SOUND CHOICE IN THE AIR

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - TRAVEL WISDOM | FLYING - JENNIFER DUD­LEY-NI­CHOL­SON

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.”

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