My daily commute is a short drive, followed by around 35 minutes on a cheap noisy diesel train whose noise level varies from loud to very loud depending on the terrain as the throbbing engine hauls it up hills. It gets irritating.
For a while I’ve been considering some noise cancelling headphones to block out the bassier tones which regular ear buds just can’t passively block. However, the well known ones are not cheap. So it’s not the sort of thing I wanted to jump blindly into.
While there are many existing reviews of noise cancelling headphones, they usually seem to be centred around the frequent flier; the use case they were originally marketed for. While I make the occasional flight for a holiday, my daily concern is more down to Earth and I wasn’t sure how well the reviewers’ experiences would carry over.
Fortunately while talking at work a colleague kindly offered to lend me his pair of Bose QC35s for an evening so that I could try them out on the evening and morning commute. This has provided a nice opportunity for a (relatively) objective review since I’ve not already committed the cash, and am thus not subject to confirmatory bias which seeks to convince us that every purchased item is flawless and thus money well spent, lest we should slip into buyers remorse.
While walking to the station I immediately noticed an issue which my colleague had mentioned - wind noise. The microphones intended to pick up and cancel noises you can hear seem very sensitive to the sound of wind blowing over them, more sensitive in fact that your ears are, causing the headphones to generate a cancelling tone far louder than the source noise making them essentially pipe amplified white noise into your ears every time there’s even the slightest gust. I feel like one would have to disable the noise cancelling when walking in anything but the stillest conditions. This is a pity as periodically lifting the phones off one ear reveals just how much city noise they are otherwise blocking out.
This is where I was most interested in the headphones capabilities, and they were indeed impressive. Much of the bass rumble of the diesel engine immediately disappears with the headphones on. Some bass is still noticeable but I suspect this may be transferring through the body rather than the ears. The mid to higher frequency noises of wheels clanking on tracks, and other commuters talking were far less attenuated however. I could definitely still hear that I was on a train. If I wished to concentrate on something without being distracted by other people’s conversations I still needed to have music on to mask them. The overall result was much more comfortable, but not magic.
Driving the short urban route from the station home much of the bass noises of my (cheap and poorly soundproofed) car were again blocked out. Pleasingly, there were still enough mid and higher frequency tones admitted to allow me to feel aware of my own and other vehicles
Later that evening I also took a motorway journey, in what turned into a heavy rain storm. Driving at 70mph with rain lashing the car and wipers on full tilt, it was amazing how much sound was cut out. When I lifted a cup to see what I was missing I felt like I was being deafened by tones I might normally have ignored!
The headphones were impressive and did a good job knocking out the bassier tones of public transport. They work well, yet they are not magic. Current technology’s flagship consumer model is still unable to cut out mid range and up. They do not produce silence.
Are they worth the money? I’m not so sure. For me they do about 60-70% of the job, at a heavy price tag (£330 at time of writing). Perhaps in a few years time the technology will have advanced to the point where it can cover more of the spectrum and they’ll become the magic bullet. Until then however, I’m looking into some of their cheaper cousins with some TaoTronic sets retailing around £45 and older Sony models shipping for around £100. Most reviewers agree these work about 70% as well as the Bose, yet are a fraction of the cost. Since the Bose themselves aren’t perfect, it’s the difference between knocking out “quite a lot” of noise vs “lots of noise”, which is currently sounding like a better value proposition.
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