For a long time now, Bose has been the king of noise canceling headphones. Walk through any First Class cabin and 90% of the passengers have a Bose firmly attached to their ears, adding just one more layer of bliss to their already envious levels of comfort. For those of us stuck in Coach, this was just one more reason to hate them.
Of course, Bose headphones are the one slice of First Class comfort which those of us slumming in Coach can actually take advantage of. Ironically, they are so expensive ($299) that if one can afford a Bose, one can probably afford First Class.
This is no longer the case.
Whereas Bose was once the only headphones to consider, other manufacturers have finally caught up with the technology and now promise comparable products at cheaper prices.
But can they compete with the Bose legacy?
I was determined to find out. And so, I recently took to the air with $500 of noise canceling headphones in my carryon; a $299 Bose QuietComfort 2 and a $199 Audio-Technica QuietPoint ATH-ANC7.
I had picked the Bose QuietComfort 2 instead of the more recently released QuietComfort 3 because of numerous reviews I had read stating that the QuietComfort 2 was actually a better product than its successor–a headphone which doesn’t completely cover the ears.
I had chosen the Audio-Technica based upon an article in Wired Magazine promising how they had outperformed the Bose QuietComfort 2–a practically sacrilegious statement in the world of noise canceling headphones!
A few weeks ago, I boarded a flight to Washington D.C. and tried them both out, quickly becoming the envy of my fellow Coach passengers as I proceeded to alternate wearing them throughout the flight.
At first glance, both headphones appear almost exactly alike. Both come with a sturdy carrying case, a gold-plated airline adapter, a gold-plated stereo adapter, a 1.6 m connector cable, and a mesh pocket Velcroed into the interior of the carrying case. It was actually very odd how remarkably similar both packages are. The only difference is that the Bose includes an extension cord and a strap for the carrying case. Otherwise, if I’m not careful I might accidentally take my girlfriend’s Bose on my next trip thinking it was my Audio-Technica.
The actual design of the headphones is very similar as well. Both cover the entire ear and both fold nice and flat for storage. The Bose is just slightly lighter at 6.9 oz. versus 7.1 oz. for the Audio-Technica. Although this is hardly enough to make a difference, the Bose does sit a little lighter on my head and is a little more comfortable than the Audio-Technica. The real difference, however, is the leather-covered ear cap cushions. The leather is soft and nice on the Audio-Technica, but somehow crosses into the realm of sublime and caressing with the Bose. I don’t know how they treat their leather over at the Bose factory, but baby is it smooth!
At this point, before actually flipping the switch on the headphones, the Bose had a slight edge over the Audio-Technica. Things started to change, however, once I turned on the headphones. While Bose has a great reputation for sound, the heritage of Audio-Technica is in professional recording studios where the world’s most talented musicians regularly use their products. This reputation for quality sound was quickly evident the moment I plugged the headphones into my stereo at home. I decided to test them out with Dave Brubeck’s seminal work, Time Out–the best selling jazz album of all time. The sound was amazing. The sax floated ever so gently through the headphones while the snare drums and percussion barreled in sharp and clear.
The Bose were just a slight step behind, not quite as tight, a little too much boom and bass, but still a rather good performance. There was, however, a much larger difference in sound quality when I plugged in something a little harder: Irish punk band, Flogging Molly. The Audio-Technica remained exceptional, capturing the swinging shifts between Irish instrumental and punk rock cacophony. The Bose, however, tended to mute the shifts and produced a booming irritance which overwhelmed the notes and made the CD sound like it was mixed in a garage somewhere.
With such extreme notes and more powerful music, the Audio-Technica clearly dominated the Bose. Much of this edge, however, nearly disappeared when I plugged into my iPod where MP3 music files are of lesser quality than CDs. The Audio-Technica was still superior interpreting the MP3 files, but the Bose wasn’t too far behind.
Well, this is all great, but the real reason most people buy noise cancellation headphones is to simply cancel noise. Before I get into this aspect of the headphones, however, let’s spend a moment discussing what, exactly, “noise cancellation” means.
Many people assume that such a device completely cancels all surrounding sound as though the headphone user has suddenly found himself in the vacuum of outer space. This is not the case. Noise cancellation is based upon the theory that sound can be cancelled by creating a sound wave exactly opposite of the one being heard. The new sound wave simply cancels out the existing one. This is exactly what noise cancellation headphones do. A small microphone picks up incoming noise and then cancels it out by generating an opposite sound wave.
The problem is that a pair of headphones, no matter how advanced, cannot predict the next sound wave coming its way. As a result, the canceling sound wave is always a fraction behind the actual noise itself. Constant noise that doesn’t change pitch, however, can be negated much easier since the wave remains the same for extended periods of time–like a plane engine, for example.
So what this means is that noise cancellation headphones do not remove all sounds, just constant ones like the humming of an airplane engine while in flight. You’ll still hear that crying baby and the flight attendant taking drink orders, but these sounds will be greatly muffled. Turn on some music (Flogging Molly!), however, and it all disappears.
And so, I spent most of my flight to Washington DC taking off one pair of headphones and putting on the other. It didn’t take me long, however, to determine which pair knocked out the most ambient noise. Yes folks, it was the Audio-Technica. Not only do these little wonders provide superior sound quality but they also kicked some Bose butt in the noise cancellation category. And as if this wasn’t enough, the Audio-Technicas are also $100 cheaper.
Sorry Bose, but you’ve been dethroned!