More Airplane Audio Options

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Date: Friday, October 5th, 2001, 17:46
Category: Archive

In response to the recent Go2Mac story on airplane audio (“In-Flight Audio Options for Your PowerBook“), I feel it is useful to provide my own research into more advanced (but alas also much more expensive) options for savvy travellers.


In response to the recent Go2Mac story on airplane audio (“In-Flight Audio Options for Your PowerBook“), I feel it is useful to provide my own research into more advanced (but alas also much more expensive) options for savvy travellers. The main problem with any audio on airplanes is obviously the roar of the engines. For most people, the only solution is to crank up the volume, but this usually increases distortion and causes increased discomfort to the listener as well as anybody around him.

Another solution is to use a set of noise reduction headphones. Most of them are active noise reduction (ANR). These headphones work by generating an anti-signal of outside noise and thus mostly cancel out the ambient noise in the cabin. It’s not perfect, and you will still hear a reduced roar, but it can be a major improvement. The early leader in this field was Bose and their QuietComfort headset has received favorable reviews but it sports a $299 price tag.

Sony also has noise reduction in its MDR-NC20 headphones ($200). Both of these designs surround the ear completely, so as not to prevent ambient noise from leaking in through the sides. Koss also has incorporated noise cancelling into their KZ-2000 headsets ($140), although these do not cover the sides of the ear. The Sennheiser HDC 251 headphones ($160) also do not cover the ears completely. All of these systems also include an external battery pack which powers the noise reduction circuitry.

An alternative solution is to use passive noise reduction. In this case, the earphone materials passively absorb external sound. The advantage of this approach is that there is no additional circuitry involved or a need for a battery pack, but the only real way of doing this is to put the headphone right into the ear canal (deeper than most earbuds). However, this also makes the headphones quite compact and light.

The best option in this category are the Etymotic ER4Ps ($250) which are designed to go into the ear canal only a few inches from the eardrum and use specialized drivers to sound like they’re outside the ears. I actually own a pair of these and can attest that they work very well inside of planes (or here in New York) to reduce outside noise, and I feel they’re worth every penny. Even playing my Discman at volume 3, I get clear, crisp sound and no problems from ambient cabin noise. I would imagine the ANR options also provide comparable benefits.

Obviously, all of these options are rather pricy and specialized. They aren’t really good if you want to share sound three ways or if you only occasionally fly on planes, but if you’re serious about sound and find cabin noise draining, it’s definitely worthwhile to research some of these options.

What is your favorite headphones for use with your PowerBook or iPod? Is there a killer pair you haven’t seen mentioned here yet? Chime in with your recommendation in the Go2Mac headphone message board.

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