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Headphones: Isolation or Noise Cancelling?

Headphones: Isolation or Noise Cancelling?

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Old May 18, 08, 4:28 pm
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Headphones: Isolation or Noise Cancelling?

I have a nice set of Sennheiser HD280 pros I bought for a noisy workplace a year ago. I love these headphones SO much. They're full overear isolation headphones, and I find they block out most ambient noise along with everything else. They also enable me to listen to movies and music at low, non-earblasting volumes.

Lately I've been looking around at noise cancelling headphones (specifically the Sennheiser PXC450s, but I'm not sure if it's worth spending the extra $450 on a second set. What say my fellow FTers? Is it worth investing in a set of noise cancellation headphones, or is my isolation set alright? What do you fly with?

I'm half tempted to buy the PXC450s to try them out on a flight and return them if they don't provide a significant improvement over the HD280 Pros.
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Old May 18, 08, 6:48 pm
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I'm not sure how much noise the 280s block, but I've always been a fan of the in-ear isolating phones for use on airplanes. My weapon of choice right now are the Shure SE530PTH earphones.

Noise-cancelling headphones typically eliminate about 15 dB of noise. Noise-isolating earphones are more like 25-30 dB.
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Old May 18, 08, 7:00 pm
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I have 3 or 4 sets of NC 'phones laying around somewhere, but I've been using Etymotic and Shure in-ear's for several years now.
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Old May 18, 08, 7:31 pm
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I like the Sennheiser 280s, but if you get 10-12 dB of isolation, you'd be lucky! Yes they isolate, but only to a certain extent. The ear protection muffs that fit over your ear and are commonly used for construction or industry are around 20-24 dB of isolation, but they are so tight on your head you'd go nuts after an hour of wearing them, the seal around the ears being critical to their performance. So noise canceling headphones like the ones you listed overcome the poor isolation of regular headphone muffs (because of added comfort) by counteracting the background noise with it's inverse within the muff, netting an additional 6-12 dB of isolation beyond the 10 or so dB isolation of just the muffs themselves.

So yes, you will hear an improvement in noise isolation with noise canceling headphones. Whether it's enough, that's for you to try out at a local stereo shop. I personally don't like noise cancellation headphones, they make my ears tired, but considering I make a living based on my ability to hear really well (I'm in pro audio), I'm more attuned to those problems.

In-ear earphones, especially when combined with custom molds for your ear canals give you the greatest isolation possible (as much as 36 dB or more, depending on fit) without having to resort to noise canceling circuitry. Because of their small size and good fit, they tend to be more comfortable for long flights.

Just for your reference, a 6 dB SPL gain or loss in level is technically double or half the volume respectively. Some in my industry argue that perhaps 10 dB SPL gain or loss is what the average person *perceives* to be a doubling or halving of volume respectively. dB SPL follows a 20log relationship.
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Old May 18, 08, 8:00 pm
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Originally Posted by Arthurrs View Post
The ear protection muffs that fit over your ear and are commonly used for construction or industry are around 20-24 dB of isolation, but they are so tight on your head you'd go nuts after an hour of wearing them, the seal around the ears being critical to their performance. .
I'm heading to the Indianapolis 500 this weekend and for years I've been wearing industrial ear protection. I also snake some earbuds inside so I can listen to the radio broadcast.

Now, I've since obtained a pair of QC3's, but from the sound of this thread, they probably wouldn't do better than the industrial gear I wear, as the race is extremely noisey. I'd like to try the QC3's since I don't have to use earbuds, but I prefer the protection over the comfort.

Anyone else try Bose at the races?
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Old May 18, 08, 8:16 pm
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I have Etymotic ER4 noise isolation and the ever-popular Bose QC3 noise cancelling. I like them both but for different reasons.

Noise Isolation
+ small enough to put in your pocket
+ good to use on subway / metro etc
+ no batteries
+ decent sound quality

- if I move around (walking for example) I can "hear" the headphones; i.e. I get this "thump thump" sound as my feet hit the pavement. It's extremely annoying and to me, it makes the headphones useless unless I'm sitting down in an airplane or on the metro
- sound quality is decent but not as good as my Bose. I often wonder if the Shure will sound better than Etymotic but I've never tried them
- After 5+ hours, I find it hurts to have something stuck in my ears
- The noise isolation works basically by inserting a small sound tube surrounded by a thin rubber membrane. Although this doesn't happen often, air pressure changes on an airplane can be frightfully difficult to deal with when your inner ear is isolated from your surroundings by a thin rubber membrane. The solution of course is to remove the headphones, but even at cruising altitude this can be an occasional annoyance.
- Noise isolation works well, but I find that I do have to turn the volume a little higher then with my noise cancelling. It's possible this is an efficiency thing (impedence of the headphones for example)

Noise Cancelling
+ Generally pretty good sound
+ I find that the QC3 on-ear design is less bulky than the QC2 and QC1 over-ear design
+ The (rechargeable) battery lasts a long time. I've flown YYZ - HKG (17h) without difficulty
+ The noise cancellation works very well. As a result, I don't have to turn the volume of my iPod very high. Clearly this is better long term for my ears.

