Noise Canceling Headsets

Many years ago, I was reading a popular science article reviewing the first noise canceling headsets.  (Noise cancellation is done by creating a sound wave exactly the opposite of the ambient noise so the two waves cancel each other out and you hear silence.)  The reviewer noted that he had no jet lag when wearing the headset on a long flight.

Has anyone experienced this?


  1. says

    I have some (admittedly not top of the line) Sony noise-cancelers that turned out to be impossible to wear on airplanes, for which they were ostensibly intended. I have a hearing problem that makes things sound louder than they really are, and I can’t tolerate shrill noise.

    The headphones make the bass rumble of the engines into shrill noise.

    I made myself some earplug-style headphones by fusing some Koss earbuds into a set of Etymotics earplugs, and that’s what I wear on the plane. And it works just fine.

  2. Arjun Muralidharan says

    One thing to note about these is that when you use them, you hear silence, but you’re exposing your eat to double the sound load than if you just listened to the plane noise. That’s because both sound waves have the same but opposite frequencies and amplitudes, but we perceive it as silence because that’s what we define as silence – 0db output.

    I’m not sure if this actually hurts your ears, but it’s a thought to consider.

  3. Mark Shead says

    @Arjun – I thought that it actually cancelled the sound. Kind of like if you have a jump rope and two people are holding it. If one person starts making a wave, the other person can do an opposite wave and cancel it out. If this is how it works then it is really canceling the sound–not just covering it up.

    But maybe I misunderstood the physics of what is actually happening.

  4. javier says

    Noise cancelling headphones are cool technology, but a totally over-engineered solution. They are pricey and the actual sound reproduction is not that great. They are also really bulky–you have to tote along another little suitcase for your headphones. Essentially, these things are a road warrior status symbol, along with getting to board through the red carpet and a special shiny airline luggage tag for your rolling bag.

    The best noise cancelling solution are in-ear monitors. They completely block out all sound (annoying conversations, flight attendants that think they are public entertainers, crying babies) , not just engine noise. Also, they fit in your shirt pocket and sound great. The ones I have are made by Etymotic Research. I love them.

  5. says

    javier, while I think your response is rather extremely status biased, I do agree that many noise canceling headphones are overdone. I find the bulkiness of them the worst part. Earplugs or ear buds that have high sound isolation are just as good in my opinion, take no space, are just a fraction of the cost and you can actually sleep with them in your ears, unlike the big headsets.

    As for the tech, they actually do cancel the noise, it is not just masked. If you block a wave with an opposite wave, the wave is flat, its that simple, they are not that complicated, just the noise detection aspect of them differ a lot so their output quality changes drastically.

  6. says

    For 4 months or so I own and regularly use a Sennheiser PXC 300 noise cancelling headphone. I travel 1.5 hours each day by train and when I want to watch streaming video on my laptop, I put on the headphone and turn it on. At the moment I push the power button of the set, the noise from the outside decreases to about 50% of what it was. Besides that, the sound is great and so is the battery life.

    I do not regret the price, which was about € 60.

  7. says

    It makes me wonder what is meant by “jet lag.” Jet lag is what happens when you cross more time zones than your body can adjust for (the rule of thumb is one can change an hour a day). More or less noise won’t make a lick of difference to this. But if they just meant they felt less tired or run down, well, I feel that way too when I wear good earplugs on an airplane.

  8. Mark Shead says

    @techne – the idea was that somehow the headphones made it so you could quickly readjust your internal clock when you arrived at your destination. It seemed unlikely to me as well. I think I read about it in a popular science magazine sometime around 1988 to 1991.

  9. says

    I have never tried noise-canceling headphones, BUT on a recent flight to Reno for a conference, my colleague and I were in different parts of the plane. Me in the peacefully quiet back. She, in the center of the plane where an unruly 2-year old was screaming her unhappy little lungs out for quite a while.

    Upon deplaning, my colleague informed me that noise-canceling headphones don’t, in fact, cancel a toddler. :)

    ~Monica Ricci

  10. Mark Shead says

    @Monica – I have also discovered that a noise canceling Jawbone microphone that can cancel out a weed-eater can’t cancel out a dog barking or a crying baby. :)

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