SOUND CHOICE IN THE AIR
They were created for roundthe-world pilots and now fill airport electronics stores with promises of greater concentration, more restful sleep, clear entertainment and even a Maxwell Smart-like cone of silence in which to travel.
But do noise-cancelling headphones really make air travel more comfortable and can they actually protect your health?
Lonely Planet’s Chris Zeiher says they’re a non-negotiable, must-have item for anyone spending serious time in the air.
“I wouldn’t travel without them,” he says. “I’m on my third or fourth generation of noise-cancelling headphones and they’ve become a lot better and a lot more comfortable.
Noise-cancelling headphones first emerged in 1986, when university professor Dr Amar Bose created a sizeable headset for pilots attempting a non-stop round-the-world flight.
The Bose Aviation Headset was large enough to be impractical for music lovers but but helped pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager endure more than nine days in flight.
Bose released the first consumerfriendly version, the QuietComfort headphones, in 2000 and the basic technology behind noise-cancelling headphones remains the same. The headphones use an external microphone to register lowfrequency, ambient noise and produce a sound that is 180 degrees out-of-phase to neutralise the noise.
The extra signal simply cancels out the din, whether it’s road traffic distractions, the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of an ageing Boeing 747. Experts estimate in-flight noise reaches a steady roar of 85 decibels after takeoff, and Sennheiser says high-quality noisecancelling headphones can more than halve this sound. For Zeiher, this means better entertainment and rest.
“I can get better sleep on the plane (with noise-cancelling headphones) and I don’t waste any time on the ground,” he says.
Aircraft noise also creates a more predictable health issue: potential hearing loss. Blamey Saunders cofounder Dr Elaine Saunders says while noisy environments can cause loss, many people in loud situations turn up the volume on personal music players, adding to the risk.
Dr Saunders says even headphones that physically block out noise from reaching your ear can assist hearing, but her advice “is to buy the best headphones you can afford”.
Sony audio product specialist Andrew Hughes says it’s a message Australian consumers are embracing.
“As a product category, noisecancellation is huge, particularly in Australia because we travel a lot,” he says. “Travelling to Europe is a good 20 hours and having a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones does make a lot of sense.”
Hughes says technology is also evolving and is now available in more form factors – from over-ear headphones to earbuds and wireless ear pieces. Technology in some highend noise-cancelling headphones, such as Sony’s upcoming 1000x Mk II, will also be able to automatically detect your environment and activity, and predict the best style of noisecancellation to suit it.
“As you walk along the road, it will know you’re walking outside and let in outside noise without you having to enable the feature,” he says. “If you’re on a plane, it will adapt to that.”
The ultimate headset, Hughes says, will also learn to play music only when you want it. Despite new advances, the technology can’t quite achieve that yet. “It’s not quite automatic but we’re almost there.”