Saturday, 25 August 2018

Survey of current Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones

These days, it seems everyone on the street is armed with some type of headphones, yours truly included.
Yours truly used to aspire towards audiophile quality headphones that work well when they’re powered by smartphones (like the Sennheiser Momentum I reviewed here). Then yours truly gave noise cancelling headphones a try, in the shape of the Bose QC25; and since then, noise cancelling has been deemed to be the most important quality as far as headphones are concerned, at least by yours truly‘s book.
The reason is simple. Most of the places where I listen to music are noisy: be it the street, the train, the plane, or even the office - there is always noise about. Under such circumstances, the headphones’ ability to convey the most accurate depiction of a recording’s sound does not matter much. Those tiny details are masked by all that noise.

Enter noise cancelling: by cancelling the noise, to one extent or another, a good pair of noise cancelling headphones allows listeners to enjoy more of that quality without having to raise the volume to eardrum defying levels. As MasterCard put it rather eloquently, that ability to listen to music or podcasts on the train at whisper quiet sound levels and genuinely enjoy it - priceless!
Naturally, noise cancelling comes at a price. The process of sampling the noise outside the headphones, then deducting it from the music's signal while taking into account whatever it is that's going on inside the headphones, is a rather complex one (both the inside and the outside need to be sampled, then some formula needs to be applied); the end result will not be perfect, sound quality wise. That process also requires power in the shape of a battery, creating more bulky headphones and the need to associate oneself with spare batteries or a charger.
Probably the biggest drawback of noise cancelling headphones these days is that they are but a rare few that are made with high quality sound in mind. There are multiple reasons for that: for example, it is hard to make good sounding noise cancelling headphones that are not pretty expensive. However, by far the biggest problem when it comes to making good noise cancelling headphones lies with the fact one company, Bose, holds the bulk of patents on noise cancelling techniques; all other companies have to work around these patents through all sorts of compromises if they want to offer some competition.
Another twist to the scene of noise cancelling headphones was created by Apple upon its release of the iPhone 7, some two years ago. That was the first major smartphone to abandon the till then generally universal headphone plug standard, which meant that - from that point onward - Bluetooth was pretty much the way to go when it came to headphones. Even non Apple smartphones “imitated” the trend, to one extent or another; and given the hefty cost of noise cancelling headphones, Bluetooth is now a requirement if you want a future proof option.
On one hand, Bluetooth releases us listeners from the tangles of wired headphones; that feeling of liberation when one moves from wired headphones to a Bluetooth pair is clear and present. However, Bluetooth also means a reduction in sound quality due to the format’s incapacity to wirelessly convey the level of detail available. And it also means one needs to suffer through the occasional “why won’t my phone talk to my headphones” moments of pairing trouble, which always seem to happen when one is in a hurry and carrying stuff.

With all that in mind, I thought I’d take you through my personal observations of the most dominant noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones on the market today.
Let’s have a look:

Bose QuietComfort 35 II (aka QC35):
Regardless of the aforementioned patent related reasons, there can be no doubt the QC35 is the king of the active noise cancelling. No other headphones can kill the surrounding environment sound as effectively as these ones.
This doesn’t mean I like these headphones, though. I find the QC35, with their classic Bose sound, too uncomfortable on the ears; that non natural metallic sound curve seems to pierce right into my ears. Which contradicts the headphones' fit comfort: there can be no denying they are the most comfortable headphones to wear in this survey. It's just a shame their sound is so ear piercing.
Version II of the QC35 comes with Google Assistant. Both that and the older versions can be used with a Bose smartphone app that has been identified to send listener’s listening records over to Bose (to be resold to advertisers, no doubt), so bear in mind that these are no privacy activist’s headphones; on the other hand, all these smart features can be disabled to one extent or another.
In Australia, the QC35 II normally sell in the low $400 territory, but the occasional discount can have them in the mid $300 territory. If you want to try the QC35, try heading down to an Apple shop: in addition to selling its own headphones, Apple sells Bose's and should be able to let you try them on.

