On a recent trip, I was seated at that wonderful spot on an airplane where I can hear not only the engines and slipstream, but also every noise made by the other people in the magic flying tube. I was trying to listen to a history podcast on my phone, but eventually had to give up. The foam tips of the earbuds just didn’t block out enough sound, and the voice of the narrator was drowned out by white noise.
Upon landing at my destination, I spent some time poking around for a better solution, and found the time sink that is noise-canceling headsets. Price points went anywhere from “nice dinner out with the wife” to “car payment”, promises were almost as astronomical, and online forums reminded me of the worst of the “Glock versus 1911″ debates.
In other words, what you decide to get depends mainly on who you believe and how much money you’re willing to part with. I settled on what seemed a reasonable price from a manufacturer I have used before, and bought a pair of Sony MDR-NC13 earbuds.
The NC13 is a comfortable set of earbuds, with a small (pack of gum sized) battery pack that clips to your shirt. Its noise canceling function worked extremely well on my return trip, and it allowed me to listen to my podcasts and music with about equal ability to hear the playback. Most of the ambient noise was eliminated, and even the quietest music or speech came through clearly. Sound quality was slightly better than the cheap earbuds I had been using, but wasn’t in the “you’re in the lecture hall” sound promised by higher-priced options.
The NC13′s come with a AAA battery, an adaptor to allow the earbuds to be used for in-seat airline audio, a device for gathering up extraneous wire, and a selection of soft earbuds in small, medium, and large.
The positive things I found about the earbuds were that they do a good job of delivering decent sound in high noise environments, such as on an airplane or while mowing the lawn. The earbuds themselves are remarkably comfortable in the ear. The dual capability of the set to either work as normal or noise-canceling headphones saves on battery power. I’ve been using the set pretty regularly since May, and I’m still using the battery they came with. The price point of between $60 and $80, depending on vendor and shipping, is toward the lower end of the price spread for noise-canceling headphones.
The things I wasn’t so happy about is the lack of any controls or a microphone on the headset. I’ve become accustomed to headsets with start/stop, volume, and forward/reverse controls on the cord. The lack of a microphone to use on a smart phone also is also a negative. If I’m listening to music with the NC-13′s and the phone rings, rather than clicking on a button and starting the conversation, I have to remove my phone from my pocket, disconnect the headset, and then answer the phone. I know, it’s a small inconvenience, but when I can get that from a cheap pair of $20 name-brand earbuds, I expect to get it from a $70 pair of noise-canceling earbuds.
So, I’d give this headset about a 7 out of 10. The price was decent, as was the quality of the sound they produce and the amount of noise they remove. However, the lack of what really ought to be standard features in this age of smart devices brings it down quite a bit.