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Travel Hints And Tips

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Noise Canceling Headphone Comparison

Page Summary
  • The importance of using noise canceling headphones: save your hearing and less mental fatigue
  • Two recommendations, one honorable mention, two I do not recommend
  • My recommendation: Sony MDR-NC60 or MDR-10RNC noise canceling headphones
  • Long term (over 10 years and counting) noise canceling headphone review
  • Inline volume switch
A good pair of noise canceling headphones can do more than make a flight more enjoyable, they can actually help save your hearing. Prolonged exposure to loud noises such as what you experience on an airplane can cause hearing loss and can contribute to tinnitus. Tinnitus is a constant ringing in your ears and as a tinnitus sufferer, I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

To jump to the chase, I highly recommend the Sony MDR over the ear (not on the ear) style of noise canceling headphones. If I needed to buy a pair of noise canceling headphones today, I would get the Sony MDR-10RNC. I never tried this actual model but I do have an older version, the Sony MDR-NC60. I bought my Sony MDR-NC60 noise canceling headphones about 10 years ago and they still work great. The specs say they cancel up to 85% of background noise. The Sony MDR-10RNC is the new model and the specs say they cancel out up to 99.4% of background noise. Like I said, I haven't tried the MDR-10RNC but mine worked so well for over 10 years that I don't have a problem recommending the new version. In fact, I almost wish mine would finally break so I could buy the MDR-10RNC.
My Recommendation
Sony MDR-NC60 (shown)
Sony MDR-10RNC (not shown)
Sony MDR-NC60

They look a little worn but remember
they are over 10 years old.
Sometimes you can find the NC60's
by doing a manual search on Amazon
Honorable Mention
Bose QuietComfort 15
Bose QuietComfort 15

If it weren't for the Sony,
I would recommend these
This is my wife's pair
Not Recommended
Sony MDR-NC7
On the ear type
Not recommended noise canceling headphones - on the ear type
I don't recommend this type because
they sit on your ear. This is the
pair I use at work and they bother my
ears after a while.
Not Recommended
Not recommended noise canceling headphones - ear bud type
This is the first type of noise
canceling headphones I tried. I
don't remember the exact model
but they didn't work at all for me.
Inline Volume Switch
Inline Volume Switch
Example of an inline volume switch.
It allows you to adjust the volume
lower than what the plane would allow.
The Bose have this built into the cable.
This one also splits one signal into two.
Plug Converter
Plug converter for planes
that use two prongs

Over the years, I'm sure mine helped save some of my already deteriorating hearing. This is why I believe noise canceling headphones are so important to use. A little background to my story: About 10 years ago on one of my business trips to Japan, I really noticed how loud the flight was. Hour after hour the noise was unrelenting. When I arrived in Tokyo, I still had a final one hour flight to go. I got on that last plane and was so exhausted that I fell asleep before the safety briefing was over and woke up after we landed. I suspected that the constant noise bombardment added to the fatigue and I started to worry that this level of noise hour after hour might be damaging my hearing. This is when I decided to get some active noise canceling headphones and see if they would help.

The first type I tried was the ear bud type. I don't remember the exact model but I remember they looked similar to the picture to the right and they were about $125. I decided to try those because they were about half the price of the other two that I have listed. I'm not sure if they were defective or not but they didn't work at all for me.

Since the ear bud type didn't work for me, I decided to try some over the ear type. At the time the Bose noise canceling headphones cost about $400 and the pair from Sony was about $250. I decided to try the Sony MDR-NC60 version. Wow, these things are fantastic. They are worth every cent. I bought them about 10 years ago and used them for countless hours already and they are still working great. Ever since I started using them, I realized I wasn't getting nearly as fatigued after a long flight. I'm also confident that my hearing loss would be worse if I didn't use them.

A few years ago, my wife bought some Bose QuietComfort 15 noise canceling headphones. We compared hers and mine and here is my comparison:

Item Sony MDR-NC60 Bose QuietComfort 15
Cost * $250 $350
Performance Great Great
Cable ** Standard style Bose specific
Battery Type 1 AAA 1 AAA
Battery Life *** More than 15 hours More than 15 hours
Comfort No noticeable difference No noticeable difference
Built in volume switch No Yes
* The cost is approximately what my wife and I paid and may be different now
** More information on the cable styles is listed below
*** A new battery never died on us when we used it for a domestic and international flight so I'm not sure what the total life is

Both of these work great and I recommend either one

If I were buying a pair now I would get the Sony over the Bose because they work just as well, the cable isn't strange like the Bose cable and they cost less (see my note on the cable comparison below). The Bose does have an inline volume switch which is nice (see why this is important below) and the Sony doesn't but this isn't enough for me to recommend them over the Sony. After all, an external volume switch can be used on the Sony and you can get one for a few dollars.

These headphones work so good that when you watch a movie on a plane, you might not be able to lower the volume enough for your comfort level. This happened to me on a few planes. Sometimes the lowest volume setting coming from the plane seat is set up to overcome the background noise so it wasn't designed to go very low. After I first encountered this, I bought an external inline volume switch so I could adjust the volume down as low as I want. The Bose have a volume switch built into the cable so an external switch isn't needed.

Keep in mind that noise canceling headphones usually don't cut out all noise. They're usually designed so some sound still gets through. For example if you're just using them to cancel out the background noise and you don't have them plugged into the plane armrest, you will normally still be able to hear when the captain or flight attendant makes an announcement. Although, you might need to remove them to understand what's being said. Of course, if you have them plugged into the planes armrest you'll hear what's being said with no problem.

Cable Comparison
Both the Sony and Bose have a removable cable. This is nice because you can remove the cable if you just want to cut out the background noise and you aren't interested in listening to music or a movie. As mentioned above, I feel the Bose cable is a bit strange. It has a big connector that leaves a large hole in the headphones when it's removed. It's a minor detail but I don't like it.
noise canceling headphone cable comparison
A: Sony connector location
B: Sony cable
C: Bose connector location
D: Bose cable
E: Bose inline volume switch

In conclusion, the Sony and Bose are both a bit pricy but they both work great and I don't think you can put a price on your hearing.

Happy travels.