Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Art of Noise

In my last post to deal with the gravely important subject of headphones, I argued that despite all their shortcomings Bluetooth headphones are the way to go. All their issues fade in comparison to the comfort and ease of use. Now I will, yet again, change my mind.
I gave Bluetooth headphones a fair go over numerous months, but as nice as they are they do have their own issues. First, there is that matter of poor sound quality. Then there is the cost: if you want better quality (but still not hi-fi quality), you will need to open your wallet wide to the tune of $500 or even more for the latest Parrot 3 or Sennheiser Momentum Series 2. That's very poor return on investment given they will be eclipsed in less than a year. And third, Bluetooth has its own issues, notably interferences often meaning it is not just a matter of switching them on and pressing play on the phone but rather, and all too often, having to go through a bit of a debugging ritual.
So for now, and at least until the iPhone deprives us of a headphone jack, I'm back with wired headphones. But not just any wired headphones.

Noise cancelling UI #parrot #zik2.0

My experiments with noise cancelling headphones have been quite revealing, to the point of revolutionising my perceptions on all headphone matters.
To sum it up in a nutshell, noise cancelling is an incredibly effective technology, at least by the standards applying to the Sony cans I am using. If you can afford the far more expensive Bose Quietcomfort 25s then you're in for an even better treat. [I verified that last point with an extensive A-B-A-B-A-B testing session, courtesy of Costco.]
I now see myself in need of two sets of headphones to satisfy two significantly different use cases.
The first set is a hi-fi grade one for use at home, in that controlled and quiet environment where bulk, usability and weight are not an issue. This is where I seek the ultimate headphone experience, and when done right it is a very rewarding experience.
However, it is the second use case that is far more important and where the bulk of my headphone music action lies. This is all to do with listening to music outside my home, through my phone (and definitely not through any sophisticated amps and DACs), in uncontrolled environments that are guaranteed to have background noise, often a lot of it: the train, the street and the office.
I can argue about the merits of hi-fi headphone listening as much as I'd like, and I do like to philosophise on such matters, but the reality is that at those environments there CANNOT be a hi-fi experience. It is physically impossible, period.
Which is where noise cancelling steps in. Sure, my noise cancelling headphones are a far cry from hi-fi standards, and at home when pitted against the hi-fi they feel like a badly tuned violin. But, and that is a very important but, on the street or on the train they allow me to completely switch off from the environment I'm in and focus on the music. They allow me to enjoy the music to unprecedented levels, and in the end that is all that matters. And they do so without making my ears bleed and even over extended sessions.
So yeah, one does need to be careful and switch off noise cancelling when crossing a road and such. But at the office they allow me to disconnect myself from the eternally ongoing chitchat that comes with an open office setting (and enable me to focus on work instead). And on the street they allow me to take part in the debate that podcast I'm listening to is offering or get to truly feel for the character in this audiobook I'm listening to.

It is a truly wonderful experience to be able to enjoy sound regardless of the environment one is at. I give noise cancelling technology full credit there.


Image by Lunasea., Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

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