There’s no better place to try out noise cancelling/isolating headphones than on a plane. And I had a couple of great opportunities to test several active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones and noise isolating earphones earlier this year during travels to CES 2018 in Las Vegas followed by a trip to Indonesia.
I currently own a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs – the de-facto industry reference for noise canceling headphones (be it active or passive), thanks to their amazing ANC capabilities. I also typically use the PSB M4U-2s for daily listening.
For this feature, I took four pairs of headphones out for a test drive, all of which offer some form of noise cancelling capabilities, but each of which focuses on different user preferences: the PSB M4U 8 and Sony WH-1000Xm2 ANC headphones; and the B&O E8 and Jabra 65t “true wireless” earphones.
With a combined total of 20 hours of flight time and four hours in transit by train each way, I had ample time to sit back, relax, and just listen. Thus, each pair of headphones was used under the same conditions, and for the same amount of time (about three hours per pair.) I also used the same source materials, including Begin Again, a movie downloaded from Netflix that’s filled with music and ambient sound, and a selection of music from my iPhone, including my usual Judas Priest’s Ram It Down along with various Chris Botti and Frank Sinatra tracks. All headphones were tested with the same general level of airplane ambient noise. The tests were conducted during flights to/from Toronto and Las Vegas, from Toronto to Bong and back, as well as from Hong Kong to Jakarta and back; and on several train rides.
For testing call quality, I used my iPhone 8 Plus, making several calls from Hong Kong to Jakarta, and Toronto to Australia. Ambient noise was somewhat controlled, since calls were made from the Cathay Pacific MarcoPolo Lounge area at the Hong Kong International Airport.
When testing these four headphones, I looked mainly at four key factors: noise cancelling/isolation capability, sound quality, ease of use, and microphone quality for making voice calls. Interestingly, after more than 100 hours of testing, when adding in at-home listening above and beyond the official testing period, I found that I liked all four headphones/earphones, but for different reasons.
PSB M4U-8 ($499)
Since I already own the PSB M4U 2 headphones, it’s impossible to review the M4U 8s without comparing them to the original. Using the same sized over-the-ear pads and geometry as the original model, the M4U 8s performed as well as its predecessor in terms of noise isolation, comfort, and longevity-per-use, which I tested using the supplied headphone wires. I could wear these headphones for up to six hours in a single sitting without the want or need to take them off.
Sound quality is significantly better than other headphones I’ve tried at a similar price point, but not quite as good as the M4U 2s. They sound consumer friendly as opposed to being studio-engineer friendly. That translates to bigger bass, though not boomy like you’d find in Beats headphones, with slightly rolled off highs. This approach is perfect when listening at higher volumes during the flight, as I could hear the bass perfectly without piercing high frequencies. However, despite the big bass and rolled off highs, there’s still a vast amount of detail at play here, lending itself to some critical listening.
These headphones, available through Lenbrook Canada, were the easiest to use, with left and right cups clearly marked on the inside, and a design that folds up for easy storage.
ANC is tremendously improved when compared to the M4U 2s (4 mics instead of 2). There was none of that pressure feel that you might usually find when wearing ANC headphones on planes or trains. The noise cancelling capability coupled with the noise isolation design made the overall noise reduction on par with, or even a tad better than, my Bose QuietComforts.
If the ample 27-hour battery life is not enough (based on my tests with all the functions turned on), you can use a pair of regular AAA batteries to add another 15 (rated) hours of enjoyment.
Finished in black, I love the simplicity of the authoritative, no-nonsense design. Overall, if you’re a music-phile looking for noise cancelling headphones that are easy to use and can last for days without charging, the M4U 8s might just be the answer. For my day-to-day short flights and listening pleasure, this is the clear winner… although I hope PSB will create a better ANC in the near future.
Sony WH-1000Xm2 ($449)
The 1000Xm2 over-the-ear headphones include the latest Sony ANC system that offers the ability to adjust cancellation frequencies depending on the average noise characteristics and the barometric pressure, in order to minimize the pressure effect in the ear. It was as effective when I reviewed the actual production model as it was when I tried them out briefly at CES.
Hands down, I found Sony’s ANC to be the best I’ve tried thus far, even surpassing my Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs. However, the pressure effect was still there, even after I ran the calibration multiple times. The feel was near negligible – unless you’re looking for it, you may never notice. But it was there nevertheless, though these headphones still offered the best sound reduction of the four.
Bass was ample with balanced mids and highs. Comfort was extremely good – my six-hour train ride went by like it was nothing. Interestingly, I didn’t feel the same pressure effect on the train as I had while listening on a plane. Perhaps it’s related to the airplane pressure? I can’t tell for sure.