Beats Studio3:
Generally speaking, I am no fan of the Beats traditional bass heavy sound. However, it may surprise you to know that sound does not apply to the Studio3. I was very much surprised with the natural sound these headphones produce. I will not mince words, I love these headphones!
If you’re in Apple territory, they’d give you the bonus of beating able to easily switch between all your Apple devices. Also, that initial Bluetooth connection experience is solid in its reliability and speed.
There is only one negative I can put against these headphones (other than the obligatory “definitely not as good as Bose's noise cancelling"): build quality. Like most Beats headphones, build quality is less than inspiring, to the point I wonder how long they’d last or whether they'd have much resale value. My original pair proved faulty through a clickity-clackity symphony taking place on the left headphone each time I took a step; luckily, being an Apple product with Apple grade service, they were quickly replaced with a brand new pair that has been working well since.
I will also note the short lived battery, that doesn’t last much longer than 15 hours per charge (but does charge quickly).
In this imperfect world of noise cancelling headphones, the Studio3 are my personal choice. Apple sells them for $450, but you can get them at Costco for $310. Regardless, if you head to an Apple shop you can easily try them with your phone and make your own mind up; you can even return them to Apple within a month to get your money back, if you fancy a long tryout.
It is probably important to point out at well substantiated rumours Apple is planning on releasing Apple branded flagship headphones during 2018, probably in time for the Christmas shopping season; these will probably downgrade the Studio3's status.

Bowers & Wilkins PX:
Sold as the audiophile’s choice, the B&W PX do offer sound quality that is significantly superior to all other Bluetooth headphones I have tested and can almost rival that of high quality wired headphones. Which is not an achievement to be trifled with.
They also feel “newer” and “fresher” than the rest, offering a USB-C charging cable (as opposed to the older Micro USB standard the utilised by the old guard).
Problems lie with the PX’ noise cancelling. Or should I call it noise smearing? What I’m trying to say is, their noise cancelling is pretty much worthless in any environment that is not already pretty quiet. Even a passing car in a generally quiet suburban street render me unable to interpret speech or enjoy music, let alone the noisy environment of a train or a busy city street. Which is a big shame, because the PX sport the best passive noise cancelling around (through tight, yet comfortable, ear pieces).
Couple that noise cancelling of a joke with a price tag of $550 or so, and I can only regard the PX as a major league disappointment. Sure, all the hi-fi magazines drool over it, but in the real life environments where noise cancelling is supposed to make or break one’s listening experience these are total failures. If I was to do rate these headphones, I would give them 1 out of 5 stars; that is the level of disappointment these headphones put me through.
I would advise you to only approach these headphones if you are after the best Bluetooth can offer and are only planning to use your headphones in the [dead] quiet of your home.

Sony WH-1000XM2:
Sony does know how to attach sexy names to its products, doesn’t it?
OK, I will admit right from the start that I have minimal personal experience with these headphones; I only included them here because they are widely  considered to offer the second best noise cancelling option (Bose being the first).
My one time go at them, in the middle of a noisy shop, seemed to indicate at very musical headphones and good noise cancelling. Who knows, maybe they are superior to the Studio3, but I will probably never know for sure because I have no reliable way of testing them (without forking out $300-$400). Let’s hope Sony can learn a page or two from Apple here and offer testing opportunities.


In conclusion...
I will add there are other, more technical, considerations to bear in mind when choosing your noise cancelling headphones. For example, some can operate without power but with a cord, which can be fairly handy when the battery runs out or if you just want to reserve power (you will be giving up on the noise cancellation, though); with some, you cannot listen while charging; and others have the ability to charge quickly, giving you an hour or two of operation with a mere 10 minute charge. If any such consideration applies to you, I urge you to do your research to ensure you are not getting yourself an expensive pair of useless headphones.

Obviously, all of the above relies mostly on personal observations and your own mileage may vary. The main point to take, though, is that not all noise cancelling is created equally; yet, at least in this survey, 3 out of the 4 headphones offer a level of noise cancellation that slices through daily train commutes like it was creme chantili and can make long flights slightly less intolerable. Which, by my book, goes a long way towards being able to enjoy music and sound wherever I may be.

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