- The QC3 uses a battery. Like all batteries I'm sure this one will die eventually. Like all batteries it will die at a moment I'm not near a (Bose) battery store.
- Design is still bulky. This is not a headphone I would use casually; just on airplanes really.
- Although the noise cancellation is great, it does (for me and evidently for Arthurrs above) generate some fatigue. I can't listen with these headphones for longer than 4 - 5 hours without feeling tired.
- Both the on-ear design of the QC3 and the over-ear design of the QC2 slightly squish my ears closer to my head. As such, after 4 - 5 hours of listening my ears hurt a little.


In the end, I'm glad I have both Bose noise cancelling and Etymotic noise isolation. On long flights, I always start with my Bose, but typically (after 4 - 5 hours) switch to the Etymotics for a bit, then back to the Bose. For short hops I just take the Etymotics as they fit easily into a pocket.
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Old May 18, 08, 9:23 pm
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Here is how I think about it. I have the Shure E4c and Bose Q3s. My brother has the Shure S530 and E5c, Ars Technica and I have bought several as gifts for friends.

1) If your ears aren't irritated by the in ear models, like the Shures, Etymotics, Ultimate Ears, go with those. As mentioned above, they will block out more noise, are smaller and require no batteries.

2) If your ears are irritated, go for the Bose QC3 or QC2. If you're on a budget the Audio Technica are similar to the QC2 for about $120 shipped.

Last edited by sithjedi333; May 18, 08 at 11:25 pm
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Old May 18, 08, 9:28 pm
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Originally Posted by bdjohns1 View Post
My weapon of choice right now are the Shure SE530PTH earphones.
IMO, these can't be beat.
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Old May 19, 08, 3:38 am
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I find westone UM1s sound isolation in-earphones incredible value. Just over $100. I had a pair of UM2s and loved them, but alas left them on a flight. Checking out the cheaper UM1s, the sound is a little flatter but still good and the comfort and sound isolation is the same. Particularly happy with the near zero microphonics.
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Old May 20, 08, 10:30 am
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I personally like Live Wires for my IEM's I have UE 5's and 10's shure 500pth and IMO price performance wise Live Wires.

There $250 custom's hmmmm .....
http://www.livewiresforyou.com/
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Old May 21, 08, 5:42 am
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Go for isolation. I was impressed enough with noise canceling headphones that I ended up buying two different types some years ago. I was frustrated because I like listening to audio books and passing sounds (like a bus going by) would make me miss a phrase. I couldn't use them in the subway unless the volume was cranked all the way up.

A friend convinced me to invest in a set from Shure. Wow, what a difference! Because it blocks out all but the loudest noise, I can keep the volume to 4-5/10. As for comfort, I always found the in-ear type earphones marginally comfortable; I could only wear them for two or three hours without having to take them off. The Shures I can wear for all day - and have done just that while hiking. I've tried three different models and have been satisfied with each of them.
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Old May 21, 08, 7:08 am
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I use Shure in-ear phones and am very happy with them
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Old May 27, 08, 9:07 pm
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My Sony over-ear noise canceling headphones work pretty good.

But they're big and bulky which is why I now use Phillip's HN-060 in ear, noise canceling ear buds. They're light, small, and VERY affordable.

Only problem has been with the ear tips . . . . They come off easily and Phillip's doesn't sell replacements. Ended up going to earplugstore.stores.yahoo.net/roaupfprfore.html for those.
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Old May 28, 08, 9:24 am
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Another vote for the Shure 530PTH here.

One advantage that the in ear devices have over the noise cancelling headphones is that they reduce all frequencies, whilst the noise cancelling phones only cancel low frequency noise.

My Sony noise cancelling headphones actually amplified external high frequency noise, such that someone slamming an overhead bin would make me jump!
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Old May 29, 08, 2:32 pm
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Originally Posted by pteron View Post
Another vote for the Shure 530PTH here.

One advantage that the in ear devices have over the noise cancelling headphones is that they reduce all frequencies, whilst the noise cancelling phones only cancel low frequency noise.

And if you spring for these, pony up a few more dollars and get some earphone tips custom made. I've worn lots of headphones and used lots of earphones doing my job over the past 20 years, and think those shure are the best in-ear I've ever tried....in fact, the only ones I've been able to wear for more than just a few minutes. The sound I get with the SE-530 can't be matched. I did a trial with each of their offerings, and while the lower end ones did a good job, these blew them out of the water.

I had been a happy bose CQ2 wearer since they were released, but rarely take those cans out of the case these days.
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