One problem I had with the Sony headphones was the difficulty in distinguishing between the left and right cups. It’s a small annoyance, but the indicators are extremely difficult to read. I also had trouble putting the headphones back into their case quickly because they need to be folded and twisted in a certain way. The advantage here, however, is that it allows for a thinner case than you might find with most foldable headphones. You’d think you’d get used to folding them after repeated use, but I could never quite get it right, even after a full month of review time.
Available in black or gold, the headphones are sleek, with a luxurious texture that makes the plastic material feel expensive. For the person who often travels by plane and is looking for ultimate noise cancellation, these might be the perfect match. For me? If I travel that often, I will buy this headphone. However, as sound quality neutrality is the utmost importance to me, I’ll wait until Sony changes the sound signature of this lineup closer to their professional series.
B&O E8 ($399)
B&O is known for its visually stunning and great-sounding audio gear, and the E8 earphones, part of the growing “true wireless” earbuds category, are no exception.
The “true wireless” design means the E8s, available through Lenbrook Canada, consist of two buds – one that goes into each ear, with no wired or headband connecting them.
Out of the box, the charging cocoon, which provides an additional two charges of the earbuds, looks and feels luxurious, with a soft-touch finish and nice strap. Even the inside plastic looks luxurious. The earphones come with two options: silicone earplugs or Comply foam. I usually don’t like silicone plugs due to their relative stiffness, but the E8s were soft enough that I could wear them comfortably for the full 3.5 hours of battery life (four hours rated) without taking them off. They isolate outside noise effectively, to the point that you won’t notice the lack of ANC. For an even better fit and noise isolation, however, I chose the Comply foam. The active person who wants to wear them while running or walking long distances, however, should use the silicone plugs, since foam plugs can absorb sweat and moisture.
Despite how small these earphones are, audio quality was surprisingly good. Even without tinkering around with the ToneTouch equalization presets through the B&O iOS and Android app, the E8s sounded crisp and clear. Bass frequencies were more than very good for earphones of this size. The tonal quality was somewhat improved when using the ‘warm’ preset for jazz trio or vocal-driven tracks, while choir and orchestral pieces sounded much crisper with ToneTouch turned off. I like to keep the tone control off, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
When paired with my iPhone for phone calls, voice clarity was crystal-like – these were one of the best of the four headphones for making phone calls, although wind noise reduction was almost non-existent.
If you are a lover of beautiful minimalistic design, but also need to have a solid noise reduction from your surroundings, along with a comfortable, in-ear fit, then these ‘phones, available in black, will be an ideal match.
Jabra Elite 65t ($279)
Housed in a plastic charge/recharger cocoon, the futuristic looking Jabra Elite 65t, also “true wireless” buds, can run for up to 3.5 hours per charge, with the cocoon able to fully recharge the earphones twice in about 40 minutes each time. A tiny hook on the earphones make the fit better than many in-ears I’ve tried in the past for on-the-go activities. But I did find them to be a tad tight to wear comfortably for the whole day. That said, every ear canal is different, so others may have differing opinions.
These are easily the best Jabra headphones I’ve tested to date. The overall quality far surpasses that of the Apple Airpods ($219), and the built in microphones are the best for making phone calls when compared to the rest of the ‘phones I tested. Voice was extremely clear (according to the people I called) and wind noise cancellation was the best, too. A couple of people I spoke to even said my voice was clearer talking through the Elite 65t than it was when speaking with them directly through my iPhone. It is also the most stable in terms of Bluetooth hands-free calling amongst the four, although I did experience occasional dropouts during hour-long conversations.
Music quality was more than acceptable, but the high frequencies tend to crackle a little when using the Jabra app’s EQ. Unlike certain brands that specialize only in the sonic reproduction of only certain types of music genres, the Elite 65t reproduced Frank Sinatra as well as Judas Priest with ease. I strongly recommend you boost the lowest frequency in order to obtain better bass reproduction, but not to boost the high frequencies. As for noise isolation, while it was more than sufficient, it was not as effective as the rest.
If you’re into casual music listening, then music playback with these buds is good enough. When compared to Apple AirPods, for a mere $60 more, you get a glove-like in-ear fit, much improved sonic reproduction, and impressively better microphone performance with superb noise isolation. With the exception of mic performance, these may not be the best of the bunch. But they also cost the least, and excel when it comes to phone calls on-the-go.
A Conclusion Without Any Conclusion
Are there a pair of noise reducing headphones that rule them all? Not really. Every pair I tested here had its own strengths and weaknesses, and focuses on differing priorities, whether it’s excellent music reproduction, top-notch noise cancellation, or clarity of phone calls. Only your lifestyle and needs can steer you towards which ‘phones are the right pair for you. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with any of these.