. As someone who grew up listening to gangsta rap in the 1990s, how could I not get excited by a company half-owned by rap producer Dr. Dre?

Everything about the Pros felt hefty. They’re solid metal, weigh almost two kilograms, and cost around $400. They’re also loud. Really loud. With the volume on my tablet cranked, my wife said she could hear every word of what I was listening to, despite the padded cups fully covering my ears. The headphones themselves throbbed with bass. I like loud music, but my head was throbbing soon after.

I turned to the more peaceful sounding Bose QuietComfort 15 acoustic noise-cancelling headphones. Indeed, compared to Beats, they’re downright gentle. While the good doctor pummels you with sound, the Bose headphones, at about $300, caressed with accuracy and quality.

Both the inexpensive Panasonics and the Bose set have switches to turn off the noise-cancelling feature, which is supplied by a AAA-battery-powered circuit. The Beats headphones skip the circuit entirely and attack background noise with sheer volume. Both approaches worked, although the Panasonics started to crackle at higher volumes. For watching video in loud public places like planes, all three will do the trick, but Bose’s offering seems the best of the bunch if you’re the type who frets over audio quality.

The Panasonics, however, had the benefit of being the least obtrusive. They’re small and fold up into a compact package, while the others are almost comically giant. Being a vain fellow, I felt somewhat self-conscious wearing them. Moreover, the Bose strap tended to mess up my hair. (Remember, I’m vain.) So I’m sticking with the Panasonics. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an episode of The Young and the Restless waiting.