A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

Summary: Based on a cross-county flight to NYC I took this week, many travelers are using active noise-reduction technology to shut out the din of the airplane. However, I prefer the passive approach of noise isolation, which is a greener solution, and provides more accurate sound.

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

Based on a cross-county flight to NYC I took this week, many travelers are using active noise-reduction technology to shut out the din of the airplane. However, I prefer the passive approach of noise isolation, which is a greener solution, and provides more accurate sound.

The earbuds in question were a pair of Etymotic Research ER•4 MicroPro earphones that I purchased at the Macworld Expo in January. The company offers a substantial discount during the show and I splurged on the ER•4s, which have a list price of $299. While no bargain, I've found these earphones to be the real deal.

Instead of countering noise with counter-noise as is the case with the active noise-cancelling headphones, the passive earphones fit inside the ear canal to block out the noise. The better they fit and stop the noise, the better they work.

Whenever I've tried the active headphones, I've found them big and bulky, and a product that I didn't want to travel with. Worse, the sound wasn't as good to my ears as my passive earphones, especially in less-noisy environments (remember that not everywhere you go will be noisy).

Over the past 5 years or so, I've purchased many different brands and styles of the passive earphones, including entry-level, prosumer and professional flavors from Etymotic, Sennheiser, Shure and Ultimate Ears. The ER•4 are the best so far.

I found the earbuds very comfortable and quiet — I used the 3-flange soft-plastic eartips, which provide 35dB reduction, according to the company. ER says that you can get about 7 decibels more with the foam eartips that come with the package, but I take the buds in and out of my ears a lot and I've found the foam eartips don't take as well to frequent removal.

The sound produced by Etymotic Research earphones are always a bit "dryer" (or less-warm depending on how you hear it) than comparable Shure models. This is a matter of personal taste.

But what I know for sure is that the earphone isn't adding or subtracting sound from the recording — something that must be happening with active noise canceling technology. In addition, there's no battery to worry about during the trip, a concern with the active systems.

Of course, the isolation earphones are smaller and more robust than the active headphones. The ER•4s use a braided wire for part of the cable. Perhaps this prevents some of the referred noise that sometimes happens when clothing rubs against the wires? No idea, but I didn't notice those acoustic artifacts.

As with most technologies, you get what you pay for. The ER•4s list price is less than most of the active headphones on the market. I admit they're not cheap. (And it's an odd feeling listening to music on ear buds that cost more than my iPod.)

However, please don't judge the isolation category by the results you may have found with entry-level products. I've been less-than-satisfied with low-cost lines of earphones for comfort and isolation. The ER•4 is a much different piece of equipment.

Topic: Tech Industry

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6 comments
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  • I've been saying this for ages...

    Anyone who knows about noise cancellation is aware of the poor performance of active canceling. We all know that it is a marketing hype and that they lack in performance.

    The problem lies in the fact that active canceling only works for low-frequency white noise, such as airplane engine, fans, etc. This doesn't cancel the noise from the people talking in the cabin.

    Vendors of passive earplugs or passive canceling earphones (which work on the same principle) claim up to 20db reduction on most frequencies, something not possible with active canceling.

    Don't forget to check out earphones from Westone. They are REALLY good. In terms of price/value the Shre EC-4 are good deals, while the EC-3 are the low end (still ver good) and there are other options.

    Besides the noise reduction, they have unbelievable sound.
    patibulo
  • RE: A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

    >active canceling only works for low-frequency white noise, such as airplane engine, fans, etc. This doesn't cancel the noise from the people talking in the cabin.

    That's exactly what I'm looking for, and that's why I use an ANR headset when I travel. I want the plane engines and other white noise to go away, which if I'm listening to music means that the low notes and midrange don't have to compete for that part of the frequency spectrum, but I still want to be able to talk to my family.

    I also use ANR headphones at my desk to selectively filter the fan noise from the computers, HVAC system, printers, etc. Again, I'm able to hear what I need to hear, but the white noise goes away.
    ANRfan
  • RE: A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

    I wrote the first review of Etymotic's ER series of earbuds years ago (on ilounge). I was so enthusiastic about them that I was accused of being a company shill.

    Obviously, on airplanes you want to reduce the engine noise: the Etymotics are superb at this. But, there are many times in much quieter environments that I want to tune everything out but the music.

    This sound isolation plus the astounding sound quality makes for a music-inside-my-brain experience.

    Only the best live music performance and sound would rival the sound of my Ety's.
    godsfault
  • RE: A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

    I agree. A good pair of <a href="http://www.hifiheadphones.co.uk/in-ear-isolating-headphones-ct-29.html">in ear headphones</a> that isolate you from the external noise perform so much better than noise canceling headphones, in my opinion.
    scontini2
  • RE: A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

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