Are noise-canceling headphones frivolous or necessary?

Until recently, I’d always silently scoffed at the travelers who boarded planes with a pair of those obnoxious noise-canceling headphones pulled over their ears or wrapped around their necks. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my (free) iPod earbuds, and the over-the-ear noise-canceling versions always seemed too bulky, too expensive, too obtrusive, and too frivolous. But now after testing out Phiaton’s PS 300 NC noise-canceling headphones, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I can see the appeal and am now trying to justify the cost.

Here are four reasons why noise-canceling headphones no longer seem as unnecessary as I (foolishly) once believed.

More compact than it looks

What I like about this Phiaton set, which debuted in April 2009, is that the collapsible design eradicates one of my previous complaints about being too bulky for travel. The ability to rotate the earmuffs for flat storage makes this pair a worthy rival for earbud headphones.

More affordable than you’d think

As for being too expensive, well, noise-canceling headphones will still cost more than the earbuds that come with your iPod. Bose seems to have cornered the market, and it’s not uncommon for a high-end pair to run you more than $300. It’s a little painful to realize that these high-end versions can cost as much as a plane ticket: favorably compares Phiaton’s PS 300 NC ($299.99) to Bose’s QuietComfort 3, which retails for $349.95. Not exactly budget travel.

Some good news: though Phiaton’s PS 300 NC retails for about $300, since it has been out for about a year now, is currently selling it for $189 with free shipping. (Bose’s QuietComfort 3, on the other hand, still shows up on for about $350).

UPDATE 5/3: seems to have increased its Phiaton price from yesterday’s $189 to $279. There are also apparently only five left in stock. Someone has been buying the headphones! The lesson? Sale prices do end, so act fast.

More inconspicuous than it seems

For those who just can’t stand the feel of over-the-ear headphones, noise-canceling earbud designs are available and at more affordable prices: JVC makes a solid pair for about $80.

More versatile than you’d assume

Are noise-canceling headphones too frivolous? Well, I still don’t think they’ll ever be necessary. Then again, not much travel gear is actually essential. I’d always assumed that people who owned noise-canceling headphones dusted them off a few times a year whenever they wanted to make plane rides a little more bearable. But as I’ve discovered, the right set can also soften the deafening drone of the New York City subway. Being able to hear my music or podcast? That alone could justify a purchase.