Noises Off


My new apartment’s fantastic, save for the noise—stupid Queens Midtown Tunnel! Needless to say, the din has put a crimp in my music listening, and standard headphones don’t help much. Should I upgrade to those snazzy noise-canceling ‘phones?

As long as comfort’s not a priority, go for it. A good pair of noise-canceling headphones will reduce traffic roar to a gentle hum, allowing you to enjoy your tunes in relative peace. How deluxe of a model you’ll be happy with, though, depends on your level of audiophilia—if you’re the sort who monologues cocktail party guests about concert-hall acoustics, only a top-of-the-line set may do. And once you start talking top-of-the-line, you’re talking three figures, easy.

Noise cancelers, an airline pilot staple for years, are just now wending their way to consumers. Each set is embedded with a miniature microphone, which continuously samples ambient noise. An internal processor then measures the sonic properties of those samples, and generates sound waves that are exact opposites. Readers with vague memories of Physics 101 may recall that contrary waves neutralize one another. And voilà, instant release from the oppression of belching trucks and sidewalk chatter. (Shrill horns, alas, may still annoy; noise cancelers primarily filter low-frequency sounds.)

The processor, unfortunately, adds considerable heft to these otherwise wondrous contraptions. On most models, the noise-canceling unit is housed in a separate box that must either be clipped onto a belt or stuffed into a shirt pocket—sort of a hassle if you’re already stowing away an MP3 or MiniDisc player. The ear cups often feel as if they were designed for industrial use, with clunky contours and insufficient padding. There’s also the matter of some AA or AAA batteries to contend with; those processors don’t run on cold fusion, you realize.

Undaunted by the comfort factor, Mr. Roboto bravely put some bestselling noise cancelers through the lab. The discount champ was NCT’s NoiseBuster Extreme ($39). A bit too rigid, ergonomically speaking, and the noise-canceling effect was only so-so (what’s up with that dull hiss?), but a far better value than Sony’s MDR-NC20 ($135 at Mr. Roboto’s generally a fan of Sony’s wares, which makes the MDR-NC20’s woeful performance all the more baffling. The headphones claim to filter out more than 70 percent of background noise, but the drone of the lab’s steam pipes was still audible even as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx blared. Plus, the acoustics were awful—might as well have been listening underwater.

The best performer, by a long shot, was the Sennheiser HDC 451 ($150 from They’re recommended for planes, trains, and, per Mr. Roboto, writing columns while roofers are working on an adjacent building. The ear cups are still more awkward than normal headphones, but the noise canceling makes up for that.

Audiophiles swear nothing can compete with Bose’s QuietComfort ($300 from We’ll have to trust the nerd grapevine, as Bose doesn’t make test units available for comparison reviews. It’s tough to imagine the performance being that much better than the Sennheiser’s—the caveat being that Mr. Roboto’s ears aren’t exactly Juilliard trained. Do take note, however, that the QuietComforts bring a whole new meaning to the word bulky—they come with their own shoulder bag. (Whether Bose’s consumer devices are worth the scratch is a frequent topic of audiophilic debate; check out the Bose FAQ at if you’d care to join the “fun.”)

So the Sennheisers get the official nod, with the NoiseBusters winning the budget wars. No matter which set you wind up with, be wary of using your noise cancelers while on the pedestrian prowl. Oblivious jaywalking is never a good idea. Both Mr. Roboto and the Voice value your safety.

Fans of earnest courtship angst will thrill to the travails of “Edie Singleton,” whose search for “Mister Pretty-Close-to-Right” is chronicled in elaborate detail on her blog ( Will she ever conjure up the courage to approach “the Bandit”? Can’t she see “the Lawyer” is a bore? When will “Valentine” get de-pantsed? More frequent updates, Ms. Singleton.

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